How safe is Bhopal Madhya Pradesh

"Wake up! Hurry up and run, if you don't all want to die, shouted the neighbor's son through our window shortly after midnight. We didn't know what was going on, but we could tell from his voice that it had to be something very serious. We opened the door and immediately began to cough, and our eyes began to burn: gas streamed into the house. And so we ran too, each with what he was wearing. We all ran towards the hospital, each running for his life! I could barely open my eyes. Those who fell stayed where they were, no one could help them. The following simply ran over them. "

Ms. Champa Devi told me her story from the night of December 2nd to 3rd, 1984. That night, over 40 tons of highly toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC) flowed uncontrollably from tank 610 of the Union Carbide India chemical plant in the Indian city of Bhopal, a subsidiary of the American concern Union Carbide Corporation. The company produced the pesticide Sevin here in India. It was the worst human-made environmental disaster in history to date. Almost 4,000 people died instantly that night, and an estimated 25,000 more, or perhaps more, over the next few days, weeks, and months.

Recording of a victim at the time, judicial
medical institute, Bhopal

Autopsied fetuses of gas victims retained for future study;
Forensic Institute, Bhopal
“My husband fell and cried out loudly. He groaned that he had slashed his stomach when he fell. When we somehow got to the hospital anyway, my two daughters had white foam around their mouth and nose, and my youngest passed out. God gave me the strength to forget my own pain in order to try to save my family. I saw water dripping from a pipe nearby. I soaked my eldest daughter's scarf with it and cleaned my children's faces. They immediately felt a little better and my youngest came to again. A great many people were waiting in the square in front of the hospital, their screams echoing through the night. Dead bodies were piled on a pile like sacks of wheat. The doctors had no idea what to do, what drugs to give. I was very afraid!"

Champa Devi lost almost her entire family in this accident. Her youngest daughter was paralyzed afterwards and she could not even speak any more. Her eldest son then became so short of breath that he took his own life. Her husband tore his bladder open when he fell and died of bladder cancer as a result of the injury. Her youngest son, who was also a victim of the gas, was killed in a traffic accident. After all these tragedies, Champa Devi began campaigning for the victims' right to work. After many empty promises she founded the aid organization “Chingari Trust” with Ms. Rashida Bee and devoted the rest of her life to fighting for justice for the gas victims. In 2004 they were jointly awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize, one of the most important environmental prizes, as the most recent award.

The people who inhaled the gas during the night and did not immediately die from it subsequently suffered mainly from pulmonary edema, visual problems, paralysis, brain damage and heart, liver and kidney damage. As a long-term effect, there was an increased incidence of cancer, in women also miscarriages and miscarriages as well as infertility. In total, there are estimated numbers between 250,000 and 500,000 injured people in circulation today, nobody knows for sure.

Registered deaths immediately after the accident. Image taken with the permission of the Institute of Forensic Medicine, Bhopal

After the accident, the parent company Union Carbide Corporation paid $ 7 million in emergency aid, and it also sent an international team of doctors and medical equipment to Bhopal. The then managing director, Warren Anderson, traveled to India four days after the disaster but was placed under house arrest immediately upon arrival.

He left the country immediately on bail of about US $ 2,000. Later found guilty of negligent homicide by the Indian Supreme Court, the American government denied all Indian extradition requests. Warren Anderson was until his death on September 29, 2014 a figure projected for the anger of the Bhopal victims and activists: "Hang Anderson" was until recently one of the slogans, or: "Where’s Warren?"

Mentally disabled boy, Chingari Trust, Bhopal

Long-term hospital victims: over 100 free
Treatments for lung damage since 1984

In February 1989, the Indian government, representing the Bhopal victims and Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), reached an out-of-court settlement of US $ 470 million, plus the construction of a hospital for the gas victims and long-term funding for free patient treatment . In return, the UCC received a guarantee that protected them from further claims and prosecutions in India. Insurance companies contributed another US $ 250 million to compensate the victims.

Damaged persons then received an initial tranche of INR 25,000, and long-term injured persons received the same amount again after 10 years. Union Carbide India had sales of approximately US $ 200 million in 1984 and employs 9,000 people in 14 factories across India. The American parent company Union Carbide Corporation owned 50.9 percent of the shares, just over 24 percent of the shares belonged to the Indian government, the remaining shares were held by small shareholders. The worldwide turnover of the parent company in the USA was US $ 9.4 billion at the time.

