The Ongoing Legacy of Bhopal: Injustice and Anti-corporate Resistance

The Sambhavna Trust Clinic (STC) receives over 180 victims of the Union Carbide gas leak everyday. It has to turn away patients as it lacks the resources to treat them all. The STC refuses to take corporate donations, not wanting to play into the PR propaganda machine, and is wary of the motivations of NGOs. “We think there is a need for space free from corporate manipulation,” said Satinath Sarangi, managing trustee of the STC.

The clinic is just 400 meters away from where 40 metric tonnes of lethal Methyl Iso-Cynate (MIC) gas billowed from the Dow Chemical subsidiary Union Carbide factory in 1984, exposing over 500,000 people, instantly killing some 8,000, and causing 25,000 deaths in the past 26 years. Today, some 120,000 to 150,000 people are chronically ill from exposure to MIC, approximately 10% of Bhopal’s population.

The MIC factory is visible from the second floor of the clinic, which was purposely built in the vicinity to treat the worst affected in a highly impoverished area of the city, with 24,000 Bhopalis registered with STC for long-term care.

The list of medical conditions is long, from respiratory problems, nerve disorders, blindness, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, brain damage, paralysis and gastric issues, to reproductive problems and stunted growth in children. According to a 2010 paper by the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, titled “Effects of Exposure of Parents to Toxic Gases in Bhopal on the Offspring,” of women pregnant at the time of exposure, 43.86% lost their child.

“Our data are suggestive of delayed growth of the male until puberty and some slowing of growth of the female after attaining puberty,” the report further states.

Gas exposure also weakened immune systems, which has resulted in survivors more prone to die of disease, whether malaria, tuberculosis (TB), typhoid or dengue fever.

“TB is four times higher here than elsewhere in the country as the immune system is weakened, according to studies by London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine,” said Sarangi. “The researcher, Dr Neil Andersson, said Bhopal was like chemical aids.”

A festering wound

The MIC gas leak in Bhopal ranks as one of the world’s worst industrial accidents, and is a glaring case of justice denied. It is a tragedy, and one that has been made far worse than it ever should have been by the criminal negligence of Union Carbide/Dow Chemical (UC/DC) and the Indian authorities. Both parties (the Indian government and Indian stakeholders had a 49.1% stake) have downplayed the number of deaths, the number of victims and withheld information on what happened that fateful night at the factory, as well as locking survivors into decades of legal battles in their quest for compensation. UC/DC absconded from its legal charges in India and the CEO at the time, Warren Anderson, has not been extradited from the US to India to face charges brought against him – an effigy of him is burned every year on the anniversary of the tragedy in Bhopal. On top of all of this, there has not been a thorough clean up of the MIC’s factory, its surroundings and the ponds full of toxic sludge.

When compensation has come, it has been woefully inadequate. UC/DC paid out just $470 million in compensation, which the Indian government then sat on for years earning interest before reluctantly doling out the money in 2004. Survivors got just 25,000 Rupees ($555) each, of which many had already spent significant amounts on doctors, lawyers, transportation and bribery to get their cases to court. Compare that to the amount the US government forced BP earlier this year to stump up for the Gulf oil spill – $20 billion.

“There is clear double standards and racism. Dow Chemical has accepted the charges against Union Carbide in the US, whereas in Bhopal they say they are not liable. And there are many parallels with the BP oil spill. Information was similarly suppressed there,” said Sarangi. “What has happened here in Bhopal is a guidebook for how to escape corporate liability,” he added.

As Sanjay Verma, a baby at the time of the leak who survived due to his sister wrapping him tightly in blankets (the other 8 members of his family died of gas exposure), said: “Wounds heal over time, but in Bhopal the wounds get worse.”

It is also a lingering wound for Dow Chemical’s “brand name” through its refusal to deal honestly with the tragedy. The disaster, which has become synonymous with Bhopal, is forever a black mark against Dow. You can run, but you can’t hide.

