This week marks 34 years since the Bhopal gas disaster, an event that remains an unfolding tragedy for many because so little has been done since 1984 to alleviate the suffering of those who were poisoned or who lost loved ones. The massive leak of toxic methyl isocyanate gas from a pesticide plant in the capital of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh is still regarded as the worst industrial accident in history.
The official death toll in the immediate aftermath reached 1,754, many of whom died in excruciating, horrifying circumstances. According to The Lancet, the estimated death toll quickly rose to 10,000 and a further 15,000 to 20,000 premature deaths were reported in the next two decades. The Indian authorities have said more than half a million people were exposed to the gas. Many of them suffered long-term health consequences, which the medical journal Environmental Health lists as follows: ocular, respiratory, reproductive, neurobehavioural and genetic. That means babies continue to be born with severe, sometimes rare abnormalities in Bhopal, those who were mere children on the night the gas poisoned the air now live as adults with permanent disabilities and there are more chronically ill people in the city than in others across India.
Add to that a terrible truth: the Union Carbide Corporation factory’s contaminated 70-acre site has not been cleaned up in the 34 years since and the soil and groundwater around it continue to be poisoned by chemicals and waste abandoned in leaky sheds and warehouses open to the elements. As prominent Indian environmentalists Sunita Narain and Chandra Bhushan put it, on the gas leak’s 30th anniversary, “Bhopal was struck by two tragedies: the one that happened immediately, and the other that unfolded in the years that followed”.
That second, continuing tragedy is what concerns us now. It revolves around rights and responsibility — the denial of rights to the victims and a disavowal of responsibility by the corporate entities involved.
Most of the original slum-dwelling victims, the children born to them after December 3, 1984, and the desperately poor people who subsequently moved into the poisoned area because land had become cheap, have suffered from the incompetence and indifference of successive Indian governments and corporate legal quibbling. Indra Sinha, whose Booker Prize-nominated novel Animal’s People was based on the Bhopal disaster, wrote on the 25th anniversary: “Over the years the survivors have received little medical help. Being mostly very poor, they were often treated rudely. Government doctors would refuse to touch them. In 1994 the Indian government, eager to put the gas leak behind it, shut down all research studies into the effects of the gas, just as new epidemics of cancers, diabetes, eye defects and crippling menstrual disorders were beginning to appear.”
As for responsibility, the companies involved have demonstrated precious little regard for it. Union Carbide Corporation — one of the first American companies to invest in India — held more than half the stock of Union Carbide India Limited, which owned and operated the Bhopal plant. The American company initially tried to evade legal responsibility, pinning the operational and moral blame for safety failures on its Indian subsidiary. It has consequently never bothered to clean up the factory site and the issue remains contested. Eventually though, UCC reached a settlement of $470 million with the Indian government, which equated at the time to $2,200 per person in compensation for exposure to the deadly gas.
Admittedly, UCC did, from time to time, attempt Good Samaritan gestures towards the victims in Bhopal. In the early days, it set up an interim relief fund, despatched medical equipment and paid for some Indian doctors to study the effects of methyl isocyanate and how best to treat the thousands who needed help. More than a decade later, the company helped build a hospital for the victims.
But these have been largely symbolic rather than measures with any real impact. Overall, the US firm has always seemed unwilling to stand solidly and soberly by the people whose lives were destroyed by negligence at its Bhopal factory. In 1994, it divested its stake in the Indian company, was subsequently acquired by Dow Chemical Company, which has always said its terms of purchase exclude liabilities from Bhopal. By January next year, UCC is set to disappear altogether as a legal entity when a merged behemoth — DowDupont Inc — creates three separate companies, none of which are called Union Carbide.
There is one clear point to make about Bhopal 34 years on. I say this as someone who interviewed survivors and doctors and visited the affected slums as a journalism student on the second anniversary of the tragedy. I found a bereaved and bewildered community in deep shock. At the time, no one knew quite what to expect, what might be done or how. That the situation remains much the same in 2018 as it was back then is a moral stain — on India as well as on multinational ventures in developing countries.