To get an idea of ​​the situation in the factory at that time, I spoke to a former employee of Union Carbide India. I met Mohammed Yaqub in his apartment. He is 64 years old today. From 1977 he worked as a maintenance worker in the factory and he is sure that he owes his life to this fact. At the time, the employees received safety training because there were always incidents. There was a fire once, and about a year before the disaster, an employee who came in direct contact with methyl isocyanate died. So Mohammed knew how dangerous the gas was.

“I was at home that night, I didn't have a night shift. We were still awake when it happened. I could already smell the gas, it has such a typical, pungent smell and I told my wife that something was wrong.

When the people on the street started screaming and running, we ran with them. Our eyes started burning and I knew I had to act immediately. I told my wife and two sons to take off their shoes and give me their socks and insoles. With that I ran to a water pump and soaked everything. We then held the wet things in front of our noses, mouths and eyes and sat quietly in a meadow by the road. After two or three hours the gas was gone and we went home again. The leaves on the trees in the street had turned yellow, everywhere there were motionless people, cows and dogs, including goats, they were all dead. For the next few days we still had breathing problems and our eyes burned, but after a few weeks we felt again reasonably well."

I took a few photos of Mohammed and he showed me his old company badge, which he should have handed in. But then he didn't find her, only months later, by accident. At the time, he was proud to be able to work for the American company. But they didn't make enough sales and they had to save on staff, but also on security. There was a separate cooling system for the “MIC tanks”, but that was switched off five months before the accident. The cleaning system for disposal and the torch for burning off escaping gases had also been switched off for three months. But he does not believe that these security systems would have prevented the disaster. No water should have entered the 610 tank, which experts later identified as the cause of the accident.

The liquid methyl isocyanate in the tank reacted with the water, heating up, becoming gaseous and expanding. At some point the safety valve burst and the gas flowed out of the tank. Only the reason why the water got into the tank could never be clarified, neither by the Union Carbide Corporation nor by the union. For the experts, there were three possible causes: confusing a water line with a nitrogen line, defective valves during cleaning work on the filters or an intentional supply of water, i.e. sabotage - this thesis was brought into play by the Union Carbide Corporation. The siren was also switched off initially so as not to worry the population!

Mohammed Yaqub, former Union Carbide India employee

Memorial for the poison gas victims of 1984:
"No Hiroshima, no Bhopal - we want to live"

One of the many families of victims: The grandmother has been since then
Gas accident, unable to walk, her husband died, hers
Daughter is healthy, the little one is also disabled

In all the discussions it became clear that a second problem had been added to the problem of the long-term effects of the gas: the problem of the poisoned environment on the factory site and, connected with it, the contaminated groundwater. That is the real scandal today, it is now also called Bhopal's second catastrophe. The consequences are persistent serious health problems, especially muscular problems, an increasing number of miscarriages and a noticeably high frequency of cancer cases.

The problems of continuing to earn a living on a regular basis and the social and emotional difficulties associated with destroyed families have so far not been adequately addressed and recognized.

Experts estimate that up to 30,000 tons (!) Of toxic substances were dumped on the former factory site. Soil and groundwater analyzes by various organizations (NGOs, Greenpeace, and the Center for Science and Environment in New Delhi *) from different years have shown that the entire site and its surroundings are highly contaminated with pesticides, chlorinated benzenes and heavy metals.

First and foremost, very high concentrations of the poisonous insecticides Aldicarb and Carbaryl ("Sevin"), but also of the semimetal arsenic and the metals mercury, chromium and lead were found. In addition, high concentrations of the dichlorobenzenes 1,3 and 1 were found in all soil samples. 4 and 1,2,3-trichlorobenzene detected, carcinogenic solvents that attack the liver, kidneys and lungs Samples of the groundwater outside the factory premises were taken at various points within a radius of 4 km around the premises. The profile of the chemicals detected there corresponds to that of the chemicals in the landfill on the former factory site.

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* The data on this topic presented here are based on this report.
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Working-class district in Bhopal, the former factory in the background

Old Union Carbide India factory

Old tanks in the factory are rotting away, nobody feels responsible

Former factory control room

Former laboratory today

Information sign in the former control room

Tank 610 from which the methyl isocyanate leaked

Siren tower on the company premises today

Warning sign in the control room of the former factory: "Your attention please: There is release of toxic gas ..."
You knew exactly how dangerous that stuff was.

