On the evening of December 2, 1984, mere hours after the clock struck midnight in Bhopal, India, the world was changed forever in what came to be known as history’s deadliest industrial disaster. The pesticide plant owned and operated by Union Carbide, now a wholly owned subsidiary of Dow Chemical Company (since 2001), leaked 40 tonnes of the deadly chemical Methyl Isocyanate (MIC), as well as other poisonous gasses, into the atmosphere.
More than 600,000 people were exposed to the poisonous gas clouds that night, causing instantaneous reactions including burning of eyes, throat, and nose, frothing mouths, choking, uncontrollable vomiting, and spontaneous abortions. The gas was so dense that people were reduced to near blindness. In these initial moments, people were only concerned about how they would save their lives. They ran. Those who fell were not picked up by anybody and were trampled on by other people. When the morning came, thousands of bodies lay in the streets. Within the first three days, over 10,000 people died. Bodies were burned on mass as the community was not sure what to do with the bodies that had been piling up on the streets. Bodies were burnt unidentified, and religious rites could not be maintained. The true death-toll may be much higher than anyone has ever realized, and the truth is, we will never really know how many people died that night. Over 30,000 people have died to date from direct effects from the disaster, something Bhopal activists call the “Ongoing Disaster”.
Over the last 35 years, between 120,000 and 150,000 people continue to experience chronic health issues as a result of their exposure. People continue to suffer debilitating illness and innumerable impacts for which treatments are largely ineffective. Bhopalis have not been given adequate medical assistance, fair compensation, nor any semblance of comprehensive social and economic rehabilitation, and astonishingly, the site of the disaster itself was never cleaned up and remains largely intact.
Toxic waste from this 70-acre plant continues to pollute the environment and water supply of its surrounding communities. Toxic wastes remain in and around the original site, which has led to groundwater and soil contamination. There has also been a rise in developmental disabilities and birth defects. And, the corporations responsible for this disaster continue to abscond the courts and use their social capital with the powerful to remain unaccountable for this tragedy.
Corporations and accountability
Like many corporate environmental disasters, the Bhopal Gas Disaster could have been avoided. Despite large communities and working class settlements living near the factory, and a highly populated area such as Bhopal, between 1977 and 1984 the state of Madhya Pradesh licensed the Union Carbide factory to manufacture phosgene, monomethlyaminie, MIC (the reaction of phosgene and monomethlyaminie), and Carbaryl (known as Sevin). The dangers of these chemicals were well known and documented. Phosgene had been one of the chemicals used in German gas chambers. Union Carbide knew there were major safety concerns, but ignored safety for profit; the Bhopal Gas Disaster was 100% preventable.
After MIC production began, so did the tragedies. In 1981, a leak of phosgene gas killed Union Carbide worker Ashraf Khan, and severely injured two others. In 1982, 25 workers were hospitalized as a result of another leak at the plant. Management held a “safety week”, and workers at the plant demanded adequate pay for handling such hazardous substances. These requests were denied. In May of 1982, Union Carbide sent a team of American engineering experts to conduct a “business confidential” inspection of the Bhopal plant. The report stated key phrases such as “potential for the release of toxic materials” and “deficiencies in safety valve and instrument maintenance programs […] Leaking valves could create serious exposure during this process.”
In this report, there were 61 hazards noted (30 classified as major, and 11 specifically related to MIC/phosgene units). This report was sent to Union Carbide’s Management Committee in the US. Safety measures were not improved in Bhopal, and in typical capitalist fashion, Union Carbide chose not to act on the report and instead cut workers’ jobs to save costs: the work crew of the MIC unit was halved from 12 to six workers, and the maintenance crew went from six to two workers. That same year another leak occurred, requiring hospitalization of hundreds of residents in the surrounding communities.
Years leading up to the fateful night of December 2, 1984, local journalist, Rajkumar Keswani, warned of the dangers in a series of articles with titles such as “Save please, Save this city”, “Wake up people of Bhopal, you are on the edge of a volcano!” and “If you don’t understand, you all shall be wiped out”. On December 2, none of the six safety systems designed to prevent and warn of a leak of toxic gas were operational – all the while, Bhopalis slept as gas drifted closer to their homes because the plant siren used to warn surrounding neighbourhoods was not functional.
In Europe, the maximum permissible storage limit for MIC is half a ton. The engineering group responsible for designing the Bhopal plant recommended installation of three large tanks for storing MIC. Eduard Muñoz, who had been Union Carbide’s Managing Director of Union Carbide India Limited, opposed this because “only token storage was necessary, preferably in small containers, based on economic and safety considerations.” He was overruled and three large tanks for MIC were installed. In Bhopal, US company management vetoed the local managers, and stored over up to 90 tons of MIC. On December 2, 67 tons of MIC were stored in two tanks. The excessive amount of MIC stored was the most critical factor in the disaster. MIC to this day remains a “trade-secret” by Dow Chemical/Union Carbide, with survivors not being able to fully understand their health conditions in the name of capitalism.
