Bhopal Gas Tragedy

Betrayed & forsaken

Print edition : December 26, 2014

A Union Carbide banner torched at a rally of the gas tragedy survivors in Bhopal on December 3. Photo: AFP

Survivors of the Bhopal gas tragedy at a rally in Bhopal on December 2. Photo: A.M. Faruqui

December 10, 1984: Warren Anderson, who headed Union Carbide Corporation at the time of the gas leak, speaking in Danbury, Connecticut. He died in September. Photo: AP

The survivors of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy try to hold on to their memories and still nurse hopes of securing justice some day.

THIRTY years on, more than 25,000 are dead and about 1,50,000 continue to suffer from chronic illnesses, marking the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy as not only the world’s worst industrial disaster but also one of the longest ongoing cover-ups in global capitalism under the political-industrial complex.

Former Additional Solicitor General Indira Jaising expresses the difficulty in properly labelling the affair: “You struggle with words. What do you call it? Industrial genocide? Disaster? I, for one, don’t have labels for Bhopal, just like Gujarat 2002.” Her anxiety stems from the chain of events that led to the disaster and its long aftermath of three decades of collusion among various players in the saga—the American parent Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), its Indian subsidiary Union Carbide (India) Ltd, Dow Chemical Company (acquirer of UCC), Eveready Industries India Ltd (formerly McLeod Russel (India) Ltd, acquirer of UCIL) and the Government of India (which, together with other Indian investors, held 49 per cent of the UCIL shares at the time of the disaster)—which have made a complex travesty of the tragedy.

Closure to the affair seems far away even after three decades. With so much murky water having flowed under the bridge, it is important to revisit the facts. Accounts of survivors, a report by the Union Research Group (URG) in June 1985 (“The Role of Management Practices in the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster”, available online on, and meetings with activists, government officials, lawyers and other players help piece together a more or less accurate sketch of what transpired.

UCC, set up in 1917, came to Bhopal in 1969 to set up a pesticide plant as part of India’s Green Revolution and industrialisation policy. The objective of welcoming the manufacturers was employment generation. N.D. Jayaprakash of the Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti says that initially the plant did not manufacture methyl isocyanate (MIC)-based pesticides but started doing so after 1978. “The systems were under-designed from the beginning,” he says. In 1981, a plant operator, Mohammad Ashraf Khan, died after having been exposed to a deadly phosgene gas spill four days earlier. In 1982, another phosgene gas leak occurred.

In May that year, a team of experts from UCC’s United States office visited the site and submitted a report on the dangerous situation building up in the plant, stating that it was not operating properly. No action was taken by the management, but some reporters, including Rajkumar Keswani, wrote articles based on the report, warning of imminent danger. The union movement in the plant was fairly active, with workers often raising questions concerning their well-being. The plant management retained exclusive rights in every aspect of factory operations, including efficiency, establishment of quality standards, working hours, transfers, working programmes and production standards. But, the URG report said, it, “instead of modifying unsafe procedures, chose, time and again, to meet job refusals with wage-cuts and charge-sheeting. Standardised, safe procedures laid out in UCIL’s own manuals were more often violated than followed.” It routinely dismissed complaints.

Whereas the U.S. plant was well taken care of, the plant in Bhopal clearly suffered discrimination. As the plant ran into losses, the company cut down maintenance and operating costs, reduced manpower, and took shortcuts that led to widespread and frequent operational lapses. Critical procedures were overstepped as a matter of course and leaks were not unusual. When the deadly MIC leak occurred on the night of December 2/3, the factory was operating at a quarter of its required strength, qualified and efficient operators having already quit or accepted voluntary retirement, either out of frustration or on the management’s urging. The flare tower had been shut for the previous six months, and much water had leaked into the gas tank. The recourse to safety measures was too little and too late.

