In Memory Of Bhopal

In Memory Of Bhopal

By Binu Mathew

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 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 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.

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

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 offences. 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
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.                     Z