Thursday, December 03, 2009

Death Came By One Night

Twenty-five years ago today, December 3, 1984, death came to Bhopal as it slept. The nearby Union Carbide (now Dow Chemicals) plant leaked methyl isocyanate (MIC) and other toxins in the air, exposing half a million people to deadly gases. About 4000 people died instantly. A few days later it was estimated that double that number died. In the years after the tragedy, babies were born with an inordinate number of birth defects, and survivors suffered a host of exposure-related illnesses. It is now estimated that 20,000 have died since the accident of gas-related reasons. An additional 100,000 to 200,000 battle the ill-effects of the leak even now.

I remember, as a young teenager, waking up to the news of the gas leak. And in the days that followed, I had nightmares about the dead. One photograph in particular has stuck in my mind even after all these years, and I believe it might be one that most people still think of when they think of Bhopal. A hand, palm down is caught in the process of burying a child. All you can see are the staring dead eyes, the mouth slightly open. And that the greyness of the ground and the skin of the child are virtually the same.

Twenty-five years have passed and those who lived through the gas leak and those who lost someone are still without any recompense. Not a recompense as much as money to help with their considerable medical expenses. It's sad really when we have frivolous lawsuits in the U.S. (hot McDonald's coffee anyone?) and when the Erin Brokovich's of the world have movies made about them.

There are no movies about Bhopal perhaps because there are no heroes. Perhaps because the only true heroes are the ones who survived that night when death crept in slowly and soundlessly. They went on, and despite poverty and the lack of wherewithal to fight against a powerful nexus of corporate greed and government laxity...they live on. But we don't venerate quiet power do we? We want our heroes to smash down barriers to live an arc of cinematic grandeur. And no one in Bhopal did that.

Twenty-five years later this is what we know:

1. Even now there are some 390 tons of toxic chemicals abandoned at the Union Carbide site, slowly leaching into the ground, continuing to poison those who live in the area.

2. There are currently civil and criminal cases pending at the District Court of Bhopal and at the US District Court of Manhattan. There is even a warrant out for the CEO of Union Carbide at the time, Warren Anderson. Yet no one, that's right no one has been arrested, let alone prosecuted for neglilence leading to essentually,
mass murder. Warren Anderson has never been extradided to face charges and lives in luxury in Bridgehampton, NY.

3. This was not merely an accident. it was pure negligence. Union Carbide used hazardous chemicals like MIC despite the availability of less dangerous ones. The chemicals weres stored in large tanks instead of in steel drums. There was corrosion in the pipelines and there was multiple failure of several systems due to poor maintenance and regulations. In fact, safety systems were shut down to save money. There had also been previous warnings and accidents. In fact in 1981 American experts had warned of the possibility of a disaster in the MIC tank, and local authorities had warned Union Carbide on several occasions from 1979 onwards.

Did Union Carbide ignore these warnings due to pure hubris or because it was situated among the poor of Bhopal and their lives truly had no value?

4. There was some compensation paid. Widows of the tragedy received Rs 150 (later raised to Rs 750) a month. Yes, that's about USD 3-15. About Rs. 200 was given to everyone who was born before the tragedy. That's about USD 10. A one-time payment of Rs 1,500 (about USD 38) was paid to all families with a monthly income of less than Rs 5000 (USD 100). Other payments are of equally ludicrous amounts.

The final payment by Union Carbide (for over 20,000 deaths and about 200,000+) affected was $470 million. That sounds like a huge amount until you compare it to the $333 million paid out to the plaintiffs of Hinckley, CA for the contamination of their ground water by Pacific Gas and Electric (Erin Brokovich)....and this was an issue that affected 40...yes 40 homes!

As if the sum decided upon by the Government of India and Union Carbide was not bad enough, the local and state government corruption in the state of Madhya Pradesh, has done its bit to victimize those who had already lost so much on that cold December night 25 years ago. This has taken the form of lost paperwork, paying out more money to richer people with connections, not acknowledging that birth defects or deformities were directly caused by the gas leak, delayed payments, etc.

Did I mention there were and are no heroes in Bhopal? There are some unsung ones, those without panache or sex appeal. There are NGOs in Bhopal working for the victims and for the cause of justice but not much is happening. And isn't true heroism striving even when the results are unknown?

But it is up to us to not forget, to remember the horrors of that night, to continue to support NGOs and others working for the victims of Bhopal. I know I can't ever forget because those dead eyes will haunt me no matter where I am. Those eyes and the question I see in their sightless gaze.


Mighty Mom said...

That photo is heart-wrenching. Oh my God, the pain.

Cantaloupes.Amma (CA) said...

That photo really haunting. Oh my God .. what sufferings

Melody said...

I am ashamed to say that I've never heard of this tragedy, but thank you for making me aware of it. How horrific. I cannot believe the company that did this still exists in any form.

Judy Bussey said...

I remember, but had forgotten Bhopal, I'm ashamed to say. You're right,"quiet power is not venerated". I appreciate your reminder of the tragedy, still the worst worldwide. You are giving voice to those who have none.

Good luck to the NGOs.


John Atkinson said...

Allied Chemical dumped toxic chemicals into the James River here in Virginia about the same time. I don't know if the hurt to people didn't play out the same as there. I suspect some parts of the James River is still toxic. They said it would take a hundred years to leach out. Greed has no limits.

Rohini said...

That's the first time I saw that picture. It was like someone socked me in the gut.