Deliberate scaling down

Though the disaster was in the making for some time, nobody could have predicted the scale and extent of it. When 41 tonnes of the deadly gas emanated from the factory and engulfed the city that night, thousands were killed in their sleep and a population of six lakh people was affected in various other ways. Many of them continue to reel under the effects of the leak. The most severely affected were people from poor socio-economic backgrounds, living in settlements and shanties near the factory. “Eighty per cent of the dead were Muslims, 75 per cent were slum-dwellers, 40 per cent were children less than one year old. Why will any political party take up their cause? More than 50 per cent households earned less than Rs.150 per head a month. People who escaped on motorised transport were the least affected. The ICMR [Indian Council of Medical Research], which mapped the area in the first few days, was forced to ban publication of its reports. Court orders were required to be filed to make these reports public. This episode has exposed the contempt of the Indian ruling class for the downtrodden. Local doctors colluded in scaling down the tragedy,” says Vikas Bajpai of the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

Shamshad Begum, resident of Galli No.3 in Jaiprakash Nagar opposite the now derelict factory, recalls the night of the tragedy. She, like many others, felt a stinging, burning sensation in the eyes as if somebody was frying red chillies. She later lost a child during delivery.

Rates of miscarriages increased by 530 per cent in the most severely affected areas in the months after the disaster, according to Vikas. On the night of the leak, people ran helter-skelter, vomiting or simply dropping dead. Eyewitnesses recall that the city appeared to be under siege. Ramvilas remembers that on the following morning, entire streets were lined with dead humans, dogs and cattle. Even the trees had died. Around 10,000 pieces of white funereal cloth were sold in the immediate aftermath, says Vikas. Lakshmy Tarafdar, then an MBBS student, recalls that in the days after the leak, people flocked to the Sultania Zanana Hospital like flies waiting to drop dead. Keeping aside her own nausea and irritation of skin, she and other doctors and volunteers did what they could. She now works at the Indira Gandhi Women and Children Hospital for the gas-affected in Bhopal. She herself suffers from back problems and damaged lungs.

The immediate reaction from the UCC management was that the leaked gas was non-lethal tear gas.

The only known antidote to the chemical that leaked, MIC, was sodium thiosulphate. A doctor from Germany, Dr Don Derrera, arrived with hundreds of vials of it and proceeded to inject people with the antidote. But, within days, the local health community colluded with government officials to have him deported.

Several volunteers who came in to help and set up clinics were arrested. Mira Sadgopal and friends from Medico Friend Circle were arrested along with others from 30 different places in the city. The government issued orders that victims should not be injected with this antidote. The Jan Swasthya Clinic in Bhopal was closed and vials were confiscated. Satinath Sarangi and Rachna Dhingra, who continue to advocate and run the Sadbhavna Trust Clinic, were also arrested in a systematic crackdown.

It is understood that the effective use of sodium thiosulphate as an antidote would have established that the leaked gas was hydrogen cyanide, which the company was desperately trying to deny. Cyanide is a well known as a poisonous substance and the evidence would have been incriminating. In January, 500 volunteers came to Bhopal from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) to conduct a door-to-door survey. In two months they surveyed 25,000 households, covering one-fourth of the victims. The government stepped in to stop the survey and confiscated the data. The TISS does not yet have access to the data, says N.D. Jayaprakash.

Warren Anderson, chairman of UCC and the prime accused in the case, arrived in Bhopal soon after. He was arrested and kept in a guest house, but soon released as pressure from the U.S. government mounted. He was allowed to flee the country while on bail and requests for his extradition were denied. He died in September this year, without facing trial or appearing even once in Bhopal in connection with the case. The news of his death reached India only after a month. Some people expressed their anger and helplessness by spitting on his photograph outside the factory walls.

Even now, the chemical components of the leaked gas remain undisclosed. UCC refused to reveal it and Dow also refuses to do so, citing protection under trade agreements.

The agencies responsible for the tragedy and its cover-up refuse to accept responsibility and have got away with massacre. Dow Chemical, the present owner of UCC, refuses to accept responsibility. A statement on its website reads: “Dow in India continues to thrive fifty years later with a strong manufacturing and operations presence in ten locations across the country…. We do not believe that Bhopal or the 2010 request for a Curative Petition will have any financial, operational or reputational impact on Dow’s business opportunities in India or elsewhere in the world, and we will continue to oppose efforts to implicate Dow in the Bhopal matter.”

In 2006, it sought legal opinion from Arun Jaitley and Abhishek Manu Singhvi on whether it was liable in any way for legal action in lieu of UCC’s crimes. “Dow cannot be held responsible for UCC as it existed as a separate legal entity. It is also not liable for plant site remediation,” said both the eminent lawyers in their separate opinions on the principles of inviolability of the corporate veil and “Solomon vs Solomon”, which establishes each corporate entity as separate.

