Bhopal Victims of the Worst Industrial Accident

The year 1984 is remembered as a tragic year in India's history. Not only did the nation lose Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to the assasins' bullets, the nation also lost thousands of Sikhs in the riots that followed the political assassination, and thousands of Muslims and hundreds of Hindus in Bhopal's deadly gas leak of December 3, 1984. The Bhopal disaster is still believed to be the world's worst industrial accident that instantaneously claimed the lives of at least 2,500 people, and injured about 400,000, with the toll still rising to this day.

Media reports indicate that a leak of the toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC) occurred that night when it reacted with a large volume of water that seeped into the MIC storage tanks. Detection and subsequent action by Union Carbide employees was too late to contain the leak, and forty tons of MIC flowed out of the tanks over two hours. And even if they had reacted immediately, the safety standards accepted at the plant would not have allowed them to do anything about it. Thus the MIC gas escaped into the atmosphere and drifted five miles downwind over the city of Bhopal, population 900,000, poisoning all in its path. The cause of the gas leak remains in dispute. Union Carbide says it was an act of sabotage, the malicious work of a disgruntled employee who added water to a storage tank, which caused a reaction that built up heat and pressure. However, no one has been charged.

The most seriously affected areas are those nearest the plant, the absolutely poorest sector of the population, mostly Muslims. Prior to the tragedy, the city evoked the splendor of its Muslim past. It was here that princes and princesses rode elephants draped in gold. It is the home of the Taj-ul-Masjid, one of the largest mosques in the country. The "City of Lakes" lies along a sandstone ridge.

There is a continuing stalemate on the clean up of the plant site and its vicinity of hundreds of tons of toxic waste, which remains untouched. Environmentalists have warned that the toxic waste could result in contamination causing decades of slow poisoning, and diseases affecting the nervous system, liver and kidneys in humans. According to activists, there are studies showing that the rates of cancer and other ailments are high in the region. Activists have demanded that Dow clean up this toxic dump, and have pressed the government of India to demand more money from Dow.

Indian officials claim that most of the $470 million in compensation received from Union Carbide has been distributed, but there are lingering suspicions that a large part the funds have been lost to corruption. Another $40 million has been used to build the Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Center, which opened in 2000.

Governmemnt officials have dismissed claims that the pesticide plant at Bhopal is still leaking dangerous toxins into drinking water. However, a report published by the British-based charity the Bhopal Medical Appeal (BMA) and the Sambhavna Clinic in Bhopal says there is evidence that "there are still high levels of toxic chemicals in the drinking water supply in 15 communities near the old Union Carbide pesticide plant".

The report says the water "in and around the Union Carbide factory site in Bhopal still contains extremely unsafe levels of carbon tetrachloride and other persistent organic pollutants, solvents, nickel and other heavy metals". "Not surprisingly," the report claims, "the populations in the areas surveyed have high rates of birth defects, rapidly rising cancer rates, neurological damage, chaotic menstrual cycles and mental illness." The scientists at Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR)have announced plans to investigate the long-term health effects of the disaster, including studies to see if the toxic gases caused genetic disorders, low birth weight, growth and development disorders, congenital malformation and biological markers of MIC/toxic gas exposure.

Many of the survivors of this tragedy still live in crowded slums near the abandoned factory walls. In addition to continuing high rates of various ailments in the surviving population and their children, the effects of the accident twenty five years ago this month have also set the city's economic development back by decades, causing widespread and long-lasting poverty well beyond the areas affected by the initial gas cloud.

The economy of the state of Madhya Pradesh, of which Bhopal is the capital, is growing at a rate of about 4% per year, much slower than the national average for India. There are more hungry people in India than anywhere else in the world, though Madhya Pradesh is the only state in the country where the level of hunger is "extremely alarming", according to the India State Hunger Index.

Six in 10 children in the state are undernourished, and more people suffer from hunger here than in Ethiopia or Sudan, according to the index, which was published in October 2008.

