|“Wake up! Hurry up and run, if you do not want to die,
the neighbour’s son screamed shortly after midnight through our
window. We did not know what was going on, but we could sense in his
voice that it must be something serious. We opened the door and
immediately started coughing and our eyes began to burn. Gas flowed
into the house. And so we also ran, each one with what he or she was
wearing at that time. We ran in the direction of the hospital, each one
running for his or her life! I could hardly keep my eyes open. Those
who fell down lay there, no one could help them. The ones following
simply ran over them.”
So, Mrs. Champa Devi told me her story from the night of December 2-3, 1984. On that night in the Indian city of Bhopal, over 40 tonnes of highly poisonous methyl isocyanate (MIC) flowed uncontrolled out of Tank 610 at the chemical factory of Union Carbide India, a subsidiary of the American group Union Carbide Corporation. The company was producing the pesticide Sevin here in India. It was the worst-ever human induced environmental disaster in history till now. On that night almost 4000 people died instantly, in the next few days, weeks and months, an estimated 25,000 more people, perhaps even more than that.
Photograph of a victim from that day,
Forensic Institute, Bhopal
husband fell and screamed out loudly. He groaned, his stomach sliced
open as he fell. When we somehow managed to reach the hospital, both my
daughters had white froth coming out of their mouths and noses, my
youngest was unconscious. God gave me the strength to forget my own
pain, so that I could try to save my family. Close by, I saw water
dripping from a pipe. I soaked the scarf of my eldest daughter in it
and cleaned the faces of my children. They felt better immediately and
my youngest regained consciousness. In front of the hospital, there
were a great number of people waiting, their screams echoing through
the night. Dead bodies like sacks of wheat were stacked up in a pile.
The doctors had no idea what they should do, which medicament they
should prescribe. “I was extremely fearful.”
Champa Devi lost almost her entire family due to this accident. Her youngest daughter was paralyzed and could not speak any more. Her eldest son suffered so severely from shortness of breath that he took his own life. Her husband ruptured his bladder during his fall, and he died of bladder cancer, following the injury. Her youngest son, also a victim of the gas, was killed in a road accident. After all these tragedies, Champa Devi began championing for the cause of the victims towards their right to work. After several empty promises, she founded the aid organization, “Chingari Trust”, together with Mrs. Rashida Bee, and dedicated the rest of her life to fight for justice for the gas victims. In 2014, as the most recent distinction, together they received the Goldman Environmental Prize, one of the most important environmental protection awards.
The people, who had inhaled the gas that night, and not immediately died due to it, subsequently suffered from primarily, pulmonary oedema, eyesight problems, paralysis, brain damage, as well as, heart, liver and kidney damage. The long-term effect was increased incidence of cancer, miscarriages and birth defects in women, as well as, infertility. In total, the estimated number circulating today is between 250,000 and 500,000 injured people, but nobody knows for sure.
Registered deaths directly after the accident. Photographs with the approval of the Medico Legal Institute, Bhopal
the accident the parent company, Union Carbide Corporation, paid US$ 7
million as emergency aid. Besides that, it sent an international team
of doctors, as well as, medical equipment to Bhopal. The former
Managing Director, Warren Anderson travelled to India four days after
the disaster. He was however, put under house arrest immediately on his
He left the country almost immediately against bail of about US$ 2000. The Supreme Court of India pronounced him, later in his absence, guilty of homicide caused by negligence. The American government rejected all Indian extradition requests. Warren Anderson was, till his death on September 29, 2014, a projection figure for the anger of the Bhopal victims and activists: “Hang Anderson” was until recently one of the slogans, or another, “Where’s Warren?”
Mentally disabled youth, Chinagri Trust, Bhopal
Long-term victim in hospital: over 100 free
treatments due to lung injuries since 19844
February 1989, the Indian government, as representative of the Bhopal
victims and Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), agreed to an
extra-judicial settlement amounting to US$ 470 million, plus the
construction of a hospital for the gas victims, together with long-term
financing of free treatment for the patients. In exchange, the UCC
obtained a guarantee, which protected them from further claims and
prosecution in India. Insurance contributed further US$ 250 million
towards compensation for the victims.
The injured parties received Rs. 25,000 in the first installment; the long-term sufferers received the same sum again after 10 years. Union Carbide India had generated a turnover of about US$ 200 million in 1984. The firm employed 9000 employees in 14 factories across India. The American parent company, Union Carbide Corporation owned 50.9 percent of the shares, over 24 percent of the shares belonged to the Indian government, the rest of the shares were held by small shareholders. The worldwide turnover of the parent group in the USA back then, amounted to US$ 9.4 billion.