It had been suggested that the case be heard in a U.S. court rather than in India, in the hope of an efficient and speedy trial, says Indira Jaising. But UCC did not want it to proceed in the U.S. because it feared stringent punishment and a hefty fine. On behalf of UCC, Nani Palkhivala submitted an affidavit saying that India was capable of handling the case. District Judge John Keenan of the New York Court agreed but said that UCC would have to appear in India as a defendant.

Whose side is the government on?

In 1989, while the case was still being heard, one fine day an announcement was made in court that a settlement had been reached between the Government of India and UCC and a sum of $470 million had been agreed on as full and final settlement of all claims. “On what basis?” asks Indira Jaising. “The numbers of the dead and the injured had not been quantified until then. By settling, they dropped all criminal liability. I had challenged their authority to settle but the government argued that it could do so under parens patriae, protector of the interests of its population. The victims were not heard when the settlement was reached. The government held nearly half the shares of UCIL, so was it protecting itself? There was a clear conflict of interest between the government and the victims. But this point of view was considered backward-looking.” She added that that human rights activists had failed to work out an effective strategy.

Meanwhile, in 2010, the Chief Judicial Magistrate in Bhopal convicted Keshub Mahindra, former chairman of UCIL, and six others under Sections 304-A (causing death by negligence), 336, 337 and 338 (gross negligence) of the Indian Penal Code, inviting the kind of punishment attracted for road accidents. They were all released on bail by the evening of the same day.

The now defunct factory, surrounded by a periphery wall and with its premises thickly wooded, has little to remind one of the tragedy. Buildings have replaced the shanties outside. Children use the abandoned factory grounds as a cricket pitch and buffaloes graze around the boundary walls. In 2012, the Indian Institute of Toxicology Research submitted a report to the Supreme Court confirming that the groundwater in 18 colonies in the area was contaminated with heavy metals such as lead and nickel, their quantities far higher than the permissible limits set by the Bureau of Indian Standards. The Pollution Monitoring Lab of the Centre for Science and Environment found in 2009 that groundwater three kilometres away from the factory was also contaminated with pesticides and other chemicals. The ICMR stopped its study in 1994 and restarted only in 2010 after it was compelled by a court order.

Activists claim that the ICMR and the State government continue to flout court orders with impunity. By the government’s own admission, around 1.1 million tonnes of soil is contaminated in the area.

Pravir Krishn, Principal Secretary, Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation Department, says that under the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act, 1985, the Supreme Court must take the decisions and the State government has neither the authority nor any responsibility to do anything on its own. As far as the 18,000 tonnes of hazardous waste sitting on the factory site and in the solar evaporation pond is concerned, he said 346 tonnes would be incinerated in Pithampura once Ramki Infrastructure obtained the equipment for it. A Rs.110 crore project is being initiated for plant remediation. “The focus should move from life and death to growth, development and we should look forward with great positive energy. Every calamity has an opportunity inside that we have to seize,” he told Frontline.

Holding on to memories

Survivors and activists are against the idea of a state memorial on factory land and do not want their narratives hijacked by agencies they consider complicit in the injustice meted out to them. Many middle-class Bhopalis do not want to live in the past and want to move on. But people from poorer socio-economic groups cannot move on so easily and their memories are alive in their lived experiences, such as the genetic defects that their offspring carry. The memories are alive in stories of unsung heroes, such as that of the Deputy Station Superintendent Dastaghir, who ensured that no train halted at the station that fateful night, thus saving thousands of lives, before falling down in his office.

In an attempt to keep these stories from getting lost, the Remember Bhopal Museum was opened on the 30th anniversary of the tragedy. “Families have given to the museum mementos that were often their last tangible link with relatives they lost in the tragedy. Many others have recounted their harrowing tales of survival and fierce struggle,” says Rama Lakshmi, its curator.

It celebrates the tenacity of people like Abdul Jabbar, who is now 50 per cent blind and has badly affected lungs but continues to fight relentlessly for justice. When you ask him how long he thinks it will take to get justice, he says, “I don’t know. I am entering a dark tunnel. But with the hope there will be light somewhere. Let us see.”