Environmental racism in unclean site
Union Carbide left behind tons of toxic waste material at the site, and the site itself still remains hazardous to date. From the beginning of the plant in 1969, Union Carbide had no proper protocol to safely dispose of their hazardous waste material; instead, it is documented that these materials were routinely dumped in 21 unlined pits and “solar evaporation ponds” that would flood annually during India’s monsoon season. The company did not warn the local communities of the dangerous chemicals that leaked into the ground, soil, and water, causing these communities to drink contaminated water for years after the fatal disaster; they were unknowingly ingesting fatal chemicals and passing them down to their children and the next generations.
In November of 2002, secret Union Carbide documents showed that Union Carbide tested the soil and water in and around its factory and found the environment to be dangerous and heavily contaminated. Instead of releasing this to the public, they used and released a different report that said the environment was not toxic. More than 20,000 people to date live in close proximity to this site, and are still at risk from the contamination.
This is an example of environmental racism, and is a common, calculated tactic that we see from big businesses globally. Placing industries in poor and racialized communities allows businesses to get away with cost-cutting measures that jeopardize human life. It’s fitting then that in 2001, Union Carbide was bought by Dow Chemical, a company also well known for their environmental racism against numerous communities, such as that of Aamjiwnaang First Nation in Sarnia, Ontario.
Indeed, Dow Chemical contributed to mercury pollution in this area during its more than 70 years of operation, and leaked mercury into their air and water. Mercury has been known to cause brain damage, blindness and birth defects, which has harshly impacted the health of many Aamjiwnaang band members and also the land that they depend on for food. Mercury has been found in residents’ hair and blood, and also in their water. The fish tested for mercury in that area were found to have 33 times the safe eating levels of mercury, which concentrates and poisons when ingested by humans.
Union Carbide and Dow Chemical are two examples of environmentally racist and negligent corporations that have blood on their hands.
No justice in the settlement
Union Carbide was taken to court, but have used their corporate power to evade justice. While the Government of India enacted the “Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act 1985”, this act did nothing to hold Union Carbide accountable and in fact gave the Government full power to represent the victims in a civil litigation against Union Carbide. Not only was this done without any consultation or input from the victims themselves, this meant that the survivors were denied their own ability to bring any cases against Union Carbide. The Government did file a $3 billion compensation suit on behalf of the victims, but they filed it in US courts, which then had the ability to send the case back to India on the grounds of being out of the United States’ jurisdiction. Union Carbide’s lawyers then got to work devising a plan to delay all legal proceedings in effort to get the Government of India to accept a lower settlement.
A settlement was eventually reached in 1989 which included: a negotiated settlement instead of compensation based on victims claims, compensation of just 100,000 rupees (or around $1000) for every death, payment of money to the Indian government and not directly to the victims, unscientific injury categories which assigned most victims to a “temporary injury” category, petty compensation of the equivalent of $500 for people who suffered a lifetime of injuries, and a medical facility and trust fund for future injuries. Union Carbide only had to pay $470 million, which was a mere 15% of what the government initially asked. This pathetic settlement also had terms met from Union Carbide, including that Union Carbide was now absolved of all civil liberties, that criminal cases against the company and its officials were to be extinguished, and that the Indian government was to defend the corporation in the event of any future lawsuits.
Clearly the settlement did little to financially assist the victims and their newly incurred medical expenses. In another common corporate move against injured workers, Union Carbide classified many as “temporarily injured”; under these terms, survivors have been forced to cover their lifelong injuries with a pittance, receiving less than 4 cents a day – the common cost of a cup of tea in India.
The Bhopal victims filed suit to overturn the settlement between 1990 and 1991, and the case was taken all the way to the Indian Supreme Court. The court ruled that the settlement would remain standing, but did reinstate a criminal case against the CEO of Carbide, Warren Anderson, other officials involved, and the Carbide company itself. Warren Anderson failed to appear for his court date in 1992, and despite being declared a fugitive from justice, the United States refused to extradite him citing a lack of evidence. He never faced jail time and in 2014 died as a fugitive from India’s courts while living his last days in Vero Beach, Florida. Eight former senior employees were found guilty in 2010, and after these convictions, a spokesperson for the company affirmed that all appropriate people who ran the plant on a daily basis had appeared to face charges.
The disregard for workers’ safety, and the hierarchy of profits over people is a recurring theme in capitalism. Union Carbide and Dow Chemical have remained largely unaccountable for the mass damage they have caused. The government and corporate apathy that led to the tragedy still exists today, and their negligence and greed is another reason why capitalism must be replaced with socialism, and why private corporations must be democratically owned and operated by the workers themselves.
Organization as resistance
In response to this devastation, survivors of the disaster, international volunteers, and environmental, social justice, and human rights groups have mobilized, and are leading the active resistance against Dow Chemical, the Indian government, and the opposing forces of corporate corruption. The most prominent active campaign that came out of these grassroots movements is named the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB), and they use education, grassroots organizing, and non-violent direct action to further the Bhopalis’ demands for justice.
