Remembering the Bhopal gas victims
Bhopal does not have a formal memorial to remember its gas victims. This mural and the statue next to it serve as the only reminders of the tragedy that the city continues to grapple with, three decades on. Amit Deshmukh

Harish Singh Yadav vividly remembers that chilly December night in Bhopal, 30 years ago. Events of that night changed his life forever, the 58-year-old said.

“We were sleeping, when suddenly my daughter woke us up. She said her eyes were burning,” said Yadav, a father of two. “Soon, all of us in the family had the same sensation, as if someone was burning chilies. We all began coughing. Then, when I opened the window, I saw people running for their lives.”

On Dec. 3, 1984, almost 40 tons of deadly methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas, leaked from a Union Carbide India Ltd. insecticide-manufacturing plant situated in the middle of Bhopal, a city in central India, and the capital of Madhya Pradesh state. The plant manufactured Carbaryl, an insecticide that was sold under the trade name “Sevin.”

Within four hours that night, over half a million people would be exposed to the leak, and several thousand would not see sunrise. While, officially, the government put the immediate death toll at just under 4,000 people, unofficial estimates vary from anywhere between 8,000 to 10,000 to much higher numbers. No one knows for sure how many perished that night and in the following month and years. Scores were never identified or accounted for. It was, in any case, the deadliest industrial accident in history.

Yadav said that he, like hundreds of others in the city, has had to live with the aftereffects of the leak, which left him with chronic breathing problems and reduced vision.

“I have had to spend almost a million rupees of my own on treatment, and that is what has kept me alive,” he said. That sum translates to $16,000, an enormous expenditure in India -- more than 10 times the nation’s gross domestic product per capita.

“Whoever escaped the gas alive that day is now like a living dead body,” said Yadav, who, in an ironic twist, now guards the decaying and eerily silent plant, spread over 60 acres.

The facility was shut down following the leak, never to be revived.

Thirty years on, the average Indian, indeed the average city resident who was not around at the time of the disaster and was fortunate enough to be not touched by it, has moved on, with precious little learned in terms of disaster management.

The accident itself has not led to any significant improvements in occupational safety standards in the country. Several experts who spoke with International Business Times said that while the Indian government set up various committees to assess the damage and recommend safeguards, the efforts amounted to little real change. Accidents are commonplace in the country’s mines and factories. And across Indian industry, which is flooded with cheap immigrant labor from the country’s villages, workplace hazards and workers’ rights continue to remain unaddressed. The problem is compounded by a lax regulatory environment and endemic corruption, which analysts said stack the odds against people like those suffering from the Bhopal disaster.

‘Negligence Led To The Disaster’

The Bhopal gas tragedy, as it came to be known, was a result of negligence followed by an attempted cover-up, say locals.

T. R. Chouhan, an engineer and a plant operator at the time who has written a book on the subject, said that the events leading up to the tragedy began almost as soon as Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), now a wholly owned subsidiary of the Michigan-based Dow Chemical Company, decided to set up the unit about 12 years earlier. A faulty industrial design was primarily to blame, he said, adding that rising maintenance costs and mounting losses led the company to cut back on safety measures that could have averted the leak.

“The actual cause of the accident was … an unproven design,” he said. “Secondly, they built this plant at a very low cost, so they used double standards in the construction material.”

The plant’s setting in Bhopal, close to habitation, had been opposed by Shakir Ali Khan, a Madhya Pradesh legislator, in the early 1970s, according to Abdul Jabbar Khan, a prominent activist who runs the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan, a nonprofit that helps affected women. “He raised an alarm, but no one listened to him since he was a communist and was seen as opposing an American multinational company setting up shop in India,” Khan said.

Chouhan said the safety equipment could only control smaller leaks and could not neutralize a leak of the magnitude that occurred that night. He claims that initially the operating and maintenance staff was trained well, but over time there was a deterioration in the quality and numbers of such staff.

When the leak occurred, the warning siren could only be heard inside the factory and not by the community, he said. “So, they got to know about the leak when the gas itself hit them. Moreover, the hospitals were not informed [about the chemicals], so there was no line of treatment or antidote,” Chouhan claims.

Swaraj Puri, then the chief of police in Bhopal, said that he had never before heard of methyl isocyanate until a police forensics expert informed him of its deadly nature.

