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The Bhopal Disaster of 1984 Essay Sample

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The Bhopal Disaster of 1984 Essay Sample

             A plant used to manufacture pesticides meant to boost the “green revolution” program of India which was, in turn, intended to achieve food self-sufficiency, killed around 8,000 people instead, aside from injuring at least three hundred thousand more, most of them for life.  The culprit was the pesticide plant owned and operated by the Indian subsidiary of Union Carbide, which leaked methyl isocyanate (MIC), a very unstable chemical, during the early hours of December 3, 1984.  That incident went down in history as the worst industrial accident in the world.  Rasheeda Bee, a survivor of that tragedy, vividly recalled that night with her words:  “We ran.  After about a half mile, I had to sit down.  My eyes were so inflamed, like needles piercing into my eyes.  My lungs felt like they were filled with red chilies.  When I looked around all I could see were dead bodies” (Edwards).

The subsidiary of Union Carbide in India was established in 1969 in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, upon the invitation of the government of India, in the face of a dramatic rise in pesticides use due to its “Green Revolution” program.  The government policy of shifting from pesticides importation to domestic production was aimed at preserving its dollar reserves, while at the same time spurring industrialization in the country.  Since then, Union Carbide India Ltd. (UCIL) had been producing pesticides in the country.  One of the major “intermediates” that UCIL had been using in producing pesticides was MIC, an unstable chemical which is “lighter than water but twice as heavy as air” (Patel) This was the reason why when MIC leaked from its storage tank in 1984, the chemical stayed near ground level, where it was inhaled by the people living in areas surrounding the plant.  From 1969 to 1979, UCIL had been importing MIC from its mother company, Union Carbide Corporation, United States.  However, after 1979, it was able to acquire a permit to manufacture its own MIC in the country (Patel).

            MIC most probably started leaking when water entered one of its storage tanks before midnight of December 2, 1984, because plant workers had already been complaining that their eyes “began to tear and burn.”  When nothing was done about it, a major chemical reaction took place during the wee hours of December 3, causing some 40 tons of MIC to escape from tank 610 into the atmosphere of Bhopal, immediately killing thousands of sleeping residents (Patel).  The UCIL operation was terminated after the incident, but the victims continue to suffer to this day.

            Union Carbide initially blamed the incident to terrorist action.  Changing its story later, however, it claimed that an angry employee just wanted to destroy the chemical by pouring water into the tank, but that the reaction grew out of proportion and simply became uncontrollable.  The people of Bhopal never believed their stories, however.  Most people were convinced that technology breakdown caused the leak after documents later revealed that because of a desire on the part of Union Carbide to cut their costs by $8 million, an untested, thereby unsafe technology was utilized in constructing the MIC plant (Corporate Crime Reporter).

Shrivastava supported this position when he pointed to human errors and system failures as the main causes of the leak.  According to him, on the night of December 2, the metal barriers called “slip blinds” which protected the storage tank of MIC were not in place during routine cleanup operations so that water used to clean the supply pipes entered the tank and reacted with the MIC.  He claimed that the chemical reaction which ensued after several minutes was never effectively controlled because of the following system failures:  first, the toxic fumes which resulted from the violent reaction escaped from the tank because the safety devices which were supposed to prevent gas leaks were rendered inoperable due to insufficient coolant in the refrigerator of the MIC  tank; then lack of sodium hydroxide prevented the gas scrubber, another safety device, from neutralizing the escaping gas; thirdly, they failed to burn the gases escaping from the tank using flare because the connecting pipes to the flare tower were pulled apart for repairs.  Neither could water sprays be used against the spewing gases because the water pressure at the plant was not strong enough.

At any rate, system failure appeared to be the most likely cause of the leak.  This position should acquire greater credibility if due notice is given to an earlier warning contained in a May 1982 report, prepared by a three-man team from the parent company that studied the safety features of the Bhopal MIC facility.  Their findings revealed “a serious potential for sizeable releases of toxic materials in the MIC unit either due to equipment failure, operating problems, or maintenance problems thus requiring various changes to reduce the danger of the plant” (Patel).  Apparently, that warning went unheeded, resulting to the 1984 tragedy.

Blame should not only be confined to Union Carbide, however.  It was clear that the government of India failed to protect its own people when it did not implement proper regulatory measures which could have prevented the disaster.  As a consequence of its neglecting a very critical responsibility, it must shoulder part of the blame.  That 1984 disaster, therefore, was not only a socio-economic tragedy for the people of Bhopal.  It was also a political catastrophe of unparalleled proportion for the ruling Congress Party, occurring as it did during the election month for the national parliament.  In other words, the Congress Party was left with only one course of action if they wanted to stay in power:  handle the situation decisively by requiring Union Carbide to fully compensate the victims and clean up the mess that it caused (Shrivastava).

