Bhopal: The injustice still not redressed, 30 years on

24th Dec 2014

Once again, the world’s impoverished citizens simply become “collateral damage” to a disaster caused by industry’s favourite cost-cutting measure, i.e. neglecting safety precautions.

Considered the world’s worst industrial accident, the gas leak in Bhopal, India, at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in 1984, killed thousands and maimed even more, many of whom still seek justice and adequate compensation for their ongoing suffering. Yet, the most striking injustice after-the-fact, is how little information the victims have been given regarding the incident.

The BBC published pictures of children with lifelong adverse health effects from the disaster, and most of them know little or nothing about the methyl isocyanate gas leak. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the Indian Government did not even issue a public statement, which led to broad confusion among the community.

The tragedy was not a complete surprise; journalist Rajkumar Keswani warned of the impending doom due to neglected safety precautions and deteriorating machinery beginning in 1982, two years before the disaster. According to Rupashree Nanda of CNN-IBN, “Keswani was so convinced about the threat the pesticide plant of UCIL posed to Bhopal that he wrote to the then Chief Minister, Arjun Singh, all the members of the Legislative Assembly of Madhya Pradesh and even petitioned to the Supreme Court and yet nothing moved. Keswani’s was a solitary voice that was ignored.”


Though the plant has been abandoned since the disaster occurred, children are still born with disabilities, and it is common among residents to have respiratory, eye, and neurological problems. Following the incident, the rate of stillbirths increased by 300%, and neonatal mortality increased by 200%.

DOW Chemical Company purchased the company in 2001, just after Union Carbide shelled out $2 million for cleanup of the site. There are still dried chemicals falling out of rusty pipes contaminating water downstream, which some attribute to the ongoing birth defects. The area has become a dumping ground for other polluters as well, exacerbating the problem.

The payouts have been minimal, initially amounting to $470 million (equivalent to $907 million today), an amount deemed reasonable by the courts, though it was only 15% of the original estimated settlement. To put that amount into perspective, BP paid out $20 billion, for the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; Bhopal had 2,000 times more casualties.

Close to 600,000 Indians are considered “gas victims” and get free medical treatment along with their children, as first generation dependents. Many of these victims visit the hospital that Union Carbide was ordered to build in Bhopal to treat victims of the disaster. Head of the Institute of Industrial Management for Safety, Health, and Environment in Bhopal, S A Pillai, still does not believe that safety laws are stringent enough in India, or that the country is better prepared for a disaster now.

Pressure is still being put on all parties involved in the disaster; activists are even calling on US President, Barack Obama, to address the gross injustices and hold corporate stakeholders accountable for their role in the disaster. A letter written by JRD Tata, Indian steel magnate, to Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, following the disaster, recently surfaced and exposed former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger’s role in attempting to expedite the settlement. According to The Scotland Herald, “The letter, obtained by Bhopal activists, is important because it confirms what many have long suspected: that the US and Tata were complicit in allowing Union Carbide to evade responsibility for the world’s worst industrial accident.”

Mentally and physically disabled, a second generation victim of 1984 gas leak

Thirty years on, it is quite apparent that justice has not been served to the victims of the Bhopal gas leak. Activists still fight for fair compensation as the adverse health effects are continuously felt among the community. To commemorate the suffering and tell the story, Ravi Kumar directed a movie entitled, Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain, released earlier this year.

It weighs on one’s conscience, knowing that so many died, thousands more still suffer, and that injustices relating to this disaster persist; for in the corporate world, it is still business as usual.

Sarah Sakeena Marshall, B.S. Environmental Science & Policy

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