To enable me to get a picture of the situation in the factory at that time, I spoke to a former employee of Union Carbide India. I met Mohammed Yaqub in his apartment. He is 64 years old today. From the year 1977, he worked there as a maintenance worker and he feels absolutely certain that he owes his life to this fact. The employees had received, at the time, safety training because incidents occurred there repeatedly. One time there was a fire, and about a year before the disaster, a co-worker, who had come into contact with methyl isocyanate, had died. Thus, Mohammed knew how dangerous the gas was.
“I was at home on this night, I did not have night duty. We were still awake when this happened. I could already smell the gas, it has this typical, pungent odour, and I told my wife that something was not right.
the people on the streets started to scream and run, we ran along with
them. Our eyes started to burn and I knew that I had to act
immediately. I told my wife and my two sons that they should remove
their shoes and give me their socks and inner soles. I ran to the water
pump and soaked them all with water. We held the wet things on our
nose, mouth and eyes and sat still on a meadow near the street. After
two, three hours the gas had evaporated and we went back home. The
leaves of the trees on the street had turned yellow, all around people,
cows and dogs, and even goats lay motionless, they were all dead. For
the next few days we had breathing problems and even our eyes burned,
but after a couple of weeks we were reasonably well again.”
I took a few pictures of Mohammed, and he showed me his old company badge that he should ideally have given up. But at that time he could not find it and then a month later, he came across it accidentally. He said he was proud to be working for the American company at that time. But its turnover was not enough, and it had to save on personnel and also safety measures. There was a separate cooling system for the ‘MIC-Tanks’, but that had been switched off five months before the accident. The purification system for the removal of the released gas and the torch to burn them off had also been shut for three months. But it did not even occur to him that these safety systems could have prevented the catastrophe. Simply no water should have entered into Tank 610, which experts had later identified as the cause of the accident.
The liquid methyl isocyanate in the tank reacted with the water, heated up, became gaseous and expanded. At sometime, the safety valve burst, and the gas flowed out of the tank. Only, the reason for the seepage of the water in the tank could not be explained, neither by the Union Carbide Corporation nor the union. According to experts three possible reasons could be considered: A mix-up between the water line and the nitrogen line, defect in valves while carrying out the work of cleaning the filters, or a deliberate supply of water, that is sabotage – this theory was brought into play by Union Carbide Corporation. Also, the sirens were initially switched off so as to not worry the people!
Mohammed Yaqub, former employee of Union Carbide India
Memorial for the victims of the toxic gas from 1984
“No Hiroshima, no Bhopal – we want to live”
One of the many victim-families: The grandmother is
disabled since the time of the gas leak, her husband is
dead, her daughter is healthy, the child is also disabled.
all the discussion, it was clear that adding to the problem of the
long-term effect of the gas, another problem had appeared: the problem
of a toxic environment of the factory site and with it, contaminated
ground water. That is the real scandal today, it is also meanwhile
known as Bhopal’s second disaster. The consequences are enduring
serious health problems, especially muscular problems, increasing and
recurring birth defects, as well as remarkably frequent cancer cases.
The problems of further regularly earning a livelihood and with that the accompanying social and emotional difficulties due to destroyed families were said to have, up till now, not been sufficiently broached or recognized.
Experts have estimated that up to 30,000 tonnes (!) of toxic substances were dumped on the former factory site. The soil and ground water analysis by different organisations, (NGOs, Greenpeace, and the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi*) from different years have revealed that the entire area and its surroundings are highly contaminated with pesticides, chlorinated benzene and heavy metals.
Primarily, high concentrations of toxic insecticide aldicarb and carbaryl (‘Sevin’), as well as of metalloids arson and metallic quicksilver, chromium and lead were detected. In addition, in all the soil samples high concentrations of dichlorobenzene 1,3 and 1,4 as well as, 1,2,3-trichlorobenzene were detected, carcinogenic solvents, which attack the liver, kidneys and lungs. Samples of the groundwater from different points outside the factory site within a radius of 4 km around the site were taken. The profile of the chemicals detected there corresponded to the chemicals in the landfill on the former factory site.
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* The specifications listed in this issue have been taken from this report.
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The working-class quarters in Bhopal, the former factory in the background
Old factory of Union Carbide India
Old tanks of the factory rotting, no one feels responsible
The former control room of the factory
The former laboratory today
The safety sign-board in the former control room
Tank 610, from which the methyl isocyanate emanated
Siren tower at the premises today
Warning sign in the control room of the former factory: “Your attention please: There is release of toxic gas…”
One knew exactly how dangerous this stuff was
year 2004, twenty years after the accident, the Supreme Court of India
decided that the fifteen affected communities in Bhopal must be
supplied clean water. Therefore, everywhere in these communities,
above-ground water tanks were set up. However, my interviewees said
unanimously that the water supply from these tanks did not function
Either they were broken or became empty quickly, because the tanker did not come very often. There was in any case, not enough clean water and therefore they were forced to use the old hand-pump again.