This was exactly what the government did.  First, a law was passed, called the Bhopal Law, appointing the government as the sole representative of the victims, then it sued Union Carbide for damages in the tune of $3.3 billion, filing the case in the federal court of New York in 1985.  It even caused the arrest of Warren Anderson, the Chief Executive Officer of Union Carbide, when he returned to the country a few days after the tragedy.  These actions alone proved enough to convince the electorate of the sincerity of the government, so the Congress Party won in the December 1984 parliamentary elections.  Unfortunately, after the case was heard for a year in New York, it was sent back to India because Union Carbide argued that New York was an “inconvenient forum,” and that the case should be heard where the incident happened.  With the case back in Bhopal by 1986, organizations representing the victims petitioned for an interim relief to be used in the rehabilitation of the victims.  When the District Court approved an interim payment of $270 million, deductible from the final settlement of the case, Union Carbide appealed the decision, thereby elevating the case to the Supreme Court of the country. (Corporate Crime Reporter).  The final settlement of the case in the amount of $470 million was finally approved by the Indian Supreme Court in October 1991, although it was only in December 1991 that a committee was constituted for the purpose of paying out the compensation to the gas leak victims (Shrivastava).

Meanwhile, doctors and other medical workers attending to the victims of the gas leak could not formulate a proper medical procedure for treatment because Union Carbide refused to give them accurate information as to the actual composition and toxicology of MIC.  This resulted to a situation where the victims were only given treatment for whatever symptoms they exhibited, a method which proved less than effective in totally curing them of the effects of exposure to MIC (Prakash).  Instead, Union Carbide maintained that MIC could only result to mild irritation of the throat and ears.  Such a claim could only be preposterous considering the very long list of symptoms observed by Patel, i.e.:

…respiratory ailments such as chronic bronchitis and emphysema, gastrointestinal problems like hyperacidity and chronic gastritis, ophthalmic problems like chronic conjunctivitis and early cataracts, vision problems, neurological disorders such as memory and motor skills, psychiatric grades of anxiety and depression, musculoskeletal problems and gynecological problems…

Nevertheless, the government and the concerned citizens of India worked together to help the victims of the tragedy.  Aside from the hospitals located in and around the area, workers from volunteer groups such as the “Indian Red Cross, Voluntary Health Association of India, Medico Friends Circle, and several religious charitable organizations” tended to victims using only improvised clinics (Shrivastava).  By August 1985, realizing the massive task involved not only in treating the victims but also in rehabilitating them, the government created the Department of Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation under the direct supervision of Minister Shri Babulal Gaur, so that the victims could have a direct link with the central government.  According to reports published by this department, the immediate relief extended by the Indian Government consisted of immediate economic aid to victims during the month of December 1984; aid to 78,800 low income victim-families; rationing of milk and food supplies; compensation for 2,246 animals which died during the tragedy; and aid to the families of the dead (Government of Madhya Pradesh).

The government also attempted to rehabilitate the victims economically.  For instance, a total of thirty-eight centers were established presumably to train and provide employment to women whose husbands were either killed or permanently maimed during the tragedy.  To further the program, a stationery factory was established in 1986 to provide work for the target women.  However, the program backfired because while the monthly salary of government employees at that time had been 2,400 rupees, the women of the Bhopal tragedy were paid only a pittance 10 rupees a month.  By all standards, insult was added to injury.  Nevertheless, the women passively accepted everything.  It took almost three difficult years for the women to muster enough courage to organize a labor union and press for higher pay.  In 1989, all of the workers in the stationery factory, numbering 100 women in all, finally decided to march to New Delhi to press their demand for better compensation.  They stressed that while they were not asking for any special treatment, they should be granted equal pay.  Their effort won for them a higher monthly salary of 535 rupees, though still a meager amount when compared to the prevailing monthly pay of government workers (Edwards).

At that time nobody could blame the victims if they felt betrayed.  To be disgustedly exploited by no less than the government in spite of their dismal condition not only justified, but invited such a feeling.  So when word got out in 1989 that the government agreed to a $470 million settlement, they were convinced that the government had finally sold them out.  The confluence of events contributed to the evolution of the labor union of the women workers in that stationery factory from a passive into an aggressive organization.  Hence, on February 28, 2001, when they discovered that medicines were just sitting in hospitals instead of being used to treat the victims, the women workers led other affected residents of Bhopal in storming the offices of Dow Chemicals (the new owner of Union Carbide) and demanded (successfully), for the release of said medicines.   The following year, they joined other residents of Bhopal and, together with Greenpeace, organized the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB) (Edwards).

