Bhopal: 25 Years Later

Posted by: Mehul Srivastava on December 3, 2009

25 years ago today, some 4000 people were killed in the worst industrial accident in history, when a Union Carbide plant in central India leaked out a poisonous gas called Methyl Isocyanate.

Protestors all across India, and especially in Bhopal, gathered today to lament the fact that that was just the beginning of the nightmare. Another 15,000 people have died since then – maybe 30,000, if you consider some estimates – and close to half a million people have had some sort of health defect caused by the leak that December night.

But even though Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in a statement Dec. 2 that “the enormity of that tragedy of neglect still gnaws at our collective conscience,” it’s still unclear what exactly is going to be done for the survivors.

More egregious, though, for the protestors, is the fact that Union Carbide officials were never brought to trial over the leak. The company, which was later sold to Dow Chemicals, paid a $470 million settlement in 1989, and its then CEO, Warren Anderson, who faces an international arrest warrant, never gave himself up to the authorities in India. Anderson now lives in the Hamptons, but has consistently denied allegations that lax safety standards led to the leak that night. Instead, Union Carbide has blamed a disgruntled employee. Dow Chemicals, meanwhile, has said that since it bought Union Carbide 16 years after the incident, never operated or owned the original chemical plant, and since no court has ever held it responsible for the clean-up costs, the Indian government should drop a claim for decontaminating the area, as should protestors. Dow’s position is that the Union Carbide payment in 1989 settled all claims.

In the years since, the trickle down of that settlement has been a meager $500 or so for injured survivors, and as little as $2000 for the next of kin, according to two different studies.

What if the situation were reversed? Suketu Mehta, an India-born author now living in the U.S., points out in an op-ed in the New York Times, how unlikely it is that an Indian CEO whose company was involved in the deaths of thousands of Americans would be able to avoid all responsibility.

Perhaps the worst part is that these survivors and the next of kin are caught in this nexus between politics and foreign investment. The site could have been cleaned up, but hasn’t been. The government could have vigorously pursued Union Carbide, but didn’t. People could have been moved out of the contaminated areas, but haven’t either. Instead, a quarter of a century after the tragedy, they still join protests chanting for some variation of justice - an apology, a criminal trial or even some financial compensation for the hardships they have endured.

Reader Comments

sam

December 3, 2009 11:07 AM

This is classic American Capitalism!

The big MNC can do any crime in the developing world and get away with it w/o even taking care of the problem they created!

T

December 3, 2009 1:46 PM

I was 8 and lived in Bhopal when the tragedy happened. I was physically unaffected as I lived on the eastern outskirts of the city. Going after Union Carbide (UC) was always a losing proposition when one takes into account political climate of the day. AT the time, India had greater political and military links with USSR. Although India was a declared non aligned country, Soviet propaganda was openly shoved down our throats in school. It made for excellent fuel to burn on winter mornings while waiting for school bus to arrive at 6AM.
Next, there is no accountability of what happened to the nearly half a billion dollars paid out by UC. I am not reprieving UC of responsibility, nor the government. UC paid the money, fine, but what has the government done with it? Why hasn't the government used the money to clean the area and maybe wall it off or fence it? Because it is a lot easier and cheaper to let people protest (in vain) than it is to fix the area.

Nancy Swan

December 3, 2009 3:28 PM

Why should the people of the United States spend time pondering a 25 year old tragedy in India, a third world country half way around the world?

Nine months after the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, I was exposed to and injured by the same chemical while teaching in a U. S. school. Over two dozen children and teachers were injured as well. During my litigation I learned that schools across the U. S. reported the same injuries. For more information see https://sites.google.com/site/nancyswan/toxic-justice-a-true-story

The United States is sitting on a ticking chemical bomb twice a big as the Bhopal tragedy. This time it is a German owned company on United States soil, threatening the life, health, economy, land, resources, and environment of U. S. people.

Where is the public outrage? Why have our government leaders failed to protect the people in the United States from threats of chemical disasters? The answers may surprise you.

https://sites.google.com/site/nancyswan/about-nancy-swan/december3isthe25thanniversaryoftheworstindustrialdisasterinhistorywilltheusbenext#

Jeff

December 3, 2009 7:19 PM

Was the disaster really that bad? Didn't the Indians, as they do now, have that magical democracy shield to protect them against physical harm, hunger, pollution, malnutrition, and other assorted miseries common in India?

TOMW

December 3, 2009 8:33 PM

Suketu Mehta, and India born author now living in the U.S. asks how unlikely would it have been that an Indian CEO whose company was involved in the deaths of thousands of Americans would be able to avoid all responsibility?
Not unlikely at all.
In my mind, he would have been held totally unaccountable whatsoever.
He would have had every Indian advocacy group and the ACLU providing financing, lawyers and miscellaneous support at every step of the way.
As for the people of Bhopal, welcome to the wonderful world of mass litigation, or class action.

Singh

December 3, 2009 9:32 PM

Why don't the Indian survivors bring a class action suit against Dow Chemical in the US court? The Indian government should finance an international PR campaign to shame the Americans into paying more compensation.

C. H. Ng

December 3, 2009 10:20 PM

The Bhopal incident was indeed a sad tragedy but which I think Union Carbide was not solely responsibled for the leakage based on the fact that "MOST" (please based in mind I purposely emphasized the word in capital letters)multi-national companies usually operate very strictly where safety is concerned, unlike our Asian operated companies.

We all do not really know the true cause behind the accident, except maybe a few who are not revealing anything.
Nevertheless UC had paid the penalty (of nearly half a billion USD which was not a small sum 25 years ago) and what really happened to the money the Indian government should know better.

But having said that about the "huge" sum of money which UC paid, it will be considered a measly compensation IF the incident will to happen in a western country & her victims are to be the white people. That shows that no matter what & no matter how western culture always emphasizing on human rights & equality thing, when it really comes to reality, the colour of our skin really matters.

Maybe the whites can always argue about their standard of livings & we cannot compared it that way & that life in poor developing & undeveloped countries is cheap... BUT ask yourself, are our lives are really that CHEAP?

India should act like a superpower

December 4, 2009 12:59 AM

Previous Indian government has been too weak, allowing foreigners to exploit India with impunity. India should act like a superpower and stand up to American multinationals.

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