The reason that no one had so far managed to dispose off the toxic soil and clean the ground water was because of failed funding and a lack of appropriate waste disposal facilities. Therefore, in the year 2012, the Indian government approached the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ), which had decades of experience in the disposal of the hazardous waste.
One of the many water tanks in the affected quarters
The former affected residential area with water tanks
had however, after three months of negotiations quite abruptly
withdrawn the initial offer of cooperation for the disposal of the
first 350 tonnes of contaminated soil. On the Homepage of the GIZ at
the time, only this was put up, “Extensive negotiations could not
be carried out within the stipulated time frame.
Therefore the uncertainties have grown on both sides, as well as among the German public. The waste disposal through GIZ is not an option any more.” The Indian environmentalists were surprised by this unexpected decision. The GIZ had pushed for the project, and therefore it is strange, that they themselves have now withdrawn, said Rachna Dhingra at the time, as part of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal.
Residential area of the …
…former factory site
reality the situation could have been salvaged, letting dust settle on
this disaster. Like the neglected graves of the Muslim cemetery. If
only one had redeemed all the promises, if only one had long ago freed
the area of its toxic waste. But dust kept gathering on the old graves
of the cemetery, which in the passage of hours and days after the
tragedy became much too small.
The old graves had to be opened up at that time, breaking the holy commandments of Islam. “I know,” complained one of the gravediggers then, “It is a sin to put two dead bodies in one grave. May Allah forgive us – we were placing three, four and even more still inside.” The Hindus burned all the dead, always 25 at once. As the wood for the ritualistic cremation quickly ran out, they covered the bodies with kerosene in order to burn them, even though it was against the religious custom.
The old part of the Muslim cemetery in Bhopal
over the years, a legal and economic dispute ensued from this
environmental disaster. In the year 1994, ten years after the accident,
Corporation sold its shares of Union Carbide India to Mcleod Russel
India, which in turn belongs to the investment company Williamson Magor
Group. The company was then renamed Eveready Industries India Ltd.,
after the famous battery brand of the Union Carbide Corporation. As
part of the agreement with the Indian government, Union Carbide
Corporation built the Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Center
between the years 1995 and 1999 with the proceeds from the sale. US$ 20
million served as the start-up funding, US$ 90 million went towards the
Trust of the Hospital towards the long-term, free treatment of
A few years after the takeover, in an interview, an unnamed official of the Eveready Industries, as the legal successor of Union Carbide India in India, in response to the question concerning the responsibility for Bhopal answered, “Eveready is responsible neither for the environmental pollution nor for the disposal of the toxic chemicals in Bhopal. Therefore we will not participate in any clean up action. If at all, then the former owner of the UCIL, the UCC in USA, shall be liable for the cleanup operation of the area. The plant, at the time of acquisition by Williamson Magor Group was no longer listed as an asset in the books of the company.”
|Over the course of the years in USA several lawsuits were launched against Union Carbide Corporation, for example, J.B. Sahu & Others vs. Union Carbide Corporation & Anderson.
But all the accusations and claims were denied. For example, the US
District Court in Manhattan dismissed a suit and decided that the Union
Carbide Corporation & Anderson is not liable for the restoration of
the environmental damage. According to the extensive documents about
the history of the company, the UCC has played only a minor part in the
planning of the factory and the waste disposal system of the plant. And
therefore the company Union Carbide India should be responsible for the
formation and disposal of the waste, and not Union Carbide Corporation
in USA; furthermore, the responsibility is also placed upon the
government of the state of Madhya Pradesh.
Also, Union Carbide Corporation itself pushed the responsibility to the Indian side. “Laws, regulations and guidelines of the Indian government and the state government of Madhya Pradesh had from the beginning permeated all aspects of the planning and implementation of the plant. No important measures could be adopted without the consent of both parties. The Indian government had forced UCIL towards maximum participation in the design, procurement, construction and operations of the plant and minimal foreign participation.”
Steam treatment for a long-term victim in the Sambhavna Clinic in
Bhopal. After this he is able to move a little for a couple of hours.