In 2004, twenty years after the accident, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that the fifteen affected communities in Bhopal must be supplied with clean water. That is why above-ground water tanks were set up everywhere in these communities. However, according to my interlocutors, the water supply from the tanks is not working well.

Either they are broken or empty too quickly because the tankers don't come often enough. In any case, there is never enough clean water, and so they are forced to use the old hand pumps again.

The fact that it has not yet been possible to dispose of the poisoned soil and purify the groundwater failed both because of the financing and the lack of disposal facilities. That is why in 2012 the Indian government approached the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ), which has decades of experience in the disposal of hazardous waste.

One of many water tanks in the affected areas

Formerly affected residential area with water tanks
However, after three months of contract negotiations for the disposal of 350 tonnes of contaminated soil, GIZ withdrew its initial offer of cooperation quite suddenly. At the time, the GIZ website only said: “The extensive negotiations could not be brought to an end during this period. As a result, the uncertainties grew on both sides, including in the German public.

Disposal by GIZ is no longer an option. ”Indian environmentalists were surprised by the unexpected decision. GIZ helped push the project forward, so it is strange that it is now withdrawing, said Rachna Dhingra from the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal at the time.

Residential areas around the ...
... former factory premises

Actually, grass could have grown over the disaster long ago. Like the graves of the Muslim cemetery. If only one kept all the promises, if only one had cleared the area of ​​its toxic waste long ago. But this is how the grass only grows over the old graves of the cemetery, which quickly became too small in the hours and days after the tragedy.

At that time, old graves had to be opened and holy commandments of Islam broken. “I know,” one of the gravedigger complained at the time, “it is a sin to put two dead in one grave. May Allah forgive us - we put three, four and more in it. ”The Hindus burned all the dead, 25 at a time. But since the wood for the ritual burning quickly ran out, they were showered with kerosene to burn them, also contrary to religious custom.
Old part of the Muslim cemetery in Bhopal

Instead, over the years the environmental disaster has turned into a business crime. In 1994, ten years after the accident, Union Carbide Corporation sold its stake in Union Carbide India to Mcleod Russel India, which in turn belongs to the Williamson Magor Group investment company. The company was renamed Eveready Industries India Ltd. renamed after the well-known battery brand of Union Carbide Corporation. As part of the agreement with the Government of India, Union Carbide Corporation then used the proceeds of the sale to build the Bhopal Memorial Hospital & Research Center between 1995 and 1999. US $ 20 million served as start-up funding, and US $ 90 million went to the hospital's foundation to ensure long-term, free patient care.

When asked in an interview a few years after the takeover about the responsibility for Bhopal as the legal successor of Union Carbide India in India, an unnamed official of Eveready Industries India replied: “Eveready is not responsible for either environmental pollution or the disposal of toxic chemicals Bhopal responsible. Therefore we do not have to take part in any cleanup operation. "
If anything, then the then owner of the UCIL, the UCC in the USA, should be responsible for the clean-up work on the site. The facility was no longer on the company's books at the time of acquisition by the Williamson Magor Group. "

In the United States, there have been several lawsuits against Union Carbide Corporation over the years, including J.B. Sahu & Others vs. Union Carbide Corporation & Anderson. But all allegations and claims have been dismissed. For example, the US District Court in Manhattan dismissed a lawsuit and ruled that Union Carbide Corporation & Anderson was not liable for the remediation of the environmental damage. According to the extensive documentation on the history of the company, the UCC played only a minor role in the planning of the factory and the waste disposal system of the plant. Therefore Union Carbide India is responsible for the generation and disposal of the waste, and not Union Carbide Corporation in the USA; in addition, the responsibility also lies with the state government of the state of Madhya Pradesh.

The Union Carbide Corporation itself shifted responsibility to the Indian side: “Laws, regulations and guidelines of the Indian government and the state government of Madhya Pradesh permeated all aspects of the planning and implementation of the plant from the start. No important measure could be adopted without the consent of both parties. The Indian government forced the UCIL to have the greatest possible Indian participation in the design, procurement, construction and operation of the plant and to minimize any foreign participation. "

Steam treatment of a long-term victim at Sambavhna Clinic in
Bhopal. After that, he can move a little for a couple of hours.

