Bhopal: Still Toxic After All These Years


Yesterday marked the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal chemical spill, which killed thousands and is remembered as the deadliest industrial accident in history. However, just how many died and were injured in the incident remains in dispute. The Indian government estimates that 3,800 died and 11,000 were injured, but advocates for the victims believe that the true death toll is in the tens of thousands and that over half a million people were exposed to the poisonous gas. Adam Lerner explores the controversy over how many victims there are, what they are owed, and who, if anyone, ought to pay:

The very fact that so much contention exists surrounding the death toll, with different politically motivated figures varying by orders of magnitude, underscores the fact that, 30 years after the tragedy, Bhopal’s wounds are still open.

To this date, the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal maintains that the site of the plant hasn’t been properly cleaned and that chemical contamination of the groundwater has injured and perhaps killed thousands more. (Union Carbide insists that the evidence linking it to contamination is insufficient.) Many victims and their advocates view the settlement made five years later in 1989 as a pittance given the scope of the damage and the size of Union Carbide and its parent, Dow Chemical.

A jury concluded in 1994 that Exxon should pay $5 billion in punitive damages for its Valdez’s oil spill, despite the fact that no one died. (Subsequent court rulings cut this figure down after Exxon paid more than $3.4 billion in fines, penalties, cleanup costs, and other claims). And this past October Warren Anderson, the CEO of Union Carbide at the time of the tragedy, passed away—a fugitive from the Indian justice system who lived out the rest of his life in the U.S. while Indians burned his effigy in protest. Now, three decades after the cloud dissipated, Bhopal’s tragedy isn’t over.

Sanjay Verma recounts his family’s story:

My sister Mamta told me that there were four brothers and four sisters in our family. Our father was a carpenter, and I was the youngest in the family. We lost three sisters and two brothers along with our parents that night.

I then asked her, “How did we survive?”

She told me that she wrapped me in a blanket, and ran away along with our brother Sunil. When they were running, Sunil had to go to the bathroom, and fainted. The streets were so crowded as people were running and shouting, my sister was forced by the crowd, and couldn’t wait any longer for my brother Sunil to come back.

The following morning, when people came to collect bodies from the street, they found Sunil and thought he was dead too. They put him on a truck with many bodies, and took him to dump into a river so that they could keep the number of deaths as low as possible. When it was my brother’s turn to be thrown off the truck into the Narmada River, about 90km from Bhopal, he woke up and said, “I am not dead.” The people who were about to throw him in got scared, thinking a dead body was talking to them.

Nita Bhalla profiles Rashida Bee and Champa Devi Shukla, two Bhopal survivors who founded a rehabilitation center for children with disabilities allegedly resulting from the disaster:

The two women said they felt a sense of injustice over the lack of rehabilitation given to victims of the disaster, and began a campaign for better support for those suffering the aftermath of the gas leak. In the beginning, they mobilized about 100 women and walked 730 km (455 miles) to Delhi to protest the lack of livelihood opportunities for women like themselves who had to become breadwinners for their impoverished families after their husbands became ill.

Over the years, their attention turned to second- and third-generation children with congenital deformities, born to survivors exposed to the gas and to women who have been drinking water contaminated by undisposed toxic waste around the factory. However, there has been no long-term epidemiological research to prove conclusively that the birth defects of these children are directly linked to the tragedy three decades ago.

Alan Taylor rounds up photographs of the disaster and its aftermath.

(Photo: A notice propagating safety is seen on the casing of a machine inside one of the buildings at the now-defunct Union Carbide pesticide factory in Bhopal on November 28, 2014. By Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images)