On the night of December 2, 1984, a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India leaked between 30 to 40 tons of poisonous gas into the surrounding area. The immediate effects were catastrophic for the community and the environment. In one of the world’s worst industrial disasters, it is estimated that the leak exposed over half a million people to the poison that night. Approximately 3,000 people died instantly, and 25,000 have since died due to related medical conditions.
The leak began when water infiltrated a methyl isocyanate storage tank, triggering an uncontrollable chemical reaction. The resulting gas compromised the safety of its container and released plumes of toxic smoke which engulfed unsuspecting members of the public sleeping mere meters beyond the factory gates. Thousands awoke in a panic to burning eyes and difficulty breathing as the methyl isocyanate consumed their homes.
Nearly 40 years later, Bhopal victims are still suffering in the aftermath. For miles around the city, contaminated water contains at least six pollutants banned by United Nations (UN) standards. Victims drink and clean with this polluted water, and there is no mention of any official remediation efforts to address the contamination.
Today, the mortality rate for Bhopal victims is 28% higher than for all other residents of India. Those affected by the gas are highly susceptible to blindness, lung and kidney diseases, cancers, tuberculosis, and thyroid problems. Additionally, the poison has drastic implications for women’s reproductive health and pregnancies, as second and even third-generation children are born with neurological disabilities due to parental exposure. This tragedy has left families broken and the entire Bhopal community seeking justice.
Who takes responsibility for the Bhopal disaster? Residents blame Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) which was the largest shareholder at the time of the disaster, and Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) which owned the pesticide plant. However, the companies have refuted all blame. Along with the Indian government, UCC and UCIL have nearly guaranteed that the Bhopal victims will never find closure in their lifetimes.
UCIL operations were intended to model those of UCC in West Virginia, yet safety measures at the Bhopal plant fell noticeably short. A 1985 investigation of the Bhopal disaster conducted by The New York Times found that the plant did not hold employees and machinery to the same training, experience, education, or maintenance standards as other UCC plants. Months before the disaster even occurred, refrigeration of the methyl isocyanate, which prevented accidents, was discontinued to cut energy costs at the plant. For similar reasons, UCIL had let go about half of the Bhopal plant’s skilled workers, and numerous malfunctioning safety systems had been in disrepair for weeks.
When the methyl isocyanate leak was found the night of the disaster, a supervisor knowingly delayed further inspection for at least an hour, after which the poison was not transferred to a designated tank because it was still full from previous use. Despite knowing the severity of the situation, residents were not alerted to the disaster, and employees fled rather than using the company-owned buses to evacuate those nearby, as was protocol. Financial difficulties and mismanagement had condemned the Bhopal plant to a disastrous fate long before the leak began.
Those with the most power to help victims appear to be the least interested in doing so. Neither the Indian government nor UCC has ever launched any cleanup efforts for the current residents of Bhopal. What little hazardous waste the government and corporations have removed directly benefited those entities, such as cleanup for high-end construction projects. Finally in 2007, 23 years after the disaster, the Indian Supreme Court ordered the waste to be dealt with by state and local governments. Yet, there has been additional controversy surrounding the environmental safeguards of the landfill and incineration processes, further prolonging remediation efforts in Bhopal.
Medical care offered to those affected by the disaster has been inadequate. UCC has only ever shared vital information regarding methyl isocyanate gas with Indian officials, disregarding the health and safety concerns of victims. Government-run hospitals refuse to acknowledge the effects of the gas on the health of the Bhopal community, thus denying proper evaluations and medical treatment.
In 1989, the Indian government and UCC reached a compensation settlement. Of the $3 billion requested on behalf of the victims, only $470 million was ever paid by UCC, a mere 14% of the original value. Furthermore, the settlement gave victims on average only 25,000 rupees or just under $400 at the time.
Aside from the settlement, the corporation has evaded justice at the expense of Bhopal victims for decades. Former UCC employees and Indian officials have avoided jail time either by remaining abroad or hiding behind government protections. To this day, UCC has never appeared in court, despite numerous accounts of gross negligence. Successful charges against UCC would have substantial legal and financial implications for the company and its shareholders.
The United States government still plays a significant role in the Indian tragedy. The US has intervened multiple times on behalf of UCC, an American company, to prevent their involvement in court proceedings. In 2003, the Secretary of State refused an extradition request to have the CEO of UCC face trial in India, and in 2010, an undersecretary of state met with officials in India to prevent the reopening of the compensation agreement for Bhopal victims. President Barack Obama’s visit to India later that year focused on supporting the operations of Dow Chemical in the country. Through various incidents between 2014 and 2019, the US government has practically ensured that UCC will never face justice in India.
Four decades post-Bhopal, devastation persists. Victims of the disaster have received little financial compensation and insufficient medical care. Zero meaningful efforts to remedy their now-toxic environment have been taken. Those affected seek closure for this never-ending tragedy, yet it has proven difficult to find. Regarding the disaster, a longtime resident of Bhopal tells The Guardian, “It would be better if there was another gas leak which could kill us all and put us all out of this misery.”
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