Bhopal: story of a tragedy

In December 1984 a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India leaked  tons of highly toxic gas in the air and water. The first reports estimate that the leak had caused between 7’000 and 10’000 immediate deaths. Over time, the repercussions of the toxic leak possibly caused another 15’000 victims, according to Indian officials and non-governmental organisations like Amnesty International and Greenpeace.

Bhopal is the capital city of the central Indian state Madhya Pradesh and since 1969 it was home of an important subsidiary plant of the American owned company: Union Carbide. The Bhopal plant was producing pesticides but in December 1984 an important amount of water flooded the tank containing the chemicals and led to an important leak of gas, including methyl isocyanate and other carcinogens (substance that causes or aggravates cancer on people and animals).

On the morning of December 3rd thousands of people died from burning lungs and others were killed in the panic caused by the toxic cloud and the fleeing crowd. Many people also lost their sight.

On monday 7th June 2010, nearly 25 years after the world’s worst industrial catastrophe, 7 senior employees of the Indian Union Carbide subsidiary were convicted to 2 years of jail. But walked free on bail shortly after the verdict. They were also fine approximately £2’000. The company was fined £10’000 and the CEO of the time, Warren Anderson, fled to New York… where he lived happily ever after, although the Bhopal supreme court has persistently asked for its extradition.

To this date 500’000 people have suffered of the consequences of the gas leak and the region is still affected by the presence of chemicals, even 25 years later. Babies are born with important congenital defects due to the exposure of their parents to the polluted air and water. Studies show that important concentration of contaminants as far as in a 3km radius around the former Union Carbide, which leads not surprisingly to an important build-up of toxic chemicals in the local plants, soils, animals and people… Among the 16 contaminants found in higher levels than permitted by the World Health Organisation, the number of particles of the carcinogen carbon tetrachloride is 2’4000 times higher than it should.

Although the hypothesis of a sabotage was envisioned, the Bhopal leak is most surely the result of poor safety and quality standards, little supervision of the head company and negligence by the direction of the Bhopal plant. However now Union Carbide was acquired by Dow chemicals and they have refused to endorse responsibility for the 1984 accident, arguing that the deal was settled in 1989 when Union Carbide paid a compensation of $470 million to the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.

Negligence? Accident? Homicide? Fair verdict? Equitable settlement? With the supposed responsables of the Bhopal disaster now walking free from the court’s sentence, can this tragedy really be relegated to the past? Can the Bhopal population move on with the small satisfaction resulting from the disappointingly weak sentence of a 25 years long court trial? 

 With this final chapter closed on the court’s sentence, who is now to answer for the thousands of children still born with diseases and malformations? Who is now to care for the Bhopal population and environment?

For more information on the victims’ needs and the Bhopal clean up visit the Madhya Pradesh website, here.

source: the Guardian and The Ecologist, photo credits The Boston Globe.

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