Bhopal 25 Years Later: The Continuing Tragedy

(25 years have passed since the worst industrial disaster in history, on 3 December, 1989 in Bhopal. Little has changed since then, and many more Bhopals are waiting to happen. The All India Peoples Science Network and the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, in association with the Bhopal Gas Peedit Sangharsh Sahyog Samiti, initiated a nationwide campaign that culminated in a national seminar in Bhopal on 1-2 December, designed to draw lessons related to location of hazardous industries, the predatory practices of MNCs and the necessity of addressing the needs of the gas affected victims in Bhopal. The seminar was addressed, among others, by S P Shukla, Dipankar Mukherjee, Afaq Ahmad, Amit Sengupta, Sadhana Karnik, Prabir Purkayastha, Sunit Chopra, Badal Saroj, Pramod Pradhan, D Raghunandan, Vikas Rawal, Asha Mishra, Vinod Raina, Ardhendu Dakshi, B Guha Thakurta, A T Padmanabhan, Biplab Ghosh,  Debanjan Chakrabarty, Abdul Jabbar, Rajesh Joshi, N Venugopal, Ajay Khare and N D Jaiprakash. We reproduce below a background and description of the Bhopal Gas Disaster, discussions on which were reflected in the national seminar.)

ON the night of 2-3 December 1984, a lethal cloud of gas (later found to be largely composed of the extremely toxic gas called Methyl IsoCyanate: MIC) escaped from the pesticide plant of Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) in Bhopal and enveloped the surrounding densely populated localities where the poorer sections of people reside. As a result, more than 500,000 people suffered varying degrees of injuries, of which over the years an estimated 20,000 victims have died in the last 25 years. Subsequent investigations by governmental and non-governmental agencies clearly established that it was criminal negligence of Union Carbide management that resulted in the release of the poisonous gases. This US multinational (which has since been taken over by Dow Chemical Company, another MNC behemoth) had knowingly flouted all safety norms to cut costs at its Bhopal plant while maintaining much better safety standards at its main pesticide plant in the US, thus revealing its complete disregard for the lives of Indians.

Unjust & Arbitrary Settlement

The tale of this shocking mass killing does not end here. Redress and compensation was sought from UCC through legal means, which it evaded and blocked for years until matters were taken up in the Supreme Court of India. Even as investigations to assess the true extent of damage to lives and environment were dragging on, the Supreme Court, much to the satisfaction of UCC, brokered a settlement between the government of India and UCC in 1989. Under the terms of the settlement, UCC promised to pay 470 million US Dollars (about Rs 705 crores at the then rate of exchange) as compensation, while the government of India agreed to withdraw the criminal cases instituted against the company and its officials for causing the disaster. Compensation was to be paid for arbitrarily estimated 3000 fatalities and over one lakh injured.

The amounts of compensation fixed by the Supreme Court for various categories (Rs 1-3 lakhs for deaths, Rs 0.5 – 2 lakhs for permanent disability, Rs 50,000 for grievious injuries) were a pittance. Compare this, for instance, to the Uphaar fire tragedy in Delhi where 59 persons were killed due to asphyxiation after a fire in a cinema hall in 1997.The Delhi High Court awarded Rs 15 lakhs and Rs 18 lakhs each to next of kin of respectively minor and major victims, along with 9 per cent interest starting from the day of the tragedy.

The sum of 470 million dollars was very close to the 450 million insurance that Carbide carried, meaning that Carbide had to pay only 20 million beyond what the insurance companies paid out, making it one of the cheapest damages settlement ever for any major chemical accident. Evidence suggests that the hasty settlement was also designed to pre-empt the criminal prosecution of Union Carbide officials and the further progress of investigation by the CBI into the real causes of the corporate crime.

Continuing Misery

Over 25 years have passed since this arbitrary and unjust settlement was imposed on the victims. Thousands of victims still continue to suffer from serious ailments and disabilities directly attributable to the gases; on an average about 6000 victims continue to visit medical facilities every day. A whole generation of people debilitated by the toxic gases struggled through these years bringing up children who suffered from its harmful effects, fighting declining physical capacities to earn their living, and awaiting justice. In the latter half of the 1990s, persistent investigations revealed that UCIL had been poisoning the surrounding areas by freely dumping toxic waste produced in the routine operation of the pesticide plant since 1969. Ground water contamination and other continuing environmental damages are yet to be properly assessed.

Not only have the victims of the Corporate crime been denied due material compensation, they have also been denied proper medical care, rehabilitation and other forms of support. No treatment guidelines were formulated and treatment facilities continue to be far too inadequate. The ICMR wound up its studies on the long term health effects of the poisonous gas barely ten years after the disaster.

Successive governments (at the state or central levels) have exhibited callous disregard to the conditions in Bhopal while dealing with the real extent of the disaster that struck Bhopal. On the other hand they have bent over backwards to accommodate and appease the killer company in diverse ways. Prosecution of the companies and its top officials was relaunched in 1993 after being quashed under the settlement. Criminal charges against the accused have been reduced from culpable homicide not amounting to murder to causing death by rash and negligent act. It was only in 2004 that the government of India finally requested extradition of Warren Anderson, chairman of UCC in 1984, after he failed to appear in court for twentyfive years. UCC, a proclaimed offender in India, set up a Trust in London and was allowed to take away Rs 11.7 crores for ‘administrative expenses’, including daily personal charges of the chairman which were more than the compensation for death in 1984. The erstwhile NDA government even listed Keshub Mahindra, one of the accused, for being awarded the Padma Bhushan – fortunately the ensuing public outrage prevented this. The Bhopal settlement and later legal shenanigans clearly reveal the collusion of successive governments with multinational corporate interests.

