Bhopal gas tragedy: Remembering India's worst industrial disaster as victims still await justice

First, there was Chernobyl and then there was the Bhopal gas leak. Thirty-seven years ago on this day, India experienced a horror of untold...

First, there was Chernobyl and then there was the Bhopal gas leak.

Thirty-seven years ago on this day, India experienced a horror of untold magnitude in the form of the Bhopal gas leak in which over 5,00,000 people were exposed to methyl isocyanate gas and other highly toxic substances like carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, etc that made their way into and around the small towns located near the plant.

As we mark this tragedy, take a look at what happened and how people are still struggling with it even today.

What happened?

On the intervening night of 2-3 December, about 40 tonnes of the dangerous gas methyl isocyanate escaped from an insecticide plant that was owned by the Indian subsidiary of the American firm Union Carbide Corporation.

The incident had taken place at the Plant Number C of the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal. As per reports, the leak occurred when water entered tank number 610 containing 42 tonnes of Methyl Isocyanate (MIC).

The result was a runaway chemical reaction that vented highly-toxic MIC gas into the atmosphere. The gas cloud consisted of MIC and other gases like carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, etc, all of which were extremely toxic to humans and animals.

As the cool morning breeze picked up pace, it carried the poisonous gas leaking from the Union Carbide factory to the rest of the city and killing people - both awake and asleep.

According to the Madhya Pradesh government’s estimates, the tragedy killed 3,787 people in and around Bhopal. However, media reports peg the actual death toll anywhere between 16,000 and 30,000, and the injury count close to 500,000. A whopping five lakh were exposed to the toxic gas leak.

Aftermath of the leak

Besides the horrific death toll, the gas leak left an indelible mark on the population of Bhopal. In the immediate post-leak situation, more than half of the city’s population complained of coughing, itchy eyes, skin and facing breathing problems. Tens of thousands suffered from blindness and ulcers.

File image of a victim of the Bhopal tragedy walking in the streets in Bhopal where a poison gas leak from the Union Carbide factory killed thousands. AFP

In 1984, Bhopal didn't have too many hospitals. The two government hospitals could not accommodate half of the population of the city. People were suffering, finding it difficult to breathe and confused. So were doctors, who did not immediately know the reasons for the sudden illness that afflicted every new rushing patient.

The leak also caused long-term suffering for the people of Bhopal.

Many of those who were exposed to the gas have given birth to physically and mentally disabled children. Children born in the affected areas had twisted arms and legs, extra limbs or body parts, musculoskeletal disorders, brain damage and underweight issues.

Please read: At Remember Bhopal Museum, histories of those affected by 1984 disaster are preserved against apathy, neglect

The stillbirth rate and the neonatal mortality rate increased by up to 300 percent and 200 percent respectively.
Some people continue to suffer from chronic health conditions to this day.

Govt's response to Bhopal tragedy

Legal proceedings between India, Union Carbide and the US began right after the catastrophe. The government passed the Bhopal Gas Leak Act in March 1985, which allowed it to act as the legal representative for victims.

Initially, the US-based firm offered a $5 million relief fund to India, which the government turned down, asking for a $3.3 billion compensation.

Eventually, an out-of-court settlement was reached in February 1989, Union Carbide agreed to pay $470 million for damages caused.

The Supreme Court of India also laid down guidelines for the money — the family of the dead were to be given Rs 100,000-300,000. In addition, fully or partially disabled were to get Rs 50,000-500,000 and those with a temporary injury, Rs 25,000-100,000.

In June 2010, seven former employees of Union Carbide, who were all Indian nationals, were convicted of causing death by negligence and sentenced to two years of imprisonment. However, they were later released on bail.

File photo of an activist holding a placard during a protest against the delay in justice for Bhopal gas tragedy victims. AFP

Survivors await justice

If the gas leak alone was a tragedy, the fact that survivors still wait to be compensated fairly after 37 years is heartbreaking.

Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti (BGPSSS) co-convener ND Jayaprakash said the Supreme Court assisted settlement on 14-15 February 1989 worth Rs 705 crore was based on the assumption that only around 3,000 persons died and 1,02,000 were affected.

"This compensation was a complete sham as each gas victim ended up being given less than one-fifth of the sum allotted even as per the terms of that unjust settlement," he added.

When asked to explain, he said that the financial aid was $470 million in 1989. The dollars turned into more than Rs 3,000 crore in 2004, when the disbursements started.

"But the number of the victims swelled to 5.73 lakh and this amount was distributed among them. So, each victim got one-fifth of the compensation," he added.

"The failure on the part of the Supreme Court to hear the long-pending curative petition against the unjust settlement of 1989, has had an adverse impact on the interests of the gas victims," he said in a media statement.

NGOs working for the rights of the survivors of the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster alleged that various governments in Madhya Pradesh and at the Centre have failed to bring the culprits of the world’s biggest industrial tragedy to justice even after 37 years.

“We would like the world to know that even after 37 years of the world’s worst industrial disaster, justice remains elusive for survivors," said Rashida Bee, who heads the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmchari Sangh, and a recipient of the Goldman Environmental Award.

“Our democratically-elected governments continue to collude with American corporations," she alleged.

With inputs from agencies

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