At 12.05am on December 3, 1984, a lethal cloud of methyl isocyanate (MIC), a toxic chemical used in the manufacture of pesticides, exploded at the huge, US-owned Union Carbide plant on the northern edge of Bhopal.

Highly reactive, MIC must be kept under constant pressure at a temperature of 0°C – yet cost-conscious officials had reduced the pressure to save some US$70 a day. When water entered tank E-610 through badly maintained and leaking valves to contaminate the MIC, a massive reaction was triggered. Wind dispersed the gas throughout the densely populated residential districts and slums. There was neither a warning siren nor adequate emergency procedures in place, leaving the thick cloud of gas to blind and suffocate its victims. The leak killed 1600 instantly (according to official figures) and between 7000 and 10,000 in the aftermath, but the figure now totals well over 25,000 in the years since the incident. More than 500,000 people were exposed to the gas, of whom about one fifth have been left with chronic and incurable health problems, often passed on to children born in years following the tragedy. The water in the community pumps of the affected residential areas remains contaminated with dangerous toxic chemicals that seeped out from the now-deserted factory. Campaigners say the factory still contains thousands of tonnes of toxic waste.

Evading responsibility

Though the incidence of TB, cancers, infertility and cataracts in the affected area remains way above the national average, the factory officials initially said the effect of MIC was akin to that of tear gas, causing only temporary health problems. They accepted moral responsibility for the accident, but blamed the Indian government for inadequate safety standards when it came to the issue of compensation. Only in 1989 did Union Carbide agree to pay an average of Rs25,000 to each adult victim – a paltry sum that didn’t even cover loans for the medical bills in the first five years, let alone compensate for the loss of life and livelihoods and other consequences of the disaster. In 2001, the Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre opened to treat patients.

Despite both US and Indian former bosses being charged with serious offences – including manslaughter – the government and factory authorities had been keen to sweep the whole episode under the carpet. It took until June 2010 for some measure of justice to be dispensed, when a Bhopal court gave seven former factory employees two-year prison sentences for causing “death by negligence”. The court also fined the former Indian unit of Union Carbide Rs500,000. NGOs and local campaigners dismissed the ruling as completely inadequate. Warren Anderson, the former CEO of Union Carbide in the US, never faced justice; Anderson fled India to the US after the Indian court granted him bail and, although in 2002 a Bhopal court directed India’s Central Bureau of Investigation to pursue his extradition, the US authorities refused to extradite him, and he died in a nursing home in Florida in 2014.

After much lobbying, the government in 2005 launched a legal case to recoup money from Dow Chemical, which bought Union Carbide in 2001 but denies ongoing liability. To date, little progress has been made but people in Bhopal continue to stage regular protests and rallies.

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