That Union Carbide was given a great deal by the Indian government is obvious from the fact that, after asking for $3.3 billion in damages, the government accepted just $470 million, and no serious attempt was made to get the new owners—Dow Chemicals—to pay out more despite it being obvious the initial estimates of the disaster were an underestimate; keep in mind that, while buying Union Carbide, Dow took on its asbestos exposure liabilities. Apart from the 20,000 people who died in the gas poisoning, over five lakh persons, including those born after the disaster, are still suffering the consequences of the gas leak.
That was Bhopal’s first gas tragedy. The second, and unending one, is the way in which successive governments, at the Centre and the states, have dealt with the aftermath. There is the issue of the lack of adequate medical aid for victims over successive generations and tardy payments of even the low levels of compensation—things were so bad that, in 2010, the NDA government filed a curative petition in the Supreme Court to increase the compensation paid dramatically. While the government may or may not have been able to get Union Carbide or its successor companies to pay up, surely it was the government’s duty to deal with the aftermath and not to simply pass on what it got from Carbide? It got worse since, for decades, India did little to examine the impact of the toxic waste Carbide left behind—indeed, several government reports suggested there was no problem. That’s when Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) test reports found, at a site 3 km from the factory, that the water had 110 times the permissible amount of carbaryl, 40 times the permissible lindane and 24 times the acceptable mercury level.
Apart from the 300 tonnes of waste, CSE found there were thousands of tonnes of soil, such as in the solar evaporation pond where Carbide would dump its waste to evaporate, which also needed to be treated—the government began to think about cleaning the waste only after a suit was filed in the Madhya Pradesh High Court in 2004, two decades after the accident. What continues to take place after that is a deadly game of passing-the-parcel, with a committee of experts set up to deal with the matter. At one time, the waste was to be sent to an incinerator in Gujarat, but the state government withdrew the permission after NGOs there said they didn’t want the waste; the high court threatened Gujarat with contempt and the state went to the Supreme Court… Things moved faster after SC got tough with the government, and a pilot project was carried out to incinerate the waste. That was more than two years ago—there is still some more ping pong about whether the government of India or the Madhya Pradesh government will issue the tender. And we still blame only Union Carbide.