Centering the voices of survivors, the ICJB demands:
“1. Compensation: Union Carbide/Dow Chemical must pay a minimum of 8 thousand US dollars to each Bhopal survivor as additional compensation for personal injuries as claimed in the Supreme Court of India. The Indian government must make Union Carbide / Dow Chemical pay compensation for health and environmental damage caused by contamination of soil and groundwater.
2. Criminal punishment : The US government must serve the summons from the Bhopal District Court upon Dow Chemical without delay. The Indian government must ensure that the criminal trial of accused Indian corporate executives is concluded within the next six months.
3. Health care and research: The Indian government must ensure that standardized treatment protocols are developed for gas exposure related chronic diseases. The Indian government must establish a population based registry for all deaths, births and congenital malformations in the gas exposed families. The Indian government must ensure that NIREH (National Institute for Research on Environmental Health ) fulfil its commitment to the Bhopal survivors by generating scientific information on the long term health damage by the gas disaster and most effective means of ameliorating them. The Madhya Pradesh state government must ensure that free medical care is available to residents who drank contaminated groundwater for six months or more.
4. Rehabilitation: The Indian and MP state governments must ensure that a monthly pension of Rs. 3000/- is paid to all women widowed by the disaster and all those left without means to support themselves as a consequence of gas exposure.
5. Clean up: Indian government must ensure comprehensive scientific assessment of the depth, spread and nature of soil and groundwater contamination in an around the abandoned pesticide factory. Union Carbide/Dow Chemical must pay for the clean-up of the soil and groundwater up to international standards. The state government must cease and desist from covering up the contamination by building a memorial to the disaster on top of the contaminated lands.”
ICJB is led by half a dozen Bhopal survivor organizations working in close alliance with coalition members in India, Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. They are explicit that their struggle is not just about Bhopal, it is about bringing an end to the rule of greedy unaccountable corporations and corrupt politicians. They believe in the campaign slogan, “We all live in Bhopal”, and by this, they mean that in a world in which corporations operate with impunity – the chemical tragedy that happened in Bhopal could also happen, and in fact is happening, in our own communities and work-places, and we must take action. The ICJB strives to educate the world of this fact by carrying the story of Bhopal and its survivors into the global consciousness, in an effort to inspire action and change.
The survivors of the tragedy are active resistors. In 2014, survivors in ICJB chained themselves to India’s Chief Minister’s residence to demand reparations for survivors and the clean-up of toxic waste left on site. The year prior saw 2000 survivors march to the Chief Minister’s residence to demand the same. They’ve held demonstrations at the Directorate of Bhopal Gas Tragedy & Rehabilitation, in which they demanded free medical care and rehabilitation, and have demonstrated outside of Dow Chemical International Private Ltd. in Mumbai. They also organized their own “Bhopal Special Olympics” for children with disabilities brought on from gas and contaminated water, which was done in response to Dow Chemical’s sponsoring of the London Olympics in 2012.
Calls to action
As socialists, we must advocate for environmental justice and build solidarity with struggles for justice worldwide. We can support a Green New Deal, which not only aims to convert society to 100% renewable and zero-emission energy sources, but enacts environmental protections to secure clean air and water and a sustainable environment for all. We can be allies and accomplices in struggles against environmental racism, and support the survivors of the Bhopal tragedy as well as Aamjiwnaang First Nation, Grassy Narrows, Flint, and all communities negatively impacted by ongoing structural racism.
We can push back against the colonialism that normalizes this environmental injustice and advocate for a Red Deal; a Red Deal recognizes that Indigenous people have always led the fight for environmental rights, and advocates for treaty rights, land restoration, sovereignty, self-determination, decolonization, and liberation. We can continue to amplify the voices of survivors of these events, and work with them to pressure our governments and officials to hold big businesses accountable for the damage they have caused.
We can also support survivors of the Bhopal Gas Disaster directly by donating our resources to them through such organizations as the ICJB, and can show up to their events in solidarity, such as their 35th anniversary event happening on December 2 around the world. In fact, the ICJB is calling for mass attendance at their events on the December 2, calling on allies to organize their own solidarity event if there is not one happening in their area, and to contact local media to remind them of the disaster while reiterating their demands, which include “the remediation of environmental damage caused by the abandoned Union Carbide pesticides factory”, and “adequate monetary compensation and medical care for the survivors of the disaster, including second and third generation children born with contamination-related congenital birth defects.”
Please check the events that are happening in your area on December 2. If you are in Toronto, please join the banner-drop and candlelight vigil from 6pm-7pm at the Peace Garden in Nathan Phillips Square.
To learn more about Bhopal, find resources, join the mailing list, and make a financial contribution, please visit www.bhopal.net. Contact information for India, United Kingdom, and North America include: India (Rachna Dhingra: firstname.lastname@example.org), UK (Tim Edwards: email@example.com), North America (Rox Carter: firstname.lastname@example.org)
In closing, we all live in Bhopal, and we must all continue to fight against the violence of capitalism and environmental racism every day, everywhere.
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