“MIC gas was never known to people in Bhopal before it was leaked. There was no antidote developed and even doctors could not read the patient’s condition,” said S. A. Pillai, director of the Bhopal-based Institute of Industrial Management for Safety, Health and Environment.

However, this claim is refuted by N.P. Mishra, a Bhopal-based doctor who was then the dean of the Hamidia Hospital, the city’s largest, and head of the team of doctors that responded to the medical emergency that night.

“One hundred percent, we had an idea,” he said, when asked if doctors knew of the leak’s nature. “Antidote for every poison is not available. But we knew how to treat patients of inhalation of toxic gases. The treatment is the same for every gas, not much different,” Mishra said. He said that most of the deaths that occurred that night were a result of pulmonary edema: “People drowned in their own secretions.”

The massive leak that night was not the first fatal accident at the plant. In 1982, at least one plant worker had died after being exposed to phosgene gas, an intermediate chemical used in making Sevin.

Kumkum Saxena Modwel, who was then a doctor working at the plant, remembers taking the worker to the hospital where he later died. “There were lots of chemical exposures,” she said. “We were very worried that with holding all these toxic chemicals, a big disaster can happen,” she said.

Following this incident, Chauhan claims, several employees, including him, had expressed concerns with senior government officials, but nothing came of it. He said that after the 1982 accident, UCC made a safety survey and highlighted several problems in their report. A similar survey, he said, was done in September 1984 in West Virginia in the U.S. “That too threw up several severe problems, including contamination of the MIC storage tank. Both the reports were marked confidential. Those reports were not provided to those who were working in the plant,” he said.

A scientific panel appointed by the Indian government reportedly concluded that the tank that leaked had become vulnerable more than a month before the disaster.

A UCC spokesperson, in response to a query, emailed the following statement:

“During the past 30 years, much has been written and broadcast about the tragedy and it continues to evoke strong emotions even three decades later. While Union Carbide continues to have the utmost respect and sympathy for the victims, we find that many of the issues being discussed today have already been resolved and responsibilities assigned for those that still remain.”

An inquiry by the company claimed that the accident was the result of sabotage.

“The evidence showed that an employee at the Bhopal plant had deliberately introduced water into a methyl isocyanate storage tank. The result was the cloud of poisonous gas,” the company’s report claims. “Also in 1988, an independent study of the incident by the prestigious international engineering consulting firm of Arthur D. Little supported the analysis by the Union Carbide team,” the report further said.

Investigation And Conviction

Soon after the gas leak, the criminal probe was taken over by India’s federal investigating agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which was mired in controversy as well.

In 2010, after a lengthy trial, an Indian court convicted eight people accused in the tragedy, including industrialist Keshub Mahindra. Mahindra, who was the nonexecutive chairman of Union Carbide India, and seven others were handed two-year sentences, but soon released on bail. Mahindra’s office said that he would not comment on the matter.

B.R. Lall, the agency’s officer in charge of the probe between 1994 and 1995, said that he had been told to “go soft” on Union Carbide chief Warren Anderson. "Communication received from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs asking us not to pursue extradition ... he (Anderson) was the main culprit as far as we were concerned, " NDTV, a local news network, quoted Lall as saying.

Four days after the tragedy, Anderson arrived in Bhopal, and was arrested by Puri, the city police chief. The arrest was made on the orders of the former Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh Arjun Singh. Within hours, Anderson was released and left the country, never to return. Puri, who has reportedly been accused of helping Anderson flee, declined to comment on the incident, as it is still a matter of investigation by an inquiry commission.

“But I will say this, I wish Anderson or someone from his family was in Bhopal on the night the gas leaked. They would have realized how people suffered,” Puri said.

On Sept. 29, Anderson died, never having faced trial in India.

‘No Lessons Learned’

Pillai, the industrial safety expert, said that few lessons on the subject appear to have been learned in India in the last three decades.

“There are four issues in learning - one is the infrastructure of the government, second is rules and regulations, third is enforcing of the rules and regulations, fourth is the total awareness of the subject,” he said. “If these four issues are taken care of, this type of disaster will not be repeated. Are we on that track or not? If you ask me, I will say no.”

According to Puri, contingency plans were put in place by the police following the disaster. “Now, we have fixed protocols, we have the involvement of the community in community-based disaster management, we have a state disaster management authority, people are getting trained and oriented,” he said. But, he concedes, it would still be hard for India to cope with a disaster of the magnitude of the one in Bhopal.

“The realization that it can happen is missing. We think it is going to happen to somebody else.”