Bhopal has become a clarion call for activists and the anti-globalization movement, a poster of the “true face of globalization” and the dark side of the “new world economy” where a multi-billion dollar company can get away with murder in a country where 80% of the population lives on less than $0.50 a day and through connivance with a government ready to pander to foreign companies in the ceaseless desire for capital. It is as crystal clear a case as you can get of profit before people.

Yet while Bhopal shows that while a crime can be committed and go essentially unpunished, it won’t be forgotten. It is a simmering issue with Indians and many around the world. Indeed, Verma, a local fixer, said he assists on average two journalists every month and dozens during the lead up to the anniversary. Bhopal is that rare thing, a continuous, ongoing media story.

“The Bhopal issue is still very potent, that even after so many years Bhopal is still a crack in the system, and lays bare corporations and government lackeys for what they truly are,” said Sarangi.

A blow to US-India relations?

Bhopal is complicating US-India relations. In August, Delhi passed a law that could make nuclear power companies liable for damages in the advent of an accident, which has become a concern for US nuclear players eager to get in on India’s 123 Nuclear Agreement with the US that was signed in 2008 to develop civilian nuclear power.

Indian politicians, including the right wing BJP party, want the Bhopal tragedy to be raised with Barrack Obama when he visits India this coming week. Even if it is not broached, Bhopal will be a cloud over the president’s first visit to India. Four leftist political parties, activists and survivors of the gas leak will descend on the capital to picket Obama, and have called for a “a countrywide day of protest” on Nov. 8, for “justice for the victims of the Bhopal Gas accident” along with withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and ending funding to Israel. “We are going to Delhi to be heard at Obama’s visit,” said Sarangi.

But while issues of terrorism, strengthening bilateral ties and the usual mumbo-jumbo will be on the table when Obama visits, business will of course get a top billing.

“Obama is coming with the largest ever entourage of business representatives to get deals in India, but there has not been a single step to ensure that companies should abide by the law of the land or listen to the courts,” said Sarangi. He added that the United States-India Business Council (USIBC) will do what it can to prevent such laws being applied to US companies and for Anderson to not be extradited. “The USIBC has played a prominent role in the continued injustice of Bhopal,” he said.

Getting Anderson into an Indian dock seems unlikely. He is 89 and retired, and with no Mossad-like agency to track him down like members of the SS guilty of Holocaust atrocities and crimes against humanity, Anderson can continue his pampered existence in the Hamptons. Moreover, it would set a bad precedent if the US handed him over. It would mean that could happen again, opening a Pandora’s Box for corporations and management wanted for breaking laws around the world. Moreover, as the financial pundits say, it would discourage US and foreign investment in India.

“No Hiroshima, No Bhopal, We Want to Live” is carved under a sculpture to the victims of the gas leak outside the UC factory. Let us hope not, but while pressure will continue to be put on the US government and Dow Chemical, the system is still operating to the mantra “business as usual” and India is keen to strengthen its ties with Washington. But the momentum is still there and the Bhopal tragedy refuses to go away.

Although there are very few positives in the aftermath of the Bhopal gas tragedy, lately there have been some developments. In June, a court sentenced seven former Union Carbide employees, all Indian, to two years in prison and fined 100,000 Rps ($2,100) each. The former Indian arm of Union Carbide was convicted of negligence and fined 500,000 Rps ($10,600). Some 26 years later, it is a case of very overdue justice, even if not severe enough, as activists rightly point out.

The authorities also decided to provide further compensation to those that lost a relative in the tragedy – although not to survivors – of 1 million Rps ($22,000). The issue now is whether people will get that amount, and what they are due.

Bring back the dead

Shamshad Begum lives in a one-room house down a small alleyway off Union Carbide Road, which flanks the MIC factory. When the gas escaped from the factory at five past midnight on December 2, 1984, Begum ran with her husband and two daughters, leaving her mother in law and young son behind as they weren’t able to move. “Bodies filled the roads. The gas was a blue colour, my throat felt bitter and we were all choking. I felt like I wasn’t going to survive, I was going to die, and I thought it better to die than breathe. My daughter’s eyes turned red, like a flame,” she said.