ICJB became a worldwide coalition of more than twenty organizations and individuals who had one common objective – to work for total justice in Bhopal.  Since then, it has been exerting all kinds of pressures on the governments of India and the United States as well as Dow Chemicals, the new owner of Union Carbide, to “clean up the abandoned chemicals left at the site and ensure adequate health care, a safe environment and proper rehabilitation for the survivors of the disaster and their children.”

Specifically, ICJB demanded that the government of India: Set up a National Commission on Bhopal to continue the rehabilitation process for the victims of the tragedy “for the next 30 years;” Provide Safe Drinking Water to the affected communities; Prosecute Union Carbide and Anderson in spite of a change in ownership of the company; Make Dow Clean Up and Pay – nothing short of a comprehensive, scientific investigation of the extent of toxic contamination of the area should be undertaken by Dow Chemicals; Blacklist Dow and Union Carbide and halt all government purchases of its products besides preventing the company from expanding its business activities in the country until such time that it accepts all liabilities that arose from the tragedy; and, finally, Remember Bhopar, ensure that people all over the world do not forget what happened on that tragic early morning of December 3, 1984 (The International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal).

February 20, 2006 proved to be the dawn of a new and glorious era for the Bhopalis.  About 70 survivors decided to walk all the way to New Delhi and confront Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to pursue the six demands put forward by ICJB, covering the 500-mile distance in five grueling weeks.  However, upon arriving in New Delhi, the peaceful rally which they held outside the offices of the Ministry of Chemicals produced absolutely nothing after they were denied audience by the Prime Minister.  Instead, they were beaten and afterwards arrested by the more than 300 policemen who swooped in on them.  Even the children who were with them were jailed.  Only a worldwide outrage managed to free them from jail.  Finally, on April 11, 2006, six of them turned to hunger strike.

They made it known that they would not be touching any food until such time that the Indian government did something about their demands.  At that instance, the Students for Bhopal, which by then was already active in around 70 educational institutions around the globe, started a worldwide support.  The support snowballed, touching every corner of the world.  Every office maintained by the Indian Government, at home and abroad, including that of the Prime Minister, was bombarded with thousands of emails, telephone calls, and fax messages.  In the United States Congress, Rep. Frank Pallone led 20 others in expressing their support.  When the six Bhopalis started their hunger strike, a “Global Relay Hunger Strike” was also started around the globe, participated in by 350 people. The international pressure continued unabated for six days after which, on April 17, 2007, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed to:  establish a National Commission on Bhopal; Provide safe drinking water; Make Dow clean up and pay; and Remember Bhopal – four of the six demands of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (Students for Bhopal).

Works Cited

Corporate Crime Reporter. “INTERVIEW WITH SATINATH SARANGI, BHOPAL GROUP

            FOR INFORMATION AND ACTION, BHOPAL, INDIA.”  28 July 2003. 8 April 2007.

            <http://www.corporatecrimereporter.com/sarangiinterview.html>

Edwards, Denise Winebrenner. “Bhopal disaster victims struggle for justice.” People’s Weekly

            World online. 31 May 2003.  8 April 2007. <http://www.pww.org/article/view/3521/1/165/>

Government of Madhya Pradesh. Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation Department,

            Bhopal.  23 November 2005.  8 April 2007.  <http://www.mp.nic.in/bgtrrdmp/>

Patel, Trupti. “Bhopal Disaster.”  TED Case Studies. 11 January 1997.  8 April 2007.

            <http://www.american.edu/ted/bhopal.htm>

Prakash, Pierre. “In Bhopal, the Poison Still Flows.” Truthout issues. 3 December 2003.

            8 April 2007.  <http://www.truthout.org/docs_03/120503G.shtml>

Shrivastava, Paul.  “Long-term recovery from the Bhopal crisis.”  8 April 2007.

            <http://www.unu.edu/unupress/unupbooks/uu21le/uu21leoc.htm>

Students for Bhopal.  “Justice for Bhopal, Justice for All.”  21 February 2007.  8 April 2007.

            <http://www.studentsforbhopal.org/Victories.htm#NOC>

The International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB).  8 April 2007.

            <http://www.bhopal.net/icjbmembership.html>

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