In 2005, India established the National Disaster Management Authority to respond to such events, but its effectiveness has been far from satisfactory. And, in the recent past, the agency has been made largely redundant.

“Wherever there has been a disaster, the army has had to be called in. So, probably (the) army is the only organization which is ready to combat disaster,” said Manoj Pandey, who heads the Bhopal Memorial Hospital & Research Centre (BMHRC), set up in 2001 to serve gas victims using the sale proceeds of UCC’s stake in its Indian operation. “We do require rapid response teams. Not just industrial disasters, there could be man-made disasters, biological and chemical warfare could be there. So, definitely, we require rapid response teams.”

According to Pillai, one of the major impediments is that the industrial safety law, which was enacted when India was still under British government, is not stringent enough.

“People thought of amending it after the Bhopal disaster, why not before?” he asks, adding that industries in India simply do not follow safety protocols unless their customers compel them to. And, even then, they might only adhere to regulations until an official inspection, he said.

Pillai said that while India may not have learned much from its own disaster, other countries have. “All developed countries, including the U.S. have learned from Bhopal. I visited the U.K. and Japan and I have seen that they are very afraid of the Union Carbide disaster,” he said.

The issue of liability is yet another point of contention in India, according to Pillai.

“Both the process and the product should be covered under the liability clause,” he said. “But unfortunately, what happens in our country is that the management bargains, the insurance compromises, and ultimately liability is compromised. This should be stopped.”

Long-Term Health Effects

The incriminations, investigations and convictions mean little to Madan Lal, a 70-year-old unemployed resident of J. P. Nagar, a poor residential area just across from the boundary wall of the UCC plant.

“I was a balloon seller. Since I got exposed to the gas, I cannot breathe properly. I lost my only means of livelihood that night,” said Lal, who claims he lives on the generosity of his neighbors.

Lal’s story is by no means unique. Almost all gas victims complain of chronic ailments, including lung, eye and renal problems. A vast majority of those who were exposed to the toxic gas that night continue to suffer long-term side effects. Apart from the nearly 600,000 people directly affected by the disaster, BMHRC also caters to another million dependents, providing them free medical care, according to Pandey.

Privately, however, hospital staff say the facility is understaffed as doctors are leaving for greener pastures. Mishra, who treated disaster victims at Hamidia, said that eight of the 13 departments in the hospital are without doctors and blames the previous Congress Party-led government for the decay.

“I had told them, hire good doctors on contract and pay them good money, but no one listened.”

Several victims who have taken to activism claim that the effects of exposure to the toxic gas have been passed on to later generations. Some of them run a nonprofit, Chingari Trust, that provides special education and medical help to more than 700 children who suffer from mental health issues, which they say is directly linked to the gas leak. However, Pandey said there is no data to support this theory.

“Honestly, we don’t know, because there is no empirical evidence as of today to suggest that some of the changes might have passed on,” said Pandey. “So, I’ll say there is an absence of evidence but there is no evidence of absence,” he adds.

Mishra refutes activists’ claims that there are any seriously ill survivors alive today.

“One who can live for 30 years, can he be serious? All those who were seriously ill have since died,” Mishra said. “One-time exposure can cause damage only once. That damage has limited their breathing capacity. One-time exposure will not produce repeat diseases,” he said.

‘Inadequate Compensation’

In 1989, the Indian Supreme Court approved a compensation of $470 million from UCC, which translated to 25,000 rupees ($400) for each survivor, while the family of each person who died received 62,000 rupees. In 2010, the Indian government approved an enhanced relief package for seriously affected victims.

In 2001, UCC was acquired by Dow Chemical. On Nov. 19, IBTimes UK reported that Dow’s shareholders were to “table two resolutions calling for the company's management to accept responsibility” for the Bhopal disaster and to “fully compensate victims and to pay for a full-scale clean-up of the still-contaminated area.”

“The second resolution will call for Dow Chemicals to acknowledge that, rather than becoming a shareholder in UCC (which Dow's management claims), the companies became a single entity, thus combining assets and liabilities,” the report added.

Meanwhile, the activists refuse to relent. “Our main fight is not for money,” said Abdul Jabbar Khan.

“We want that those who suffered should get proper medical aid and the following generations should be looked after well,” he said. “I cannot bear to see people in pain … I feel like being in a long, dark tunnel. I just want to see some light at the end of it,” Khan said, almost in tears.