I remember the afternoon of 3 December 1984. Year-end examinations were going on at school, and I’d finished taking the morning paper and was waiting for the afternoon exam to begin. I can even remember where I was; our school’s old art class, built in the old British style and hung with abstract oil paintings in dark colours, which has long since been demolished to make way for a swank concrete eyesore where paper “craft” cutouts hang from the ceiling.
So this is what happened. As we were all waiting for the exam to begin, we began to hear a rumour that some kind of gas had escaped from a factory in Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh state in the centre of the country, and that many people had been killed. That was a year when many things had happened, was 1984; the first, and to date only, Indian citizen in space, Rakesh Sharma, went up on a Soviet Soyuz rocket; the Golden Temple, headquarters of the Sikh religion in Amritsar, had been “liberated” from Sikh “terrorists” demanding an independent state of Khalistan, and then, a few months later, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was murdered by two of her Sikh bodyguards in retaliation, followed by a frenzied government-sponsored anti-Sikh pogrom across India. It was a year in which so many things happened that one’s brain tended to get numbed from all the input.
Over the next few days, the newspapers and magazines and what passed for TV (only the one channel, which showed only what the government allowed it to show) overflowed with photographs of corpses; corpses lying on the streets, corpses laid out in rows on hospital lawns, corpses being buried (one famous photo was of a child’s face, sightless eyes open), corpses, corpses, everywhere.
The actual story came out in bits and pieces. A toxic gas had escaped from a factory in Bhopal (1), owned by a subsidiary of the American company Union Carbide, and had killed an unknown number of people (at the time, it seemed that Bhopal must have been depopulated, such were the reports). We were all familiar with Union Carbide, since its logo appeared on the batteries we bought for our torches and transistor radios and electric clocks. Eveready, the commonest brand, was then a Union Carbide product (2). We all wondered what kind of poison in our batteries did this, because we didn’t know what a multi-tentacled creature Union Carbide actually was. How could batteries kill a city?
Later, when things had settled down a little, the “official figures” (I might as well say here that official figures in India are quite properly believed by nobody since they have nothing to do with reality, especially when death tolls are concerned) spoke of some two thousand five hundred deaths, which were later expanded to four thousand. By then, though, independent sources were already talking of upwards of fifteen thousand dead, and uncounted more (today, there are five hundred thousand registered survivors of the gas leak, and the number of deaths is over twenty thousand) affected, in many cases for life.
What was the “toxic gas” responsible for this?
Back then, hardly anyone had heard of methyl isocyanate, MIC as it came to be known to one and all. MIC was a chemical used in the manufacture of pesticides sold under the brand names Sevin and Temic, which were also (surprise!) manufactured by Union Carbide. Union Carbide had initially imported the MIC from factories in the US, but had begun manufacturing it, right there on the spot, instead, and stored it in giant underground concrete tanks.
Now MIC isn’t exactly the safest of chemicals. It’s prone to corrode containers, and in contact with air it breaks down to a mixture of gases including carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide. It is also extremely volatile and in bulk it has to be stored at a temperature below 15 degrees Celsius and preferably at zero degrees, and at above atmospheric pressure. In fact, (vide Union Carbide’s own brochure, Methyl Isocyanate, July 1976) it is not recommended to be stored in bulk; the normal practice is to store it in sealed steel drums, and not to manufacture it in larger quantities than needed (3). For the amount of pesticides actually produced by the plant at Bhopal, the amount of gas needed was between three and four tons. Yet, as attested by former employees at the plant, from June 1984, upwards of ninety tons was being stored in the tanks, and of those, no less than forty two tons were in Tank No 610. And to top it all, the tank’s contents were under atmospheric pressure and at atmospheric temperature, the refrigeration facilities having been shut off as part of a cost cutting exercise.(4)
Why was so much of this highly toxic gas manufactured and stored in these underground tanks, so much in excess of requirements? An obvious answer is that since it was a highly toxic gas, manufacture had been removed from the home territory of the US and shifted to an expendable “Third World” nation where lives were cheap. And though there were safer alternatives, they were more expensive, and therefore would cut into profits.