Dow Chemicals, which now owns Union Carbide, is facing corruption allegations in India. India's Central Bureau of Investigation raided offices of a Dow subsidiary in 2007. The raids followed allegations of bribes being paid to Indian regulatory officials to facilitate licenses for Dow pesticide products. In 2007, Dow paid a $325,000 penalty to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to settle an S.E.C. investigation into those same payments.

Dow has also enlisted some strong allies here, including big corporate names like Tata and Reliance conglomerates, and some top government officials including Commerce Minister Kamal Nath.

As India, Pakistan and other developing nations vie for foreign direct investments by multi-national companies seeking to set up industries to lower their production costs and increase their profits, the lessons of Bhopal must not be forgotten. It is the responsibility of the governments of the developing countries to insist on legislating and enforcing strict environmental and safety standards to protect their people to avoid another Bhopal. Public interest groups, NGOs and environmental and labor activists must press the politicians and the bureaucrats to protect the people against the growing safety hazards stemming from increasing global footprint of large industrial conglomerates.

Related Links:

Grinding Poverty in Resurgent India

Health Risks Rise as Bunge Jumps in Pakistan

Merchants of Death Eye Pakistan Market

Pakistan Chemical Industry Overview

Horrors of Bhopal 1984

Sikh Victims of 1984 Massacre in India

Ending Corruption Not a Priority in South Asia

Comments

Riaz Haq said…
#India is no stranger to chamber of horrors it faces in #COVID19 #pandemic with people gasping for breath and dying on the streets. Earlier 1984 #Bhopal #gas leak was the worst industrial disaster in human history when similar scenes unfolded. #Coronavirus https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2021/04/india-covid19-moral-failure/618702/

India may be classified as a developing or middle-income country, and by international standards, it does not spend enough on the health of its people. Yet this masks many of India’s strengths in the health-care sector: Our doctors are among the best trained on the planet, and as is well known by now, our country is a pharmacy for the world, thanks to an industry built around making cost-effective medicines and vaccines.

What is evident, however, is that we suffer from moral malnutrition—none of us more so than the rich, the upper class, the upper caste of India. And nowhere is this more evident than in the health-care sector.

India’s economic liberalization in the ’90s brought with it a rapid expansion of the private health-care industry, a shift that ultimately created a system of medical apartheid: World-class private hospitals catered to wealthy Indians and medical tourists from abroad; state-run facilities were for the poor. Those with money were able to purchase the best available care (or, in the case of the absolute richest, flee to safety in private jets), while elsewhere the country’s health-care infrastructure was held together with duct tape. The Indians who bought their way to a healthier life did not, or chose not to, see the widening gulf. Today, they are clutching their pearls as their loved ones fail to get ambulances, doctors, medicine, and oxygen.

I have covered health and science for nearly 20 years, including as the health editor for The Hindu, a major Indian newspaper. That time has taught me that there is no shortcut to public health, no opting out from it. Now the rich sit alongside the poor, facing a reckoning that had only ever plagued the vulnerable in India.

Averting our gaze from the tragedies surrounding us, remaining divorced from reality, in our little bubbles, are political and moral choices. We have been willfully unaware of the ricketyness of our health-care system. The collective well-being of our nation depends on us showing solidarity with and compassion toward one another. No one is safe until everyone is.

Our actions compound, one small act at a time—not pressing for greater attention to the vulnerable, because we are safe; not demanding better hospitals for all Indians, because we can afford excellent health care; assuming we can seal ourselves off from our country’s failings toward our compatriots.

A prior Indian tragedy shows the shortcomings of that approach.

Shortly after midnight on December 3, 1984, in the central Indian city of Bhopal, a tank in a pesticide factory leaked, releasing methyl isocyanate into the night sky. What would unfold in the following hours, days, weeks, months, and years was the world’s worst industrial disaster.

Officially, the Indian government says that 5,295 people died overall—others put the death toll far higher—and hundreds of thousands suffered chemical poisoning. The run-up to and the immediate aftermath of the incident were chaotic: The company that owned the plant had not kept its security and safety precautions up to date, and locals and medical professionals in the area were not aware of how to protect themselves.

