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 late.

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 illness.

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 to come.

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 criminal justice.

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 silence.

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