“Around midnight on December 2, 1984 . . . I went to bed. Before I fell asleep, I felt a sharp pricking sensation in my throat. I thought I was going to catch a cold. But a few minutes later, I was coughing and had difficulty breathing. I then heard loud sounds from outside. Looking out of the window, I saw people running. And then I smelt a very strong, foul odour. I moved back to the bedroom to find my wife coughing too. I realised there was something terribly wrong . . . and called the police control room. When someone responded, I could hear him gasp for breath and cough. “What’s happened?” I asked. “Sahab, Union Carbide ki gas tankee phoot gayee hai. Dam ghut raha hai. (Sir, a Union Carbide gas tank has exploded. I am suffocating).”
-- Raajkumar Keswani in the Outlook magazine
The events narrated in this terrifying account by Keswani, a journalist working in Bhopal in the 1980s, marked the beginning of one of the world’s biggest industrial disasters on the intervening night of December 2 and December 3, 1984.
The “very strong, foul odour” was that of the deadly methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas and other poisonous substances that had leaked from the American firm Union Carbide’s pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, killing around 3,800 people, according to government estimates. Other estimates have put the death toll at a minimum of 8,000 within two weeks of the disaster, and an equal number in the years to follow. Besides the thousands who died, more than 5 lakh people were affected by the gas leak.
It’s not as if there were no prior warnings. Keswani himself had written two articles in local publications in the years before the tragedy on the dangers that the plant posed to residents of Bhopal, but “[n]o one listened to me”.
On that cold December night, terrified residents tried to run away from the site but thousands were dead by the morning hours. Mass funerals and cremations were carried out, and bodies dumped into the Narmada river. The New York Times reported on December 3, 1984: “Witnesses said thousands of people had been taken to hospitals gasping for breath, many frothing at the mouth, their eyes inflamed. The streets were littered with the corpses of dogs, cats, water buffalo, cows and birds…Doctors from neighbouring towns and the Indian Army were rushed to the city…where hospitals were said to be overflowing with the injured. Most of the victims were children and old people who were overwhelmed by the gas and suffocated…”
According to witnesses, a “densely populated area of about 15 square miles was turned into ‘one vast gas chamber’”, The Guardian reported.
A survivor, Champa Devi Shukla, recalled the nightmare (reported in bhopal.org, a website linked to the charity Bhopal Medical Appeal): “It felt like somebody had filled our bodies up with red chillies, our eyes had tears coming out, noses were watering, we had froth in our mouths. The coughing was so bad that people were writhing in pain. Some people just got up and ran in whatever they were wearing or even if they were wearing nothing at all…People were only concerned as to how they would save their lives so they just ran.”
Two weeks after the disaster, the remaining MIC was removed from two tanks at the plant. It is believed that the gas had leaked after a large quantity of water got into an MIC tank, causing a reaction that forced the pressure release valve to open. While Union Carbide (later owned by Dow Chemicals) claims that it was a result of a “sabotage” by an employee and that the company’s safety systems were in place, many campaigners for Bhopal gas victims and green activists point to defects in the safety systems.
According to bhopal.org: “Regular maintenance had fallen into such disrepair that on the night of December 2nd…when an employee was flushing a corroded pipe, multiple stopcocks failed and allowed water to flow freely into the largest tank of MIC. Exposure to this water soon led to an uncontrolled reaction; the tank was blown out of its concrete sarcophagus and spewed a deadly cloud of MIC, hydrogen cyanide, mono methylamine and other chemicals that hugged the ground. Blown by the prevailing winds, this cloud settled over much of Bhopal.”
On December 7, 1984, Warren Anderson, the then CEO of Union Carbide, was arrested in Bhopal but later released on bail. In December 1987, the Central Bureau of Investigation filed a chargesheet against Anderson and other accused. Anderson was charged under several sections of the Indian Penal Code including section 304 (culpable homicide). In 2003, the ministry of external affairs sent a request to the United States for Anderson’s extradition. However, this and further requests were turned down.
Though Union Carbide agreed to pay $470 million in compensation in 1989, after a settlement with the Indian government, activists say that given the number of people affected this was very inadequate. It comes out to be “a total of only $370 to $533 per victim — a sum too small to pay for most medical bills”, according to environmental group Greenpeace.
Contamination of the site and lack of disposal of toxic waste continued to be a serious concern. “Hundreds of tons of waste still languish inside a tin-roofed warehouse in a corner of the old grounds of the Union Carbide pesticide factory here, nearly a quarter-century after a poison gas leak killed thousands and turned this ancient city into a notorious symbol of industrial disaster,” The New York Times reported in July 2008.
Indeed, despite a Rs 1265.56 crore package announced by the Indian government for the Bhopal gas victims in June 2010, for many survivors of the tragedy and residents of Bhopal, justice has been elusive.
Also on this day:
1855 — Narayan Ganesh Chandavarkar, Indian nationalist and reformer, was born
1898 — Indra Lal Roy, first Indian flying ace who served in the First World War, was born
1937 — Manohar Joshi, Shiv Sena leader and chief minister of Maharashtra, was born
1947 — K.V. Kamath, banker and corporate icon, was born
1959 — Boman Irani, Indian film and theatre actor, was born
1960 — Silk Smitha, South Indian film artiste, was born