Thirty years have passed, but for the residents of the jhuggies around the former Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL) plant, that night will still be as searing in their memory. A few had unskilled jobs in the pesticide plant, but they were equally oblivious of the nature of the deadly vapour that enveloped their colonies, choking them to death and injuring thousands more in the vicinity and far beyond in Bhopal. The simple device of keeping indoors and covering mouths with a wet cloth may have saved hundreds of lives of those who fled their homes.
The repercussions of Bhopal, the world’s worst industrial disaster, have been felt throughout the globe. If one takes major incidents involving only chemical plants, it is far worse than the leakage of agrochemicals at Sandoz in Basel, Switzerland, where tonnes of pollutants entered the Rhine river in 1986, turning it red. It is worse than Seveso, near Milan in Italy, where deadly dioxin, one of the most toxic chemicals, contaminated the environment in 1976, leading to an EU directive named after it. It is worse in numbers, though arguably not in severity, than even Minamata, Japan, where a chemical plant released effluent containing mercury into the sea in the 1950s. Fish absorbed it, and in turn were consumed by humans, leading to the severest forms of disability.
Bhopal reminds us, first of all, that there is a deep-seated class divide when it comes to victims of industrial disasters. Because most of those who inhaled the poisonous gas were slum dwellers around the plant in congested ‘old’ Bhopal, they did not receive as much attention as would have better-off residents. Imagine what would happen if an Indian chemical multinational in the globalised world of today was negligent enough to release toxic fumes in a town in Europe or the US, leading to the deaths of a few thousand people.
The very fact that there is no accurate estimate of the toll speaks for itself. While the immediate official figure was 2,259, the Madhya Pradesh government estimated that 3,787 died of exposure to the gas. Others believe that 8,000 died in two weeks and a similar number later. In 2006, official estimates put the number of the injured — severely or slightly — at 550,000. In the days after December 3, hospitals were hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with patients in such huge numbers.
It reminds us that the management of all major industrial plants, including nuclear power stations, must be proactive in informing residents in their vicinity of possible accidents, and what precautions to take. In Bhopal’s immediate aftermath, a UCIL official stated that the gas was only a minor irritant to the eyes. The US parent, Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), was not forthcoming, either. There was confusion regarding what the gas was and only later did it transpire that it was methyl isocyanate (MIC), which has traces of cyanide.
The confusion was compounded by the lack of information regarding the antidote. The medical director of Union Carbide in the US cabled the Bhopal authorities to administer sodium thiosulphate to victims if cyanide poisoning was suspected, which he later denied at a press conference in Bhopal. A few days after the leak, a German toxicologist administered this chemical, but a patient died, after which he was asked to leave town. Conspiracy theorists had a field day and it is not clear till now whether this treatment only had a placebo effect. It should be incumbent on the management of any chemical, industrial or nuclear plant, whether in the private or public sector, to inform the authorities of proper antidotes for a specific hazard. The right to know Act should help elicit such information.
Bhopal also reminds us, precisely at a time when environmental laws are being streamlined and diluted, of the need to have firm regulation of such plants. There was a raging debate on whether the UCC should be tried in the US or India. There was the nationalist argument that India was well within its rights to hold the company guilty, a matter of the country’s sovereignty. On the other hand, US law on such liability was far more stringent and its courts tended to act with greater speed. After being heard in the US, where UCC offered $350 million as compensation, which the Indian government turned down, the case was shifted to India in 1986.
In Orwellian 1984, it was estimated that there were a million cases pending in Indian high courts and 140,000 in the Supreme Court. This points to the need to tighten laws, not loosen them, although there is a strong case for expediting decisions in courts. Among the environmental laws the TSR Subramanian committee has just reviewed is the Environment (Protection) Act of 1986, which was specifically legislated in the wake of Bhopal.
The tragedy reminds us of liability laws. The UCC, which held a majority of the UCIL’s shares, tried to pass the buck to the UCIL. Prior to US President Barack Obama’s visit, the government is trying to assuage the fears of foreign (largely American) suppliers — as distinct from operators — of nuclear power plants regarding their liability in an accident, as the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Act of 2010 prescribes. Ironically, the BJP had joined the Left in including this penal clause, which has kept foreign firms at bay.
Finally, Bhopal reminds us of how one values lives, especially those of the poor. Infamously, it was said after 1984 that Indian lives — specifically of those casual labourers who lived around the plant — were cheaper than American lives, measured by annual earnings. In 1989, the Rajiv Gandhi regime inexplicably agreed to an out-of-court compensation of $470 million, a second major betrayal after the tragedy itself. That the victims continue to fight for their rights is a tribute to their tenacity.
(Darryl D’Monte is chairperson, Forum of Environmental Journalists of India. The views expressed by the author are personal.)