Predatory Drive For Profits

Although twentyfive years have gone by, the Bhopal Gas Disaster is still a live issue not only for the thousands of residents of Bhopal but also for all those concerned about these issues. The transfer of obsolete, faulty and hazardous technology and gross violation of safety standards by UCC and its subsequent attempts to evade responsibility clearly show the contempt in which such MNCs hold the people, especially of third world countries like India. In the current era of imperialist globalisation, this predatory drive for profits at any cost by international capital needs to be highlighted. It is the same drive that makes poor people work for a pittance in countries round the world, so that super-profits can be expropriated by corporate behemoths. It is the same drive that intervenes economically, diplomatically and even militarily in country after country to expand and perpetuate harsh and unjust exploitation. And ultimately, it is the same drive that caused Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, unleashed Agent Orange on the Vietnamese people, and has caused unimaginable hardship and misery for the people of Iraq and elsewhere.

The compromises and vacillation of the government of India, the state government and various arms of the State machinery, in connection with the Bhopal disaster, reveals their disregard towards the well-being and lives of people, and connivance with international capital in all its manifestations and actions. This tendency has grown considerably in the past twentyfive years, and in the current ethos of FDI worship, it has acquired almost an institutional status.

The lessons of Bhopal are being disregarded once again in the case of new nuclear plants. The government is contemplating capping of liability, in the case of accidents, for all nuclear plant operators and suppliers. Clearly, this is in response to demands by US based suppliers and the US government that they should be freed of any liability (or have only token liability) in the case of an accident in the nuclear plant. Interestingly, this has not been demanded by either the Russian or the French suppliers. If an accident in a nuclear plant happens, it could be of an even larger magnitude than the Bhopal disaster. Yet, there is no attempt to ensure that the safety of the plant and the quality of the supplies is ensured. The amount of liability is sought to be capped at $450 million, i.e. very close to the figure for the Bhopal disaster. The attempt is to make the compensation package in Bhopal the “model” for liability in all nuclear plants.

Bhopal also brought forth the important issues relating to location of industries, especially hazardous ones, the need for a strict mechanism for environmental impact assessment and disclosure of technological details, strengthening laws and regulations relating to use of hazardous material and liabilities arising thereof. Special attention needs to be paid towards evolving a regulatory framework for MNCs and their activities on Indian soil.

The people of Bhopal have fought for two and a half decades for justice and managed to get only paltry concessions. However, several life and death issues still remain unaddressed even as they continue to struggle through legal and other avenues. Their struggle has been consistently supported by democratic forces all over the country (as also internationally). But this struggle of solidarity needs to be vastly strengthened in order to, both, ensure that justice is done for Bhopal as well as to raise the level of vigilance against ideologies and economic systems that caused Bhopal twentyfive years ago and continue to flourish even today.

Securing Justice For Bhopal

So, what can be done now for securing justice to the people of Bhopal, and ensuring that such a disaster does not strike elsewhere? Some of the crucial demands are:

For the People of Bhopal

Develop a comprehensive strategy for assuring suitable employment to families of victims, including training, credit for working capital etc.

Medical care: A broad framework of treatment for gas effects and toxic contamination should be evolved and prescribed, under a unified delivery system. All research findings including ICMR studies should be made public. ICMR should forthwith restart all medical research pertaining to effects of the toxic gases on life systems.

Clean up: Government of India should take over the task of cleaning up the former UCIL plant site in a transparent manner, involving suitable experts and specialists.

Public Distribution System: Special ration cards should be issued for victims and all essential commodities should be made available at controlled prices through suitably located fair price shops in Bhopal.

Fast-track special court for criminal cases: A dedicated special court should be set up for speedy trial of the criminal cases in order that the guilty are brought to justice forthwith. The extradition of Anderson and other accused from the US should be vigorously pursued and diplomatic pressure exercised on the US through bilateral and multilateral fora for forcing the US to comply to the demand.

Right to Information: All previous and on-going research/investigative reports should be made public and a transparent system be established for future.

Settlement & Compensation:
The central government must  reopen the Bhopal Settlement and undertake the necessary legal measures towards that end. It should demand additional compensation from UCC/Dow for disbursement among victims after re-categorisation, inclusion of second generation victims and fresh fixation of amounts.

To protect the Rights of People in General

Location of hazardous industries should be subject to a principled policy, applicable all over the country, with which local zoning laws need to be in consonance. Such policy should prohibit location of categorised industries in inhabited areas, lay down mandatory measures for safety as also containment, and place the onus on the industry. Monitoring mechanism, through tripartite statutory bodies, measures for workers safety, compensation etc. should also be included in this. Well-defined penalty provisions and the principle of “polluter pays” should be clearly and legally established. Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), with complete transparency and participation of local people in hearings, needs to be made mandatory in such cases.

All technology transfer cases from foreign countries should be subject to stringent screening by expert committees, with workers representatives. Complete disclosure of technical details including raw materials, processes, potential hazards, methods of prevention and containment should be mandatory.

Laws relating to industrial safety and occupational health should be strengthened in the light of Bhopal and general development of industrial technologies. These include labour laws as well as environmental statutes.