As the crow flies, or as the gas leaks, the Union Carbide plant is no more than a hundred metres from Tulsabai’s one-room home in the shantytown of JP Nagar in Bhopal. When I arrive there one afternoon, she is asleep on a mat. Much as she must have been, I think to myself, that dark night in 1984. So many years later, there in that one room, Tulsabai and I sit to chat. And I am disconcerted to find I am listening to her only intermittently.
For I’m very conscious of that plant. Of its dilapidated, weed-surrounded bulk: a brooding presence, right there across the street. Much as it must have been in 1984. Only a hundred metres away as the crow flies. Only a hundred metres away as the gas whispers death.
Apologies, Tulsabai. But I hear you. I hear the pain and sorrow in your quavering voice, the hurt that has not gone all these years later. And I understand how much is wrong, unjust, about how the tragedy of Bhopal has played itself out.
The bare bones, first. Nearing midnight on Sunday, December 2 1984, a cloud of deadly gas erupted from a storage tank in the Carbide plant. Reams have been written about what the cloud contained, how it was formed and how it leaked. Suffice it to say, here, that over the next few hours, it spread some 27 tonnes of poison — think of it, 27 tonnes wafting through the air — over a sleeping city.
The wind carried it the hundred metres to Tulsabai’s home and over JP Nagar, first and worst affected. Thousands of people woke with their eyes burning, unable to breathe. “It was like somebody was roasting chillies,” says Partap, Tulsabai’s half-blind son — a comparison that many others echo. They began to run for their lives. Began to drop dead as they ran. One description of that night:
People lost control of their bodies. Urine and faeces ran down their legs. Some began vomiting uncontrollably. Others were wracked with seizures and fell dead. The gases irritated people’s lungs into producing so much fluid that their lungs were filled with it, “drowning” them in their own body fluids.
Officially, some 1600 people were dead by morning, though unofficial estimates were much higher. And yet, the precise number that night is sadly irrelevant today. For in a quarter-century, the toll has risen well beyond ten times that official figure. If the gas whispered widespread death that night, it has whispered it to thousands more in the years since. It has left still more thousands blind, asthmatic, depressed, ill in myriad ways, robbed of the will to live.
That is the legacy of Union Carbide.
But there’s more, and it compounds tragedy.
First, the notorious figure everyone knows like they know a cavity. After demanding several billion dollars in compensation from Carbide, the Government of India suddenly settled for $470 million in 1989. As many have pointed out, that’s less than a tenth of Exxon’s fine for the Valdez oil spill in Alaska, which killed nobody.
Second, the way even that money was distributed. While their claims were investigated over several years, victims were paid Rs 200 a month. Then they got their “final” amount: in most cases, about Rs 30,000 minus the total of the monthly payments. For too many victims, this wasn’t even enough to cover medical expenses they had already incurred.
Third, innumerable and familiar tales of chicanery, apathy, corruption and pig-headedness in the Government claims machinery. In a typical case, Abdul Wahid’s mother died “directly of the adverse effects of the [Carbide] gas on the 15th June, 1985”. Abdul was granted an ex-gratia payment of Rs 10,000, a monthly pension of Rs 750, and filed a claim for Rs 500,000. The official concerned “rejected [the] claim on the grounds that it was not proved that she was in Bhopal on [that] night.” Abdul appealed. In October 1994 — nine years after his mother died — the claims Tribunal overturned the rejection and awarded Abdul his money (though the amount was reduced to Rs 150,000). [Quotes from the Tribunal’s order].
42 year-old Anwar Khan, an unemployed victim, sums up the frustration that such struggles have produced: “What is the role of magistrates and lawyers in all this?” he asks me rhetorically. “We didn’t commit any crime!”
Fourth, the still palpable resentment directed at Union Carbide. One reason is the amount of the settlement; another is the neglect that caused the leak; an unexpected one is that Carbide handed the compensation to the Government instead of distributing it itself. Many feel this would have meant far less delay and corruption.
Above all, victims believe Carbide — or Dow Chemical, that now owns Carbide — is still liable for the leak. That the company must at any rate clean up the area.
As an aside, I asked Ravi Muthukrishnan, MD of Dow Chemical India Private Limited (DCIPL) what he thought about liability. He replied by bland email: “Dow Chemical [is not] accountable legally or otherwise for the Bhopal accident. As a shareholder, Dow Chemical is not liable for Union Carbide obligations, if any.” He did acknowledge that Dow is in a “dialogue” with victims about “extending some form of humanitarian assistance to the people of Bhopal”, though he would not say more.
But that cleanup. Much evidence has accumulated that the old Carbide factory has contaminated the soil and water in the area. A security guard at the complex told me I could not enter because large quantities of chemicals were still stored in the plant. “The soil itself is now poisonous,” he said.
In JP Nagar, I visited three wells whose water is too tainted to drink. One was in Govandi Lal’s house: the irony of having a well at home but walking to a municipal tap for drinking water is startling and sad.
In Bhopal, such are the signs of the devastation 27 tonnes of gas caused. Twenty-five years later, that devastation says something to me about moral liability. Ordinary humanity. Seems to me even companies can feel it. Must feel it.
Dilip D’Souza is a writer in Bombay. This article is based on a trip to Bhopal and the areas where the gas spread he made a few years ago. He thinks the greatest shame of the whole Bhopal tragedy is that so many of us have chosen to forget it happened, that it destroyed so many lives.