Her mother-in-law died that night, her son the next day. In the following years, she lost three children during pregnancy. A second son died in 1988, her eldest, married daughter is sick all the time, and her 15 year old daughter suffers from lung problems – yet she doesn’t want her to know – while her husband died three years ago from gas related side effects. “I’ve lost half of my family due to the disaster,” she said. “My husband got 25,000 Rps for the death of his mother. But in the end, when he was dying, he suffered a lot; what is 25,000 Rps?”

Without a husband or son to earn money, Begum struggles to survive on a widow’s pension of 150 Rps ($3.33) a month and renting out the next door room to migrant labourers for 400 Rps ($8.88) a month. Begum is hopeful that she will be given the 1 million Rps in compensation for her husband’s death and be entitled to a further million for the death of her mother in law so she can move away from Bhopal to live in “a clean and healthy place.” But Indian bureaucracy is not helping matters. “We submitted original death certificates and documents years ago, and now they want the originals again, but they have them, so there’s more paper work to do to get them back. They are delaying everything,” she said.

“I want to give a message, that corporations shouldn’t be allowed to operate that kill people and make them sleep forever,” said Begum. “I would tell them [UC/DC], give us the people back who died from our families, not compensation, give them back to us.”

A poisoned soil waste dump

For visitors and the press to enter the abandoned Union Carbide factory they need to get permission from the Deputy Collector (Gas Relief) in Bhopal, which typically takes 24 hours. This must be presented to the policemen at the entrance to the factory who then guide visitors around the site. Locals however do not need such paperwork, they can simply walk into the compound from the slums that surround the factory to scavenge for wood, graze their livestock or relax in the shade of the vegetation. The crumbling factory, offices and buildings aside, it is green and lush place, full of trees and tall grass. Chipmunks scurry about and birds twitter in the tree tops. It resembles a park in the middle of a city. But as a stencil on the outside wall of the factory states under a skull and cross bones, this is a “poisoned soil waste dump”.

One of the laboratories is totally open, the windows smashed and no locks on the doors, while bottles of chemicals are stacked up covered in cobwebs. A photojournalist last year moved one of the bottles for a shot of the label; he was later hospitalized for coming into contact with a dangerous chemical.

Visitors are warned not to touch anything and immediately after the tour wash their clothes and footwear. There is plenty of toxic waste and dust around, and the steel structure of the factory is slowly disintegrating along with the vats and containers that held lethal chemicals.

At one end of the complex is a “serious contaminated zone,” which still reeks of chemicals. Only now is a wall being built to ostensibly keep people out, but there are plenty of gaps for locals to enter. And despite the wall, there are toxic ponds outside of the complex where people take livestock to drink, wash clothes and around which children play. The mud is also dug up to use as flooring for dwellings.

On the sides of the ponds, the black plastic lining used to contain the sludge is visible, UC having used a process of solar evaporation for the waste. In the dry season, the earth is covered in a thick white coating. This waste has entered the ground water and polluted the drinking water. Most water pumps have been turned off, but some remain and the government has been lax about getting piped clean drinking water to residents that live on what is a huge toxic dump.

One building inside the complex houses 350 metric tonnes of chemicals rotting away, locked but not sealed from the elements. What the impact is of storing these chemicals in the compound is not known. But the whole area, the vegetation included, is contaminated, according to research by Greenpeace. The site should be torn down and the waste safely disposed of, and not in the way the authorities did in the past when it transported 40 tonnes of waste to an incinerator in a nearby town without telling the residents. Not designating the area a contaminated zone is akin to the Ukrainian government letting people continue to live right beside the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

Nearly 26 years after the disaster, there is still no justice and no environmental clean up, while victims continue to die from exposure and children continue to suffer. Bhopal is an issue that won’t go away until justice is finally achieved.

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Photographs of the factory and toxic ponds.

Paul Cochrane is an journalist living in Beirut. Read other articles by Paul.