Soumya Sankar Mitra
On the night of 2nd / 3rd December in 1984, water leaked into a tank containing methyl isocyanate gas at a pesticide plant of the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) in Bhopal. UCIL was a subsidiary of the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), one of the biggest multinationals at the time. The chemical reaction that followed raised the temperature of the gas to above 200° centigrade (392° F). The concomitant rise in pressure forced the valves open and methyl isocyanate and other deadly gases spread over the city of Bhopal.
Over the next week, around sixteen thousand people, including two thousand children and a similar number of expectant mothers, lost their lives. Later, sixteen thousand more died. Almost an equal number of animals perished too. In a vast area around the plant, the soil and the drinking water sources have been permanently contaminated. Several other tanks containing toxic chemicals are still lying unattended in the factory premises.
It was the worst industrial disaster in recent history. The Canadian government hadn’t permitted this plant to be set up anywhere in Canada, a sparsely populated country with millions of acres of uninhabited land. But in 1969, the government of India allowed to set up the same plant at Sanand, almost at the heart of the city of Bhopal.
Although we were intermittently agitated after the tragedy, with time, our indignation died out and the issue forgotten because those who died in the catastrophe, the survivors whose lives were devastated, and the deformed babies that were born afterwards generally belonged to the riff-raff, the dispensable stratum of the humankind. It was not an attack on a symbol of global wealth, the World Trade Centre, by some traders in terror. It was the death of the helpless poor in a transnational game in which rich businessmen try to become richer. Consequently, no war has been fought over the incident; what has happened can be called an international farce. Although many in the US and elsewhere consider the recent judgment delivered by one of the lowest Indian criminal courts in Bhopal after twenty-five years of procrastination as “just”, the dispensable people of this country think it was a monstrous joke. This article is an attempt to briefly record what followed the disaster.
How did it happen?
Till this day, the UCC hasn’t clearly revealed how exactly the gases escaped. None of their excuses, namely, sabotage by disgruntled employees, mistakes committed by inexperienced workers, etc. have been proved in subsequent enquiries. On the contrary, every investigation has shown that the preventive systems that had been put in place in similar plants in the US by the same company did not exist at Bhopal. Time and again experts had pointed out that the process of manufacturing the pesticide Sevin in the plant, which required production of methyl isocyanate at an intermediate stage, was dangerous. But the company had steadfastly refused to introduce safer but costlier processes. It has also been established that the principal causes behind the disaster were poor maintenance of tanks and pipelines and reduction of staff.
The curious case of the prosecutor and the accused
Immediately after the incident, the American chief of the UCC, Warren Andersen visited Bhopal. He was arrested by Madhya Pradesh government. But thanks to some invisible hands that we know so well, he was released on a bail of two thousand dollars and sent to New Delhi by the state chief minister’s private aircraft, accompanied by a senior bureaucrat. The same evening, he boarded a flight to his fatherland and hasn’t been troubled in the next twenty-five years. Although the Indian court hearing the case issued several arrest warrants against Andersen, the governments of both India and the USA did nothing to enforce the warrants. The helpless court declared him as an “absconder”. After the recent judgment by the court on 7th June 2010 stirred up public conscience and the media, attempts have been made to make the invisible hand even more invisible by setting up a core group of central ministers. These worthy gentlemen have begun thinking about new steps!
The government swings into action
On 29th March, 1985, i.e., in less than four months after the incident, the Indian Parliament passed The Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act, which conferred on the government of India the “sole right” to represent Bhopal victims. The Act took away the rights of individuals to sue the company in India or abroad.
At first, the UCC agreed to pay US $ 350 million, that is, the amount for which the factory had been insured, although the Indian government had demanded hundred times more. The UCC claimed that the mishap had occurred due to sabotage by disgruntled workers and the company was not responsible for such acts. As mentioned above, the company was unable to produce a shred of evidence in support of the “sabotage” hypothesis and what they suggested as possible modus operendi of the so called sabotage was proved untenable in an experiment subsequently conducted by experts. After haggling for fifteen years, in 1999, the Indian government and the UCC arrived at an out-of-court settlement for US $ 47o million (insured amount plus nominal interest). Immediately thereafter, when the UCC wanted to dispose of their shares in the UCIL, the Supreme Court allowed it to do so with the proviso that the company set up a 500-bed hospital in Bhopal to treat the gas leak victims. The hospital was set up in 2003, but what relief it has provided to the survivors is debatable.
