Thirty-five years ago, on the night of December 2, 1984, a toxic chemical, methyl isocyanate (MIC), leaked out from the Union Carbide India Ltd’s (UCIL’s) pesticide factory and turned the city of Bhopal into a graveyard. Half of India has no memory of this horrendous industrial disaster because they were born after 1984. The remaining half has ignored it because the issues have become too contentious and complicated. But, the time has come to resolve these issues and provide closure to the victims of Bhopal.
Bhopal has suffered two disasters: the one that happened that ill-fated night, and the other that has ensued since.
Bhopal disaster 1.0
The Bhopal gas tragedy is the world’s worst industrial disaster to date. How many people died on December 2-3 in 1984 is still not clear; how many have been killed since then by the effects of the toxin is even less clear. But, what is clear is that the city ran out of cremation wood and burial grounds on the days following the tragedy. There was Hindu-Muslim unity in death; no one knows who was cremated and who was buried.
The Union government claims that only 5,295 people died and 6,199 have been left permanently disabled. The NGOs and activists, on the other hand, argue that death and disease are in tens of thousands, and the effects of MIC contamination is still killing people. Studies by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) support these claims as they found a high incidence of lung, eye disease and morbidity in the population living near the factory site. Some independent studies have also pointed to severe health crises, from cancer and mental problems to birth defects. But, given there is no epidemiological study, it is easy to dismiss these as ailments caused by poor lifestyle, lack of hygiene and poverty. ICMR was supposed to do these studies, but inexplicably stopped its investigations in 1994.
In 1989, Union Carbide paid $470 million as compensation for the disaster—one-seventh of the original demand from the Indian government. In return, the Supreme Court terminated all civil and criminal cases against the company. When the trial began, as per the government data, there were some 3,000 deaths and 30,000 cases of injury. But, when the case was finally decided, compensation was given to virtually the entire city. Some 6 lakh people got money as “affected”. The family of the dead got Rs 2-3 lakh as compensation, and the rest got about Rs 15,000 each. For the real victims, the settlement was a joke as these were not sufficient to even meet their medical bills.
In 2010, the Union government agreed to additional compensation of `10 lakh for death and `1-5 lakh in the cases of disability, renal failure and cancer. But the affected say the government excluded many as their diseases were not listed as severe and permanent disability. In fact, there is a list of illness, called Bhopal Gas Disease, which the government has refused to accept as those caused by the disaster. No one knows how many people are suffering from these or what their treatment status is. Bhopal disaster 1.0, therefore, still lingers on because a sizeable population have neither received adequate compensation nor proper medical care.
Bhopal disaster 2.0
People of Bhopal are suffering another legacy of Union Carbide—groundwater pollution and soil contamination. The factory used to manufacture three pesticides: carbaryl (trade name Sevin), aldicarb (trade name Temik) and a formulation of carbaryl and gamma-hexachlorocyclohexane (gamma-HCH), called Sevidol. For 15 years till the disaster, it dumped process wastes, by-products, solvents, sub-standard products, wastes from machinery and polluted water at dumpsites inside and outside the plant. These wastes are still lying at the site, polluting soil and groundwater.
I headed a joint study conducted by Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and the
Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). The study was released in 2009—on the 25th anniversary of the disaster. Independent tests done by CSE and CPCB laboratories found groundwater and soil surrounding the UCIL site contaminated with chlorinated benzenes, mercury, carbaryl, aldicarb and HCH molecules. All these can be linked
to the wastes dumped by Union Carbide factory.
This second legacy—Bhopal disaster 2.0—now threatens even a larger number of people than the first one. Many of these pollutants are likely to remain in the environment for hundreds of years. They will keep spreading unless they are taken out and the site is decontaminated.
The worst part is cleaning and decontamination of the site has got embroiled in legal and political disagreements. Disagreements over how to clean the site, what to do with the wastes and who should pay for the clean-up—state governments, the Centre or Dow Chemicals who took over Union Carbide—have stalled progress.
Then, there is a dispute over the fate of the factory site itself. Over the years, most pieces of machinery have been stolen, and the structure has rusted and is collapsing. The state government once had a plan to open the factory gates for sightseeing and disaster tourism. This was opposed by the NGOs, who wanted the site to become a memorial for industrial disaster. In this infighting, the site continues to rot.
Thirty-five years after the tragedy, there is no closure for Bhopal. This is mainly because our response has been inadequate and, to a certain degree, callous.
But, there is learning from Bhopal for everyone. For the government, the learning is that post-disaster management is as important as immediate relief. We have not had a disaster like Bhopal since 1984, though small industrial accidents are still common.
For the industry, therefore, learning is that it is possible to avoid accidents with constant vigilance and proper planning. For activists and NGOs, the lesson is that the fight should not become an end in itself such that the issues remain unresolved. Bhopal is a classic example of our inability to resolve conflicts because the fight for justice became an end in itself.