In Memory Of Bhopal
by Binu Mathew
Z magazine, January 2002
On the night of December 2, 1984, 40 tons of Methyl Isocyanate
gas leaked from the Union Carbide factory (UCC) situated in one
of the most densely populated neighborhoods of Bhopal, Madhya
Pradesh, India. Management first knew about the leak at 11:00
PM. The factory alarm was started by a desperate worker at 12:50
PM. Management not only turned it off within minutes, but also
delayed sounding the public siren until 2:00 PM when it was too
Eight thousand people died in the immediate aftermath of the
disaster. After 17 years, the death toll has risen to over 20,000
and 10-15 people are dying every month from exposure-related diseases.
Over 120,000 children, men, and women continue to suffer from
a host of exposure-related illnesses and their complications.
Damage to the respiratory system has led to the prevalence
of pulmonary tuberculosis, which has been found to be more than
three times the national average. In the years following the disaster,
the stillbirth rate was three times, prenatal mortality was two
times, and neonatal mortality was one and a o half times more
than the comparative national figures. According to a study by
Dr. Daya Varma, McGill University, Canada, 40 percent of the women
pregnant at d the time of the disaster aborted. Another study
reported a nearly five times increase in the rate of spontaneous
abortion as a result of the Union Carbide disaster.
Survivors complain of breathlessness, coughing, chest pains,
fatigue, body aches, abdominal pain, numbness and tingling in
the limbs, weak sight and runny eyes, anxiety attacks, bad memory,
concentration difficulties, irritability, headache, and mental
Mothers complain of retarded physical and mental growth in
children exposed in infancy or born after the disaster. According
to a study conducted by Ingrid Eckerman, there are reports on
intellectual impairment and epilepsy. Failure to grow and delays
in gross motor and language sector development were found in children
born considerably after their mother's exposure to the gas.
The worst part of the disaster is probably yet to come. Researchers
have found chromosomal aberrations in the exposed population indicating
a strong likelihood of congenital malformations in the generations
All this misery would have been less had UCC revealed the
exact nature of the composition of the gases released from the
plant. To this day they have not done that. On December 3, 1984
when victims started to pour into the hospitals, the bewildered
Bhopal doctors contacted the plant doctor who told them, "It
is only like tear gas. Just wash with water."
Within the first week of the disaster four "medical experts"
came to Bhopal on a visit sponsored by UCC. In their interviews
to the media, they stated that the leaked gases would not have
any long-term health effects on the exposed population. This was
in sharp contrast to subsequent research findings. One of these
experts was Brian Ballyentine, a toxicologist for the Pentagon.
Another expert, Dr. Hans Weil, professor and chairperson of pulmonary
medicine at the Tulane University Medical School, New Orleans,
has a history of fudging medical data to minimize liabilities
of corporations (a prime example being that of Johns Manville
Inc. in the asbestos case), and had been reprimanded in the past
by a U.S. court for his unethical conduct. He examined victims
in Bhopal and said, "They have an encouraging prognosis and
most will recover fully."
After the disaster, Dr. Max Daunderer, a toxicologist from
Munich, demonstrated the efficacy of intravenous sodium thiosulphate
injections in detoxifying the exposed persons and providing substantial
relief. This was further confirmed by studies carried out by the
Indian Council for Medical Research. Through helpful government
officials, UCC succeeded in undermining official attempts for
large scale administration of sodium thiosulphate. The company
was quick to realize that the administration of this drug would
establish that toxins had reached the blood stream and caused
much more damage than the company would like people to believe.
The greatest sell off of all was the out-of-court damage settlement
reached between the Indian government and UCC. On December 14,
1989 the Supreme Court of India announced that Union Carbide would
pay $470 million in damages.
The first suit, filed by Melvin Belli, an American lawyer,
claimed damages up to $15 billion. Later the Indian government,
claiming itself the sole power to represent the victims, filed
a suit for $3.3 billion. Four years later, without informing the
victims, the government settled for nearly one-seventh of the
original claim. Of the $470 million settlement $200 million was
covered by UCC's insurance and another $200 million had already
been put aside. Out of an annual revenue of $8 billion a year,
the corporation had to pay just $70 million to close the books
on the worst industrial disaster in history.