Therefore, after allowing the boss to flee, steps were taken to let the capital flee too. In the mean time, the UCC had sold its Indian subsidiary to Eveready Limited. Before Dow bought the UCC, the Indian government publicly stated: “UCC has no liabilities in India any more”. Till now, neither Dow nor the UCC has accepted their liability to remove the hundreds of tonnes of toxic materials still lying in the factory premises, or to detoxify the area. However, “the doyen of Indian industries”, Ratan Tata offered to clean the premises by setting up an Indian consortium, although that proposal too hasn’t fructified.
If we leave out the small amounts of cash support, primary healthcare, and some interim relief, the quantum of compensation provided by the Indian government to the disabled as “final settlement” was Rs.25,000 ($ 830). The heirs of the deceased got Rs.62,000 ($ 2,058) each. Till 2007, ten lakh (1 million) compensation applications were submitted. Half of them were rejected because the applicants couldn’t prove “beyond reasonable doubt” that they were indeed victims of the gas leak. Calculations show that even out of the pittance received by the Indian government from UCC, Rs. 100 crore (1 billion) still remains in their coffers.
Miscarriage of justice
After consideration for twenty-five years, a trial court at Bhopal sentenced the Indian Chairman of the UCIL and six of his senior Indian colleagues to two years of rigorous imprisonment and a fine of Rs.1,00,000 each. They were promptly released on bail, paving the way for possibly twenty-five years of further consideration by higher courts. One cannot blame the trial court for this bizarre verdict. In 1996, the Supreme Court of India changed the Section under which the case had originally been filed, and instructed the investigating agency (CBI) to file a charge for “causing death due to negligence” against these officials and Anderson. The trial court has awarded the maximum penalty stipulated for the offence. Let’s recall that within the country, for deaths caused by a fire in a cinema at New Delhi and later in Stephen Court at Kolkata – although the magnitudes of these tragedies were smaller – the state governments have filed cases against the owners for murder, and the Supreme Court has not objected to this
The trial court’s verdict suddenly stirred up things in India. Many people began saying that the injustice that had been happening for twenty-five years was indeed injustice. As a result, the ruling party, the Supreme Court, and the CBI started talking about new steps to douse public anger. The central ministry, after setting up a core group of ministers, started spinning yarns about a Rs.1,000 crore (10 billion) compensation. Who will get it and how are “under consideration”. The Indian foreign minister tried to meet with Dow Chemical officials but failed. The company couldn’t spare the time because of their prior commitments.
In response to demands made on Dow to accept their liability, the company stated that although they were prepared to foot the bill for the acts of UCC, they were not obliged to do so for UCIL since that company had been purchased by Eveready. Significantly, although Dow hasn’t agreed to compensate Bhopal victims, they have compensated the victims in a case that had been filed against the UCC in the US for asbestos poisoning, in which 75,000 people were affected. They have already paid $ 687 million, and have undertaken to pay $ 839 million more. That means human life in the third world is less valuable. The arrogant transnational company, the government of India and the Indian judiciary have joined hands to stifle the cry for justice by the third world’s riff-raff. After this, everyone will recall the famous statement by George Orwell, All are equal before the law, but some are more equal than others.
What can the victims hope for and what lessons have our rulers learnt from Bhopal? Please decide after considering two facts: (A) In a week’s time, the lower court’s verdict will have been six months old. What the group of ministers set up with so much fanfare has done for the victims during the period is a closely guarded secret. (B) In Nandigram, West Bengal, there was murder and mayhem in 2007 when the ruling party desperately tried to set up a chemical hub in collaboration with the same Dow Chemicals and its even more notorious sidekick, Salems of Indonesia. Although Nandigram has been thwarted, the plan to set up a chemical hub on the geologically unstable Nayachar (literally, The New Sandbank) at the mouth of the Haldi River has gone far ahead through the joint efforts of Bengal and central governments, ignoring opinions of geologists and environmental scientists. One such opinion is: This chemical hub “is in essence a declaration of war against coastal resources and livelihood, spelling disaster for marine life, food, and nutrition security.”
[This is a slightly abridged translation of a Bengali article by my friend Soumya Sankar Mitra. I decided to translate this piece and share it with the readers of my blog primarily because I felt it was necessary that we knew the details. Secondly, I think my friend has told the sad story of Bhopal with rare clarity and comprehensiveness. Soumya teaches physics at a Kolkata college.]