To get back to the point: there was this highly toxic gas stored in a tank without refrigeration and without the high pressurization that would stop contaminants from entering from outside. There were also few or no safety mechanisms installed and most of those were not working properly. No evacuation plans existed, and the local administration had not been informed as to the contents of the tanks and what the toxic effects might be in case of a leak.
Sounds like a mess? I’m just getting started.
It wasn’t as though there hadn’t been prior leaks from the plant; employees had died previously and the leak had actually been predicted fairly accurately by a local journalist, but nobody had been interested. Now, on the night of 2 December, all the things that went wrong were about to come together.
First of all, what happened was the entry of some 500 litres of water from an installation called the Vent Gas Scrubber (meant to neutralize leaking gas) into Tank No 610. This caused an immediate exothermic reaction with tremendous increase in heat, to over 200 degrees Celsius. This increase in temperature went unnoticed because the temperature recording devices were out of order and had not been repaired. (4)
What happened after that can be told. The entire tank burst out of its underground confines and began leaking gas in tremendous quantities, starting at approximately five minutes past midnight and continuing for about 45 minutes. The gas could not be burned off because the systems to do so were (quite predictably) inoperative. Wind carried the gas over the entire locality, which was crammed with slum clusters filled with poor people.
It’s not easy to remain unemotional about what happened next. Starting awake (remember it was past midnight) with burning eyes and lungs, their breath turning to fire in their throats, people stumbled in the darkness trying to flee the enemy they couldn’t see, as liable to run towards a concentration of gas as away from it. Thousands collapsed and died on the streets and in the Bhopal railway station, one of the sites affected (among the dead was the elder son of an engineer killed in a leak three years earlier). The drifting gas was blown over much of the city before finally dispersing; and in its wake it left dead and hurting, everywhere. It’s been estimated that three-fourths of the then 800,000 people living in the city were affected to some degree. (5)
One of the many problems rescuers faced was that they had no idea at the time what the gas was, or what it was capable of. Doctors weren’t told what antidotes could be administered, so treatment was basically symptomatic and – with the hospitals swamped – often inadequate.
Four days after the incident, on 7 December, Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson flew into Bhopal along with other executives, and was arrested for culpable homicide not amounting to murder. His arrest lasted all of six hours, after which he was hurriedly granted “bail” on the orders of “someone in a high position” (more anon on this) and was flown out by special plane from Bhopal airport to New Delhi. According to the pilots, senior Madhya Pradesh police officers saluted Anderson at the airport and even offered to carry his luggage (6). He flew back to the US the same day…and, officially, has been “untraceable’ ever since.
Meanwhile, as time passed, more and more people continued to succumb to the effects of the gas (5) around the now closed and sealed factory. Chemicals continued to leach into the ground and contaminate water supplies (and continue to contaminate water supplies to this day). Cases were lodged against Union Carbide demanding compensation to the tune of $3 billion for the victims. Union Carbide responded by alleging that it was either a pure and simple accident and so not their fault, or, apparently not recognizing the contradiction, that it was all due to sabotage by a disgruntled employee. The judicial authorities in Bhopal froze the 50.9% of the shares Union Carbide held in its Indian subsidiary, but the Supreme Court of India not only allowed the subsequent sale of those shares but diluted the liability of Union Carbide from $3 billion to just 15% of that amount – a paltry $470 million, and absolved Union Carbide of all responsibility for the accident (though that was later revoked after protests). The Supreme Court judge hearing the case, Justice Ahmadi, became, after retirement, chairman-for-life of a Union Carbide trust (3). Something rotten in the state of Denmark, perhaps?