Over time, toxic pollution from the plant contaminated the soil and groundwater around the site, resulting in higher-than-average rates of cancer, birth defects, and respiratory disorders. The area is still a toxic mess. The company, the local and state government, and India’s federal authorities have all consistently blamed one another. The deaths began decades ago, yet the suffering continues now.
Riaz Haq said…
We were Dalits living underground. A minority within a minority. A shadow of the margin. Precocious and keenly aware of how different our family was, I urgently wanted to pretend that I could be just like all the other oblivious American kids. But a deeper current of trauma was always swirling around my family. A whirlpool of a wound that had no name but was everywhere. It brought a jagged edge to all our happy family photos. It was a crisis that could drop at any moment. A truth that felt like it could end everything.

Soundararajan, Thenmozhi. The Trauma of Caste (p. 11). North Atlantic Books. Kindle Edition.

It was a fear that bound us into silence and broke us over and over again. Even more so because we did not name it. Running, passing, hiding. This is the litany of the Dalit American. At ten years old, I was also consumed by a report about the Bhopal disaster, the world’s worst industrial accident, when over forty tons of deadly gas exploded from the Union Carbide pesticide plant, killing thousands.1 It was a catastrophe on the scale of Chernobyl, but with people who looked like me. I couldn’t believe an American-owned company could destroy the land and human bodies like that with no accountability. The suffering of the disaster was so great that it could for a moment break through the endless parade of whiteness in the media. And for that moment the whole world heard my people scream.

Soundararajan, Thenmozhi. The Trauma of Caste (pp. 11-12). North Atlantic Books. Kindle Edition.

I remember as a child being haunted by the images of the disaster. I put my hands on the faces of the survivors and the dead in magazine photos. I was struck by one author describing the disaster as if the whole city had become a gas chamber. I imagined the horror of a city drowned in toxic plumes that in an instant blinded, burned, and torched the throats of thousands of people even as they screamed. I was moved by a tragedy that I didn’t really have the maturity to grasp; but it touched me in ways that I still cannot name. And it is a tragedy that is still ongoing. The Indian government, Union Carbide, and its parent company, Dow Dupont, all continue pointing fingers at each other, while the seventy-acre site in Bhopal has yet to be cleaned up. Many survivors struggle even today. A disproportionate number of those deaths were of people called “untouchables.” I didn’t know what that meant. The word itself had no logic. Why would

Soundararajan, Thenmozhi. The Trauma of Caste (p. 12). North Atlantic Books. Kindle Edition.

you not touch someone? I had to stop and look it up. This was before the internet. Knowledge was held in encyclopedias, the kind that took up an entire bookshelf, bound in fake leather with titles in gold letters. Knowledge was expensive: most encyclopedia sets were hundreds if not thousands of dollars. But my mom, being the Dalit mother she was, believed in knowledge, that it should be free or low cost, and that it was important for me and my sister to have as much of it as possible. So she went to every thrift store in the city and found a set that was ten years old at the Salvation Army for $50. I loved them and would read them from beginning to end.

Soundararajan, Thenmozhi. The Trauma of Caste (p. 12). North Atlantic Books. Kindle Edition.

Riaz Haq said…
Soundararajan's parents are from a village in rural India where they experienced inter-caste violence. Her father is a doctor and her mother is the first woman from her family to get a college education.[5] In the fifth grade, after reading about the effects of the Bhopal disaster on the Untouchables, she learned from her mother that she is a Dalit.[6]

Soundararajan publicly revealed that she is a Dalit when she made a documentary film on caste and violence against women as a part of her college thesis at the University of California, Berkeley. For Soundararajan, this decision had many consequences: while fellow Dalits secretly confided in her about their identity, she has also stated that she faced discrimination from almost all of the Indian professors in her campus and that they refused to advise her on projects.[6]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thenmozhi_Soundararajan

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