“At first, the air smells of burned chilis. If you do not get away as fast as possible, soon you find yourself in a thick white mist. Your eyes, throat, and lungs begin to burn and fill up with oozing fluid and melting tissues. Then you lose control of your nervous system, vomit uncontrollably, and seize up with cramps. If you are lucky, you lose consciousness and die. If not, your death is a long drawn out, agonizing affair. If you survive, your lungs and eyes will never work properly again. Muscle pains and ulcers will prevent you from working or leading a normal life. You will give birth to unimaginably deformed, dead babies."
This quote by Pablo Mukherjee might sound like a paragraph from a science-fiction novel about a terrifying contagion, but it describes reality for thousands of people in the Indian town of Bhopal on the night of December 2-3, 1984.
This fateful night truly began in 1969, when Union Carbide, an American pesticide corporation now known as Dow Chemical Corporation, built a factory in Bhopal. The factory was inherently marked for disaster: not only did the company fail to give the Indian factory workers proper training, which would seem necessary for working in a dangerous pesticide plant, but they only prepared one manual backup system for the plant. Union Carbide’s United States plant had four backup systems. The company clearly knew that four were necessary, but ignored the risks in favor of saving money. Over the next ten years, Indian authorities warned the factory that the factory was dangerous, after multiple accidents resulting in the deaths of workers. The company still chose to ignore these warnings and continued to cut costs despite the clear safety risks and breaking of safety protocols, such as failing to keep the valves and lines in proper condition, skipping safety tests, keeping over 10 tons of extra chemicals in the tanks at 4x the recommended heat, and even turning off key safety features.
On the night of the accident, water leaked into the tanks and caused a reaction that made the gas heavier than air, which made it easier to spread quickly throughout the community. Over 8,000 people lost their lives that night alone. It is hard to imagine the pain these people went through the very night of the leak and the horrors they saw. What is even worse, though, is what they endured in the years following, and continue to endure to this day. The poisons released on that night continue to linger in the water supply and affect community members born even thirty years later. Women face serious issues with infertility, which has ruined the population and the economy, and their breast-milk often have traces of lead and other poisons. Men from other areas refuse to marry women from Bhopal, causing serious social issues in the town due to the smaller gene pool. Children are born with defects that range from mental illness to missing or misplaced limbs. Grown men are unable to work, creating serious destitution in an already poverty-stricken community. Yet the factory is still standing, surrounded by a cloud of harsh chemicals just as it was in 1984. The worst part? Union Carbide has completed secret tests proving that the water supply is lethal, yet have failed to warn the citizens of Bhopal against drinking the water. When this information came to light, they did all they could to hide this information from the public, despite their disturbing findings: the chemical levels caused 100% toxicity in nearby fish and was continuing to spread.
Reading the account of the accident, you probably (and rightfully) think that Union Carbide is to blame for the accident. However, nobody has ever taken true responsibility. Survivors of the accident have been fighting for justice for over thirty years, but to little avail. Union Carbide paid a total of 470 million US dollars for the lives of thousands of people. This is only 14% of what was asked for, and amounted to less than one thousand dollars per person. Is this what their lives were worth? A couple hundred dollars? And not even a formal apology? The very fact that there was only one backup system in the Bhopal factory compared to the four supplied to the American factory is extremely problematic. The factory clearly sees the lives of rural Indians as inherently less than those of American people. The Bhopal criminal court has repeatedly summoned Union Carbide to appear in court, but they have never bothered to show up. They do not even care enough to acknowledge their responsibility in the accident, and continue to hide out and ignore the law and the moral repercussions.
The Bhopal gas leak is the world’s worst industrial disaster, yet most people I know have never even heard of it, let alone learned about it in school. It is frustrating that nobody seems to remember or care about the injustices that these people continuously suffer, and will continue to deal with for many years to come. However, there is a way you can help: several groups such as the Bhopal Medical Appeal continue to fight for justice for the victims in Bhopal and raise money for legal fees, healthcare, and social work. If you are unable to donate, just continuing to learn and spreading the word about what is happening in Bhopal will help bring them one step closer to justice.
To donate to the Bhopal Medical Appeal or learn more about the accident, click here.
Cover Image via ShutterStock