Parallel to the criminal charges against the Union Carbide Company in USA and its former CEO, legal proceedings against seven former executives of the company, UCIL were instituted from 1989 to June 2010. These were because of “criminal negligence” and not because of “negligent homicide”, as the original indictment had read, and the sentence in each case was two years of imprisonment and a fine of Rs. 100,000 (in 2010 about US$ 2,180), with a provision of bail in the amount of Rs. 25,000 (in 2010 about US$ 550).
Father with his two sons, 16 and 12 years old, both mentally disabled
The pharmacy of the Sambhavna Clinic. Free medicament for the gas victims
February 2001, the American group Dow Chemical Company took over Union
Carbide Company for US$ 11.6 billion and with that it became the second
biggest chemical company in the world, only after DuPont. The
victims’ organization in Bhopal then attempted to make Dow
Chemicals the legal successor of UCC in order to hold them liable. But
Dow Chemicals have up till today strictly refused any type of
responsibility. The justification for this followed the verdicts by the
American judges of the earlier lawsuits against the UCC, or they were
based on the fact that Dow Chemicals had nothing to do with the
history. In diverse statements Dow Chemicals repeated that it had never
been the owner or the operator of the plant; that the plant was under
the supervision of the state of Madhya Pradesh; that Dow Chemicals had
acquired the shares of Union Carbide Corporation after over 16 years of
the tragedy and that compensation payment had already been made.
In 2012, WikiLeaks published the Emails of the Texan detective agency Stratfor, which had been stolen by the hacker group, Anonymous. Included in the clients of Stratfor according to this, among others, was also, Dow Chemicals, which had spied on the Bhopal activists demanding compensation. Amongst this, was the activist group “Yes Men” that had started a fictitious campaign on the 20th anniversary of the chemical disaster, in which the Yes Man Andy Bichlbaum had appeared on BBC-World as the fake representative for Dow Chemcials, Jude Finisterra, and apologized for the suffering of the people and asked for twelve million US Dollars for the victims.
the Homepage of Dow Chemicals one can read under the heading
‘Beliefs & Culture’, “We believe that taking the
extra step to be socially responsible does not hold us back, but
instead sets us apart. We believe in the worth of our people, in the
value of each individual employee and their differing experiences,
backgrounds and perspectives. We believe in the power of difference.
Every day, we strive to build a culture that embraces innovation,
responsibility and diversity.”
The after effects from that time are still being felt in the everyday life in the affected suburbs of Bhopal. In the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital, not very far from the factory site of UCIL, there are 1000 patients, who get treatment in the hospital everyday, about 40% of the injured are from the gas disaster. Here, the gas victims are cared for free of charge. Another institution that provides medical care to the survivors of the Bhopal tragedy since 1996 is the charitable Sambhavna Clinic, which was founded by Satinath Sarangi and the organization, Bhopal Medical Appeal. About 45,000 people have so far been treated here, and about 150 patients come to the clinic everyday. I was told by one of the doctors working there that the donations were acquired almost solely from England. This private initiative, which is among the many organizations that are committed to the victims, is not without controversy, as they make it easier for the governmental organizations to evade their responsibilities.
Slum on the railway tracks behind the former
factory site of Union Carbide India
On the left is an activist from the slum, who on that day had returned from a demonstration in New Delhi
The train rattles slowly through the slum
proposition could have been refuted through the subsequent report,
which was published in the Times of India on 15.11.2014. After that the
Indian government agreed to revise the number of victims of the
disaster on which the previous calculation of the compensation payment
was based, and the amount of aid would be adjusted accordingly.
This decision was a consequence of a hunger strike by five women, which began in New Delhi on November 10. The women were supported by 200 survivors of the Bhopal tragedy. They received a written promise that the accrued adjustments would be implemented by 2.12.2014. “We welcome this important step by the government. Now Prime Minister Modi must ensure that the promise of his government is abided by,” said Audrey Gaughran, Director of Amnesty International of Global Issues.
According to a Greenpeace study the cost of cleaning the toxic area would be in the magnitude of US$ 30 million. Even if it were twice as much, given the extent of the contamination and suffering caused because of it, it would be possible for the involved parties to finance the total amount. If only the realization prevailed that the conflict so far had amounted to nothing and it would be more sensible to tackle the problem together, then it would be possible to find a solution.
Then at some point, perhaps soon in the next few years, dust would finally settle on this history.
Formerly affected area, JP Nagar Slums, Bhopal
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First photo: Abhi Batham mentally disabled; assumed cause
for the disability is the contaminated ground water.
|The film industry has also discovered for itself a theme from the Bhopal tragedy. In the US, the Bollywood film “Bhopal – A Prayer for Rain”
was released a few days ago. In India, the film will be featured in
cinemas on December 5, 2014, two days after the 30th anniversary of the