Thirty years of injustice in Bhopal
At around midnight on December 2, 1984, during routine maintenance at the pesticide-manufacturing plant of Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) plant at Bhopal, water gushed into one of the storage tanks due to leaking valves and rusting pipes, triggering a chemical reaction in the tank number E-610, filled with 60 tonnes of lethal Methyl Iso-Cyanate or MIC. The TLV (The Threshold Limit Value of a chemical substance is a level to which a worker can be exposed to it day after day for a working lifetime without adverse health effects) of MIC is 0.02 ppm (parts per million).
Due to the heat and pressure generated by the reaction between water and MIC, a thick cloud of 40 tonnes of poisonous gases, comprising MIC, Hydrogen Cyanide, Monomethyl Amine, Carbon mono-oxide and 16 other lethal chemicals was released. The safety mechanism of the plant – which, in any case, was not designed to withstand heat and pressure of that magnitude – was either shut down or was not working properly or was under maintenance. The cloud rose over the plant and riding on cool, light northern winds, soon enveloped around 5 lakh people in deep sleep. A 20 to 30 feet invisible wall of death took the city in its embrace. By 1 AM, Bhopal had turned into a gas chamber.
When the gas was leaking, the sirens of the factory were switched off. So, the people came to know of the leakage only when the gas entered their eyes and lungs. The people got up coughing and short of breath. Their eyes were burning – as if someone had kept cinders on them. The people started running, wanting to somehow get away from the city. In the mayhem that followed, many small children got separated from their parents. People lost control over their excretory organs. Some began to vomit uncontrollably. Many simply collapsed and died. People felt as if their lungs were on fire, ready to burst. Their lungs got filled with water and they were suffocated to death.
Surrounded by dying people, the doctors of the hospitals of the city had no idea about what treatment should be given to the people. The medical officer of UCC was called. He said that the gas that had leaked was just like tear gas and that “washing the eyes with water would be enough”.
The mortuaries of the hospitals were overflowing with dead bodies. The burial and cremation grounds were grappling with heaps of dead. For the next three days and three nights, funerals continued without a break in different parts of the city. How many died immediately after the gas leak will probably never be known but very conservative estimates of independent agencies suggest that on the first day itself, at least 8,000 persons succumbed to the poisoned air. According to the ‘Indian Council of Medical Research’ (ICMR) – a government agency – toxins were coursing through the veins of at least 5.20 lakh persons at that time and were harming almost every organ of theirs.
After December 3, 1984 began an unending saga of lies, deceit, and treachery. Everyone was lying. Everyone was deceiving. The biggest lie was being vended by the UCC. When lakhs of persons were in excruciating pain, when they were feeling that their end was near; the UCC was insisting that the gas that they had inhaled, the chemical that had affected their eyes, would only harm them as much as tear gas does. ‘Wash your eyes with cold water and everything would be alright’, they were being told. And this lie was being peddled by the doctor of the UCC. He could not have committed a bigger betrayal of his profession.
Besides Union Carbide, the Madhya Pradesh government also did not fulfill its responsibilities. No effective steps were taken to punish the management of the factory that was responsible for the mass murder. When a person kills someone, he is taken into custody immediately. But those who caused thousands of deaths did not have to stay behind bars even for a day.
After the gas leak, the government constituted an inquiry commission. But it was disbanded after a few days. If it had to be disbanded, why was it formed in the first place? Warren Anderson, the chairman of the UCC came to Bhopal from the USA. Why did he come here? No one tried to find this out from him. Anderson had taken a big risk in coming to Bhopal, when lakhs of its citizens were boiling with anger. Had he come to meet the victims or did he have some other agenda? No one knows the answer to this question till date. Anderson was arrested – and then released. His arrest was probably a political stunt. Now, neither Anderson nor the then Chief Minister Arjun Singh – who had ordered his arrest – is alive. Hence, the secret of Anderson’s arrest and release would remain a secret forever.
After the incident, dozens of American lawyers descended on Bhopal. In America, these lawyers are called ‘Ambulance chasers’. To ensure that these lawyers do not exploit the gas victims, the government of India passed a law in the Parliament, appointing itself as the sole legal representative of the gas victims and divesting the gas victims of the right to individually or collectively file cases seeking compensation. It is difficult to say whether this decision of the government was right or wrong but the subsequent events showed that the government did not carry out its responsibilities honestly.
Had the government worked honestly and sincerely, the perpetrators of the world’s worst industrial disaster would have been hanged long back. But what to talk of hanging, the Supreme Court even absolved the UCC officials of the crime of ‘culpable homicide not amounting to murder’. It is a well-known fact that the judge who had granted this reprieve was later appointed to the International court of justice. On the instructions of the then Prime Minister VP Singh, an appeal was filed against the judgment
Additionally, because of the lackadaisical attitude of the Central government, the gas victims could not get adequate compensation. Had such an incident taken place in the US or the victims would have been US citizens, the company responsible would have been forced to give such a heavy compensation that it would have become bankrupt. The US is ready to do whatever it takes to protect its citizens. The same US did not even shed crocodile tears on the death of thousands of innocents in India. As far as I remember, the US Government did not even send a condolence message. After the incident, our Prime Ministers must have visited the US numerous times and the US Presidents must have been to India many times. Unfortunately, the gas disaster was never on the agenda of any of these visits.
Even after so many years, no one knows what the correct treatment for those exposed to MIC. is In the interregnum, dozens of foreign doctors visited Bhopal, conferences of doctors from abroad were also held. These doctors promised that after reaching their countries, they would do research on the samples collected from Bhopal and recommend medicines for the victims. However, these promises were observed only in the breach. No serious medical research was done in India either. Many organisations were formed for the welfare of the gas victims. These organisations fought for the rights of gas victims and did succeed in bringing many benefits to the gas hit. However, it would have been better if these organisations were not plagued with mutual rivalry.
One more distressing aspect of the tragedy is that many persons who were not gas victims have also succeeded in getting compensation. This has put a question mark on the role of gas courts, lawyers and doctors.