After news of the settlement, Carbide's stock increased $2
a share. Then chairperson, Robert Kennedy, who owned 35,000 shares
in the company, personally pocketed $70,000.
The settlement clearly shows a double standard in treating
victims of industrial disasters in India and elsewhere. Union
Carbide and eight other companies paid $4.2 billion as potential
damages for Silicone Breast Implants to 650,000 claimants. This
amount was 9 times more than what the Bhopal victims were given
and less than a 10th of the $5 billion court award against Exxon
Valdez for polluting the Alaskan coast. Approximately $40,000
was spent on the rehabilitation of every sea otter affected by
the Alaska oil spill. Each sea otter was given rations of lobsters
costing $500 per day. Thus the life of an Indian citizen in Bhopal
was much cheaper than that of a sea otter in America. If the award
amount of $470 million were distributed equally among all the
victims of the Bhopal disaster, each would get around $200.
More than 250,000 claims were never documented or classified,
making it hard for these victims to obtain compensation. The largest
amount paid for death was around $2,000. Many of the victims had
no idea of compensation or the importance of keeping records.
When the government agencies demanded documents, they had nothing
to provide. Those who had documents lost them in the 1992 Hindu-Muslim
riot. There was no provision for providing compensation for severely
affected children who are born after the disaster.
According to the settlement the liability to provide adequate
compensation and facilities for the handicapped victims requiring
long-term follow up and treatment rests with the Indian government
and not with Union Carbide.
Union Carbide was also exonerated of the responsibility for
cleaning up the affected area. On the 15th anniversary of the
disaster, Greenpeace named the area around the factory in Bhopal
a "Global Toxic hotspot." Their report, based on samples
collected from in and around the factory premises, indicates severe
contamination of the ground water and soil with heavy metals and
carcinogenic chemicals. In 1990 the Bhopal Group for Information
and Action (BGIA) reported the presence of at least seven toxic
chemicals based on a report by the Citizens Environmental Laboratory,
Boston. Toxic chemicals are reported in the breast milk of mothers
living near the factory. The Indian government has not taken this
matter seriously. Only one community was provided with a supply
of drinking water from tankers. The other neighborhoods are using
toxic drinking water.
The Indian government's attempts to rehabilitate the disaster
victims is a picture of total neglect, apathy, inefficiency, and
corruption. As per official records of the Gas Relief and Rehabilitation
Department of the government of Madhya Pradesh, a total of $80
million has been spent on relief and rehabilitation of the survivors
of Bhopal since the disaster. The compensation money has multiplied
in terms of Indian rupees as a result of the increase in the value
of the dollar and the accruing interest. However the interest
has not been paid to the claimants and a balance of about $200
million is likely to remain after all compensations are settled
at the present rate.
On November 15, 1999, seven individuals and five organizations
filed a class action suit in the Federal District Court of New
York against Union Carbide Corporation and its former chair, Warren
Anderson, charging the corporation and Anderson with violations
of international law and human rights. But the request of the
victims to the Indian government to present an "amicus curiae"
brief has so far fallen on deaf ears.
On December 7, 1984, Warren Anderson and other Indian officials
were arrested on charges of culpable homicide, criminal conspiracy,
and other serious offenses. The arrested officials were lodged
in the posh guest house of Union Carbide and Warren Anderson with
an annual salary of Rs.10 million, then were released on the same
day on a bail of Rs. 20,000. A summons from the Bhopal court drew
no response from him, and in January 1992 proclamations were published
in the Washington Post directing Anderson to face trial in Bhopal.
In March 1992 the Chief Judicial Magistrate issued a non-bailable
arrest warrant against Warren Anderson. He continues to ignore
The hope of justice for the victims received a setback with
the merger of Union Carbide Corporation with Dow Chemicals in
February 2001. With the merger, UCC is no longer an entity and
Dow has become the second largest chemical corporation in the
world. In its submission to the Securities and Exchange Commission,
U.S., Union Carbide has deliberately omitted any mention of pending
criminal liabilities. Victims' organizations notified the SEC
of this fact, but so far have been met with indifference and deliberate
Secrets and Lies