Even the meagre compensation that was to be paid under the new terms was mostly not paid. The worst of Indian officialdom rapidly raised its ugly head. Centres to train survivors in alternate professions either never functioned or functioned only briefly and shut down. Those who were to get compensated for the deaths of relatives didn’t just have to produce death certificates; in order to prove that the certificates weren’t faked; they were supposed to produce the people who had been at the funeral, and so on. I told you this was Indian officialdom. (7)
Meanwhile, what happened to the criminal charges? After a long delay, charges of culpable homicide (causing death by actions performed while knowing they were capable of causing death, while not actually intending to cause death) were brought against eight Indian employees of Union Carbide, and of Union Carbide’s Indian subsidiary; and against Warren Anderson, Union Carbide Corporation, and Union Carbide’s Hong Kong based subsidiary which was the direct owner of the Indian subsidiary. Of these, the three foreign entities (Anderson, the parent Union Carbide, and the Hong Kong subsidiary) refused to appear before Indian courts – and for the others the charges were reduced from culpable homicide, for which the maximum punishment is ten years, to causing death from negligence, carrying a maximum sentence of just two years. (3,8)
In the meantime, something else happened. Union Carbide was bought by Dow Chemicals in 2001 (9); and Dow promptly disclaimed all responsibility for the Bhopal disaster, saying, in effect, that if you knowingly buy stolen property, it’s yours no matter what the original owner might think. This same Dow Chemicals is now eager to invest in India, and the extremely pro-US/pro-big business Congress government of India is bending over backwards to find a way of letting it do so.
On 7 July, 2010, the verdict in this case, at the lowest level of the judicial system, was finally declared (after only 26 years – these are Indian courts, my friends); the seven survivors of the eight Indians were sentenced to two years each, and then released on bail with full freedom to appeal. It caused a surprising degree of outrage among people who had virtually forgotten Bhopal; an outrage that can only be understood as a reaction against the government’s policies per se, of which this was only a symptom.
What policies were those?
According to popular perception and also according to those in the know, the government does not actually want any real punishment to come to the criminals of Bhopal. It’s scared that any such punishment will scare off big business investments, as will enforcing corporate accountability; so it did not pursue the case vigorously and also diluted the case against the accused as far as possible. Dow doesn’t even have to pay for cleaning up the old factory site any longer; a government committee’s decided that Indian firms will be asked to bid for that at Indian government expense (10). “Bending over backwards” may be a term too weak to fit.
Union Carbide’s then CEO, Warren Anderson had reputedly vanished and is allegedly untraceable, though Greenpeace found him (11) with little or no effort and informed the Indian authorities as to his precise whereabouts. He is still wanted in India for culpable homicide, and despite all government efforts to let him off the hook, the case against him still stands. Remember that he was allowed to escape by special plane in 1984? Well, today, the buck is being passed around (10) over who, exactly, ordered his escape. The Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh at the time was Arjun Singh, a cravenly obsequious functionary of the Congress’ ruling Gandhi family. He would – could – never have taken a step without orders from Delhi, and in fact he does admit having such orders, though he refuses to state who issued him those orders. Every single objective person’s suspicions then come to the then owner of the Congress Party, the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi. Gandhi’s widow and children are now the owners of the party, and their only priority is to deflect blame from the family. Hence, desperate efforts are on to find scapegoats; efforts that have to take into account as well the need to protect Anderson at all costs. He’s untraceable, they insist; he’s too old; there’s no proof against him; and, when all fails, “he can still be extradited to face trial.” When?
It’s not just the fate of Anderson or of foreign corporations; the fact is that the government is desperate to please the US at all costs, and its only (alleged) foreign policy success was the Nuclear Deal it signed with the Bush administration to sell nuclear reactors to India. The US won’t sell nuclear reactors unless the government passes laws to insulate the sellers against all liability for accidents. So far, despite two efforts, it has been unable to pass this law, and the renewed public interest in Bhopal may make it more difficult still.
One of the (unelected) “Prime Minister” of India’s recent statements, then, shows everyone exactly what the government’s actual attitude is: “Bhopals may happen,” he said, “but the country must progress.”
Tell that to the gassed corpses lying on the streets.
Note: There is a book by Dominique Lapierre and Javier Moro on the subject, It Was Five Past Midnight in Bhopal. I have read the book but chosen not to quote from it because I find it little better than pulp fiction. It provides no sources, has no references, and apparently takes every participant’s unsupported word for the truth. Significantly, at least one of its heroes, SI Qureishi, was one of the men sentenced recently to two years for criminal negligence.