At the same time as the criminal charges against the Union Carbide Company in the USA and its former CEO, a court case against seven former executives of the UCIL company was ongoing in India from 1989 to June 2010. They were sentenced to two years in prison and a fine of INR 100,000 (approximately US $ 2,180 in 2010) for "criminal negligence," not "negligent homicide" as the original indictment, with an allowable bail of INR 25,000 (Around $ 550 in 2010).

Father with his two sons, 16 and 12 years old, both mentally disabled

Sambavhna Clinic Pharmacy. The
Medicines are free for gas victims.

In February 2001, the American group Dow Chemical Company took over the Union Carbide Company for US $ 11.6 billion, making it the second largest chemical group in the world after DuPont. The victims' organizations in Bhopal then attempted to hold Dow Chemical accountable as the legal successor to the UCC. To this day, Dow Chemical refuses to accept any responsibility whatsoever. The reasoning essentially follows the verdicts of American judges in previous lawsuits against the UCC, or it refers to the fact that, as Dow Chemical, it had nothing to do with the story after all. In various statements, Dow Chemical reiterated that it was never the owner or operator of this facility, that the facility is under the supervision of the State of Madhya Pradesh, that Dow Chemical has acquired the shares of Union Carbide Corporation over 16 years after the tragedy, and that yes a reparation payment has already been made.

In 2012, Wikileaks published emails from the Texan detective agency Stratfor that had been stolen by the Anonymous hacking group. Stratfor's customers included Dow Chemical, which had Bhopal activists spied on who were campaigning for compensation. Among them was the activist group "Yes Men", which started a fictional campaign on the 20th anniversary of the chemical accident in which Yes-Man Andy Bichlbaum appeared on BBC-World as Dow Chemical spokesman Jude Finisterra and campaigned for the suffering of the population apologized and promised $ 12 billion to help the victims.

On the Dow Chemical homepage, under the heading “Our Values”, you can read: “We are certain that assuming social responsibility does not set us back, but moves us forward. We rely on the integrity of all our employees and on their various experiences , Backgrounds and perspectives. We believe in the power of differences. We work every day on our culture of innovation, responsibility and diversity. "

The aftermath of that time is still present in everyday life in the affected suburbs in Bhopal. In the Jawaharlal Nehru Hospital, not far from the former factory premises of the UCIL, around 40% of 1,000 patients treated in the hospital every day are still injured in the gas accident. Here, too, the gas victims are supplied free of charge. Another institution that has been providing medical care to survivors of the Bhopal tragedy since 1996 is the non-profit Sambavhna Clinic, founded by Satinath Sarangi and the Bhopal Medical Appeal organization. Around 45,000 people have been treated here so far, and around 150 patients come to the clinic every day. One of the doctors working there explained to me that the donations were almost exclusively acquired in England. This private initiative is not without controversy among the organizations that are committed to the victims, as it makes it easier for the state authorities to evade their responsibility.

Slum on the train tracks behind the
Union Carbide India's former factory site

On the left is an activist from the slum who returned from a demonstration in New Delhi that day

The train rattles slowly through the slum

This thesis could be refuted by the following news item published by the Times of India on November 15, 2014. Thereafter, the Indian government agreed to revise the number of victims of the disaster, on which the calculation of the compensation payments were based at the time, and to adjust the amount of aid accordingly.

This decision came after five women went on hunger strike on November 10th in New Delhi. The women were supported by 200 survivors of the Bhopal tragedy. They received a written promise that the data will be adjusted by December 2, 2014. “We welcome this important step by the government. Now Prime Minister Modi must ensure that his government's promise is kept, "said Audrey Gaughran, Amnesty International's director for global affairs.

According to a Greenpeace study, the costs of rehabilitating the poisoned site would be around US $ 30 million. Even if it were twice as much - in view of the extent of the pollution and the suffering caused, this is a possible sum to be financed by the parties involved. If only the insight prevailed that the previous conflict has led to nothing and it would make more sense to tackle the problem together, then a solution would certainly also be possible.

Then at some point, maybe in a few years, grass could finally grow over history.


Formerly affected area, JP Nagar Slums, Bhopal

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Start picture: Abhi Batham, mentally handicapped;
is the assumed cause of the disability
contaminated groundwater

The film industry has also discovered the subject of the Bhopal tragedy for itself. A few days ago the Bollywood film "Bhopal - A Prayer for Rain" started in the USA. In India, the film is slated to hit theaters on December 5, 2014, two days after the 30th anniversary of the tragedy.

Film: Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain