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Chemical criminals

On 3 December 1984, the world's worst industrial disaster took place at Bhopal in India. Twenty-five years on, Rajwinder Sahota visits the city to find out what happened to the victims

December 3, 2009
7 min read

The diminutive, unkempt figure of Lechobhai huddles on the filthy stone floor in the crumbling shack that serves as her home. Days, even weeks, go by without her neighbours ever seeing her. The only contents of her home are an aluminium food bowl and water jug, both blackened with dirt. An old single-ring mini stove, caked in burnt food, hasn’t worked for ages. The sickly stench causes you to retch.

Lechobhai is 55 years old. She is blind and suffers from untreated ailments, including a shockingly exposed fly-infested cervical prolapse. She is bedraggled beyond belief. Some days her husband calls by with food for her.

Twenty-five years ago she was woken from sleep by choking poisonous gas that filled the air. Her eyes burned. The more she rubbed them, the more they hurt. The gas blinded her permanently. She was one of many victims of India’s infamous Bhopal gas disaster, still the world’s worst industrial accident. An estimated 30,000 people died either immediately or soon after it. Hospital wards were jammed with thousands of people suffering from blindness, skin complaints and breathing difficulties. Some half a million people were exposed to the toxic fumes.

The factory produced Sevin, a pesticide containing methyl isocynate (MIC) – a potent toxin. Other chemicals, far less toxic, could have been used, but MIC is much cheaper. And the Union Carbide firm had been allowed to build its pesticide plant in a densely populated, poor area of Bhopal in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh in 1969.

Safety appears never to have been a priority for the company. The hazardous MIC was stored in massive tanks instead of safer, smaller steel drums. Maintenance levels of equipment were reduced to save running costs – pipelines were allowed to corrode without replacement and leaking valves weren’t replaced. On the night of the disaster, water got into a storage tank of 42 tonnes of MIC, the reaction of which caused the tank’s temperature to rise to 200oC, a pressure point the system was not designed for, resulting in the release of tremendous volumes of the poisonous gas.

Corporate cost-cutting

Many independent examiners of the disaster, including the International Medical Commission on Bhopal, have found that neglect of regulations and established safety norms were common Union Carbide practice. It was known, for example, that pressure on storage tanks would be increased by corrosion of iron in pipelines used instead of non-stainless steel pipes.

Workers’ warnings that bad maintenance and leaking valves were allowing water to enter MIC tanks were ignored and pleas for emergency contingencies to be drawn up in the event of catastrophe were shunned. Union Carbide was later to claim that their factory equipment had in fact been sabotaged – but they failed to substantiate their plea with any evidence whatsoever.

Within days of the event, the US president of Union Carbide’s Indian operations, Warren Anderson, fled the country, never to return. Ever since, Union Carbide (bought up by Dow Chemicals in 2002) has vigorously fought off compensation claims and charges of industrial neglect and environmental damage in both US and Indian courts.

The company made a one-off ex-gratia payment of $470 million in the hope that it would be in full and final settlement. This is still being challenged in Indian courts. The payment did not go directly to the victims but to the Indian government. What finally reached the suffering victims and families from the $470 million was a pittance among so many people. Much is said to remain unallocated.

Efforts continue to bring Warren Anderson to justice in Indian courts to face prosecution on charges of culpable homicide but, like Union Carbide, Washington won’t hear of it. The US won’t allow its citizen to be extradited and dismisses all allegations against him.

When Union Carbide finally left Bhopal in 1999, it left behind thousands of tons of leaking chemicals, which sank into the surrounding environment. One New Delhi human rights lawyer, Karuna Nundy, is currently pursuing two petitions – one concerning the poisoned environment and the other the inadequate financial award.

In the first petition she claims that waste toxins had been dumped at the pesticide factory site since 1977, seven years before the tragedy. This was Union Carbide’s normal practice, she says. Her claim is backed up by memos proving that the company knew that toxins from the plant were present in the local water supply but did nothing about it. She states that today the chemicals still cause birth defects, vomiting, nausea and coma.

Nundy’s second petition is for better compensation to be paid to the victims. So far, the supreme court in New Delhi has rejected this claim. However, the court is monitoring how to get better health care to sufferers.

Government failure

With convincing justification, NGOs claim central government and the Madhya Pradesh state administration have paid insufficient attention to the suffering of the victims and to the environment, which they say is heavily polluted and poses a continuing health hazard.

One organisation established in 1995, the Sambhavna Trust Clinic, has taken numerous cases to court. Its director, Satinath Sarangi, complains about government incompetence: ‘Medical care is lacking, with no treatment protocols and no co-ordination between research and treatment levels.’ Sarangi claims there is corruption at all levels and that the government has failed in the rehabilitation programme for which money has been allocated but not spent accordingly. ‘There is no shortage of money for these things,’ according to Sarangi.

The Sambhavna clinic provides up to 30,000 patients with regular medical care, community health care, research, education and preventative medicines, and runs a department dedicated to liaising between patients and authorities and fighting for the rights of the people. It has many times taken the government to task in the New Delhi courts and there are still several petitions awaiting deliberation.

Satinath Sarangi feels that closure on this disaster will not happen until the courts decide on appropriate awards in damages and make orders requiring action on the human and environmental damage. Until then, he says ruefully, ‘the fact of life is the poor will always suffer and the poorest of the poor do not count for anything.’

The Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila is another effective pressure group, which has taken the authorities to court more than 200 times. Abdul Jabbar, who heads the Peedit Mahila, says there have been two disasters – one at the time of the gas leak in 1984 and the second being the continued failure of the authorities subsequently.

Lost in the system

Lechobhai is one victim who appears to have been lost in the system. She remains neglected. Blinded since the accident, she is given the minimum of human care by her ailing husband. In the colony just across the road from the factory, she lives in a decrepit old shack that barely offers shelter.

Forced to lie down all day on the filthy stone floor with no rug or blanket, not being able to see and having no aid, she remains curled up and never leaves her home. She says she always feels at risk because her rickety home offers no protection. She did receive compensation of 10,000 rupees (£780) in 1998, but there was no further help and she receives no medical attention despite her continuing ailments. Even her neighbours won’t approach her, in the false belief that they too will become ill.

While she suffers, the company and its shareholders continue to profit. Indeed, when the Indian government agreed to accept $470 million in compensation and not to press for more, shares in Union Carbide rose by $2 on Wall Street. Since the compensation only cost shareholders $0.43 per share, they actually made money out of the payment.

Meanwhile, the defunct Union Carbide factory still dominates the area worst hit in 1984. The ugly decrepit ruins and blackened, leaking storage tanks remain – a macabre monument to the horrific tragedy, dominating the sealed-off and guarded plant compound. Its perimeter wall is plastered with strongly-worded anti-Union Carbide, anti-Dow and anti-government slogans. A statue erected outside the infamous factory is a permanent memorial to the many lives sacrificed – and a lasting epitaph to Bhopal’s only claim to fame.

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