Loss of life evokes myriad yet completely distinct emotions in us. Death of a foot soldier braving enemy fire may evoke respect and adoration, loss of life under the fury of an epidemic or natural calamity professes fear and panic, and deaths in freak accidents produce anger and remorse. But none of these emotions can quantify the agony and misery of the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy. This human tragedy that is contorted in every detail yet profound in its impact, is the most heart-wrenching example in the history of independent India.
The Bhopal gas tragedy is an example of the treachery of the Indian state towards its people, ineptitude of the judicial machinery, and the callousness and amnesia of the Indian public, at large. Innocent slum-dwellers of Bhopal were asphyxiated to death on an uneventful winter morning of 1984.Those who survived (maimed and bereft), have been bludgeoned by incumbent governments and courts for the last twenty-five years, to join their lost brothers in the slumbers. The true verdict of this disaster was sealed on that morning itself, but the fight for justice, compensation and compassion, by the people of Bhopal, continues.
Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), a subsidiary of the American chemical company, Union Carbide, was established in cohorts with the Indian government (49% stake through banks) in 1969. On the morning of December 2, 1984, the pesticide plant of the company, located 6 km from the city of Bhopal, leaked 40 tons of hazardous chemical methyl isocyanate (MIC) into its water tankers. The resulting chemical reaction produced toxic gases, which diffused into the atmosphere, quickly engulfing the air around the nearby slum, housing nearly 5,000,000 people. The slum dwellers, caught unawares, awakened to a thick, dense gas-cloud, causing severe congestion in their lungs and eyes. This caused the death of nearly 4,000 people and 15,000 since then – those that survived as they fled in panic that day, but carried heavy concentrations of the gases.
It was a crime of greed, since this gas was used because it was cheaper than the safer alternative. The then CEO, Warren Anderson, knew through a previous plant audit in 1982, that operation was hazardous in the Indian plant and recommended safety measures in its identical plant in the US. The Union Carbide responded in self-effacement, blaming an employee for sabotage, but never naming him. The plant was immediately shut down to outsiders, by the Indian government. A joint committee consisting of CSIR and CBI published their report about the disaster, after 15 years. During this time it was officially maintained that MIC had no long term health effect! This dubious cover-up, to buy time, was only an effort for escape, as UCIL was acquired by Dow for USD 11.6 billion, in 2001.
Cold shouldered by the Indian state
The people, who survived the death ordeal that day, have never been able to build enough clout, over the years, to seek retribution from the snobbish Congress/BJP governments at the Centre and the state. The first act of this insolence, by our political class, was airlifting Warren Anderson by the then Madhya Pradesh CM, Arjun Singh, from Bhopal, on December 7,1984. Anderson left off with a sneering remark on all mawkish Bhopalis, who wanted his head, “House arrest or no house arrest, or bail or no bail, I am free to go home. There is a law of the United States… India, bye bye, thank you.” Rajiv Gandhi called national elections in less than two months of the tragedy. Soon the Mandal commission and Ram Mandir became more contentious national issues. The number of people dead and those withering away, with a wasting disease, were too small to leverage any mileage!
Dow Chemicals, since its acquisition of Union Carbide, had been pressing to enter India and start operations. The Indian government set up a GoM to resolve matters of compensation, prima facie. What the GoM (headed by Chidambaram) was bent on doing was to work out ways to release Dow from any liability, for the disaster. Dow priced the Indian dead at USD 2,200 per corpse and the maimed were dismissed for USD 550 each. Compare this to the pressure Obama exerted on BP, to extract compensation for the oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico- USD 1.5 billion for 11 dead! Environment minister Jairam Ramesh’s (a recent addition to the GoM) promise, to set up a Green tribunal in Bhopal, is another classical example of signatory tokenism and hypocrisy.
The Indian courts, even the Supreme Court in this case, lost considerable reputation, as it was assuring people that it would protect their rights. Anderson, at his departure, had jeered at the Indian judiciary. Union Carbide, used all its clout to shift the case from India to America. The collusion between courts, to appease Carbide’s requests, reached abominable lows. For his complicity, the then Chief justice of India, A M Ahmadi, got a proper thank you note, after he retired!
On June 7, 2010, the Supreme Court passed a judgment, reducing the settlement and reclassifying injuries deserving compensation, with the argument that there are no laws governing liabilities of such an ‘accident’. The judgment was a huge blow to the victims that were hopeful of a judicious verdict and in principle was unjustified and unfathomable. Ample evidence was presented to the courts that showed that the Union Carbide knew of the hazards involved with the leak and the plant failed a prior audit. But, the court dismissed any heavy penalties on Carbide, pressing charges only for liability for the ‘accident’, when in fact, the liability had to be of not knowingly acting on the imminent dangers.
The situation today
The victims and the people of Bhopal have not entirely lost hope, even after being shunned by the state, judiciary and the police. In the words of Abdul Jabbar Khan, convener of the Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udyog Sangathan, who organized a media rally from the homes of the dead to the factory, on the 25th anniversary of the gas leak: “We got no justice, no adequate compensation and not enough compassion”.