In the early morning hours of December 3rd, 25 years ago, a poisonous gas leaked from a Union Carbide plant and crept over the city of Bhopal and within hours had taken a few thousand lives. Since that fateful evening, close to 20,000 people have died. Chernobyl still remains synonymous with industrial ‘accidents’; Bhopal, notwithstanding the valiant attempts of many survivors and their children, activists, and an entire array of organizations – among them, Sambhavna Trust, the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, the International Medical Commission for Bhopal, the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmachari Sangh (the Bhopal Gas-Affected Women’s Stationery Trade Union) — that have been plunged in relief work to ameliorate the conditions under which victims and their communities live and labor, has been largely forgotten.
The facts surrounding the ‘Bhopal Gas Leak’ are no longer disputed, except, of course, by that cowardly and criminal corporation known as Union Carbide, which in 2001 was acquired by Dow Chemical. Shortly after midnight on December 3rd, 54,000 pounds (24,500 kilograms) of untreated methyl isocyanate, known as MIC, escaped from a tank at Union Carbide’s plant in Bhopal, then (as now) a city with a venerable history and a population of over a million. By about 1 AM the alarm had been sounded and people began to flee as the gas, moved along by the wind, swept over the city. None of the six safety systems at the plant were functioning, and the tank refrigeration system, which alone would have sufficed to prevent the leak, was out of order. The Indian Government, which too bears a heavy and to this day largely unacknowledged responsibility for the catastrophe, admits that over 521,000 people were exposed to the gas. By all reasonable estimates, some 7,000 people were killed within the first week of exposure to the lethal gas; in subsequent years, another 15,000 people, perhaps more, have succumbed to their medical ailments as a consequence of their exposure. The number of people still under treatment is many times more.
Why, one might ask, was a chemical plant allowed to function in a densely inhabited portion of the city? The same question should be asked in many countries such as the US, where hazardous wastes’ disposal sites are disproportionately located in poor and minority communities. We know that long before the incident, numerous warnings had appeared in the local press of the dangerous and unsafe conditions in the plant. Raj Kumar Keswani, the Bhopal-based writer for the Hindi weekly, Jansatta, penned a piece in June 1984, six months before the disaster, entitled “Bhopal: On the brink of a disaster.” Had the article appeared in India Today, perhaps – only perhaps – someone may have paid attention, but no one deemed Keswani’s Hindi-language investigative journalism of any consequence. There are far too many hidden scripts, many hitherto still unexplored, in the narrative that is now known as the ‘Bhopal Gas Leak Tragedy’.
While, in the immediate aftermath doctors, nurses, and ordinary citizens struggled valiantly to save people, Union Carbide refused to divulge the chemical composition of the gas. Consequently, since toxological information about MIC was not forthcoming, doctors were compelled to offer symptomatic treatment. Indeed, all of Union Carbide’s endeavors had but one purpose, namely to find ways to absolve itself of all responsibility for a catastrophic failure at one of its plants. Allegations that the company had compromised on the safety of the plant in an effort to cut costs were met with the astounding claim, which the company’s own investigative officers could not substantiate, that a “disgruntled employee” had sabotaged the plant and caused the leak. With 50.9% ownership of Union Carbide India Limited, Union Carbide was the principal shareholder of its Indian subsidiary; but now a resounding effort would be made to depict the relationship between Union Carbide and its Indian subsidiary as a remote and distant one. Now that Union Carbide has ceased to exist, the day may not be very far when Dow Chemical will, in a manner of speaking, pretend that the incident never occurred. In the US, of course, Dow Chemical, as conversant with the insipid languages of multicultural democracies as any other corporation, will continue to project itself as a corporation that ‘cares’ for people’s lives, is committed to safe and ‘nurturing’ work environment to ensure a ‘better future’ for our children and their children, and so on. Meanwhile, other victims will be roasted at the altar of profit.
The story of Bhopal has been told often enough and the struggle continues. The toxic wastes that litter the plant have seeped into the soil and the groundwater has been contaminated, giving rise to a new generation of those who, even if they are not the offspring of victims of the gas leak, are suffering from the consequences of the leak. A mere few days after the leak, American lawyers were flying into India, boasting about the billions that they would win for the victims. The story of the litigation surrounding Bhopal makes for unpleasant reading, but is fully suggestive of the consideration that ethical considerations have never been even remotely present in the minds of governments, courts, Union Carbide, and most lawyers. [See my article on Bhopal and the lawyers on MANAS.] By terms of the Bhopal Gas Leak Act of 1985, the Government of India assumed responsibility as the sole legal representative of the victims, and shortly thereafter the Supreme Court of India awarded a paltry US $470 million, two-thirds of which today still lies unused in the Reserve Bank of India, as a final settlement to all the victims. The maximum compensation to those injured is Rs 25,000 ($550), and to the next of kin of those who died the amount is Rs 62,000 ($1,300): as a Union Carbide spokeswoman once put it, the amount is generous, “plenty good”, for an Indian.
Nearly everything that can be said about corporate responsibility has been said. The monster cannot be tamed, and it is time to recognize that rather than to pretend that, as we become wiser and democracies ‘mature’, rogue corporations can be coaxed into civility. When I think of gas and atrocities, I think of the gassing of Jews by the murderous Nazis. But while the Nazis were brought to justice, the then-CEO of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson, a fugitive from justice for whom an arrest warrant has been out for two decades, is enjoying his retirement years lapping up the sun in one of his many vacation homes. Not one person, American or Indian, has ever been indicted for the criminal conduct that led to the Bhopal tragedy. Meanwhile, as if to suggest that Union Carbide remains an anomaly, we will be told, as in today’s New York Times, by no less a person than the famed author of Maximum City that Union Carbide has failed to abide by the norms that are inculcated in all American children: “It’s a wonderful American tradition: you always clean up the mess you made.” Somehow, the mess that democratic America – where children, unlike in Mumbai (so avers Suketu Mehta), are taught to clean up their mess — has left behind in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Nicaragua, much of central America, and now Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention countless other places, has been forgotten. Once America starts to clean up the mess it has left behind wherever its footsteps are to be found, it will find no need for any other occupation for years to come.