mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

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Bhopal: The Biggest Crime You’ve Never Heard Of

On the night her world changed forever, Rashida Bee was 28 years old
and had already been married for more than half her life. Her parents,
traditional Muslims, had selected her husband for her when she was 13.
He worked as a tailor, and they lived together in her parents’ modest
home in the industrial city of Bhopal, in central India. Bee didn’t
learn to read or write, and she ventured out of the house only when
escorted by a male relative. It was nevertheless a full life; her
extended family of siblings, nieces and nephews numbered 37 in all.

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The fateful night came on a Sunday. Bee and her family had gone to bed
after sharing a simple supper. But shortly after midnight, in the
early hours of Dec. 3, 1984, Bee was awakened by the sound of violent
coughing. It was coming from the children’s room.

They said they felt like they were being choked, Bee later told the
online environmental magazine Grist, and we [adults] felt that way
too. One of the children opened the door and a cloud came inside. We
all started coughing violently, as if our lungs were on fire.

From out on the street came the sound of shouting. In the light of a
streetlamp, Bee saw crowds of shadowy figures running past the house.
Run, they yelled. A warehouse of red chiles is on fire. Run!

A few blocks away, a woman who would later become a dear friend of
Bee’s was also running for her life. Champa Devi Shukla, a 32-year-old
Hindu, lived down the street from the pesticide factory owned by Union
Carbide. She knew better than to believe the rumors about a warehouse
fire.

We knew this smell, because Union Carbide often used to release these
gases from the factory late at night, Shukla later told me. But this
time it went on longer and stronger.

Shukla was right. An explosion inside the Union Carbide factory had
sent 27 tons of methyl isocyanate gas wafting over the shantytowns of
Bhopal. The panic was so great, said Shukla, that as people ran,
mothers were leaving their children behind to escape the gas.

In the pandemonium, Bee too was separated from most of her family. She
found herself running with her husband and father, but they didn’t get
far.

Our eyes were so swollen that we could not open them, she recalled.
After running half a kilometer we had to rest. We were too
breathless to run, and my father had started vomiting blood, so we sat
down.

The scene around them was apocalyptic. There were corpses everywhere,
many of them children. Those people still alive were bent over double
or splayed on the ground, retching uncontrollably or frothing at the
mouth. Some had lost control of their bowels, feces streamed down
their legs.

Exactly how many people died that night will never be known; many
corpses were disposed of in emergency mass burials or cremations
without documentation. Bee remembers that as she searched for family
members in the following days, I had to look at thousands of dead
bodies to find out if they were among the dead.

Perhaps the most extraordinary fact about Bhopal is that no one has
faced trial for what happened that night. Even though Union Carbide’s
own safety experts had warned two years before of a serious potential
for sizable releases of toxic materials, the managers of the Bhopal
factory had no system in place to warn and evacuate residents in the
event of emergency. Indian government officials likewise failed to
insist upon such basic precautions. And as thousands of survivors
streamed into local hospitals that night, Union Carbide spokesmen
actively denied that methyl isocyanate was poisonous, calling it
nothing more than a potent tear gas.

Despite all this, corporate officials have never answered in a court
of law for their actions. Such an evasion of legal accountability
would be inconceivable if the disaster had occurred in the United
States or Europe. Had the victims been affluent westerners rather than
impoverished Indians, they would have had their day in court long ago.

India’s courts have tried to pursue justice for Bhopal, but they have
been thwarted. In 1991, an Indian court ordered Union Carbide
officials, including Warren Anderson, the CEO at the time of the
disaster, to face criminal charges. After Anderson and the other
defendants failed to appear, India’s Supreme Court named them
proclaimed absconders — that is, fugitives from justice — and
pressed for their extradition. After sitting on the extradition
request for years, the U.S. State Department refused it without
explanation in September 2004.

Bhopal survivors, however, have never stopped pressing their demands
for a proper trial, appropriate compensation for victims, and
sufficient medical, economic and environmental rehabilitation for
survivors. And in this 20th anniversary year of their struggle, they
have gained new allies. In April, Bee and Shukla won the Goldman
Prize, the biggest environmental award given in the United States.
This week, Amnesty International has endorsed Bhopal activists’
demands in a report launching Amnesty’s first major campaign targeting
a corporation for allegedly violating the human right to a healthy
environment.

Amnesty’s report, Clouds of Injustice, estimates that 7,000 to
10,000 people died in the first three days of the Bhopal disaster and
15,000 more have died in the years since. Another 100,000 continue to
suffer chronic, largely untreatable diseases of the lungs, eyes and
blood. Meanwhile, a new generation in Bhopal endures an epidemic of
infertility and grotesque birth defects, including missing palates and
fingers growing out of shoulders, in part because of continuing
contamination of the groundwater.

Bhopal thus ranks as the single deadliest industrial disaster of the
modern environmental era. With a death toll of 22,000, it has killed
more people than the Chernobyl nuclear disaster did. And its victims
are still dying today, 20 years later.

Each Dec. 3, on the anniversary of the disaster, Bee and Shukla join
other marchers who parade an effigy of Warren Anderson through the
streets of Bhopal and burn it. Bee and Shukla continue to hold
Anderson, now 83 and retired, personally responsible for the Bhopal
disaster, which they insist on labeling a crime rather than an
accident.

It was Anderson’s criminal negligence and insistence on cost-cutting
that led to the disaster, Shukla says.

Internal Union Carbide documents, released in the 1990s during the
discovery phase of a civil lawsuit against the company, seem to
support Shukla’s contention. A 1973 document, signed by Anderson
himself, notes that the technology that would be used in the Bhopal
factory was unproven. A safety review conducted by Union Carbide
experts in 1982 warned of a serious potential for sizable releases of
toxic materials at the factory.

John Musser, a company spokesman, confirmed the existence of the 1982
study but asserted, None of the issues [it] raised would have had an
impact on the fatal gas leak and all of the issues had been addressed
by the plant well before the December 1984 disaster. The real
culprit, the company insists, was sabotage.

Warren Anderson now appears to be living the life of a wealthy
recluse, with luxury homes in Bridgehampton, Manhattan and Vero Beach,
Florida. Company officials declined to provide contact information for
him for the purposes of this article. But when Bee and Shukla were
touring the United States last spring after winning the Goldman Prize,
they considered trying to find Anderson and confront him face to face.

We don’t want him hanged or anything, said Champa. But he has to
understand what it means to be cut off from one’s family, what it is
to suffer alone.

If we see him, added Rashida, we will ask: ‘If you are innocent,
why are you hiding and not answering questions about what happened in
Bhopal?

Both Bee and Shukla lost loved ones in the disaster. Seven members of
Bee’s extended family have died, and her husband was left too ill to
continue his work as a tailor. Shukla lost her husband and two sons. A
daughter later suffered three miscarriages, a grandson died and a
granddaughter was born with a cleft lip and a missing palate.

The gas disaster was sudden, one night, but the last 20 years have
also been miserable, Shukla says. People still have pain and
breathlessness, and now we are seeing cancers too. There is mental and
physical retardation among children. Many women are sterile or never
begin menstruating, so men don’t want to marry them. A 2002 study
commissioned by Greenpeace International but conducted by independent
scientists concluded that Bhopal’s groundwater contains heavy metals
and levels of mercury millions of times higher than recommended.
(Spokesman Musser disputes these conclusions, citing studies in the
late 1990s by government agencies in India.)

One bright spot has been the founding of the Sambhavna Trust Clinic to
treat survivors of the disaster. Its name translates from the Hindi as
The Compassion Trust Clinic, for it was founded in the belief that
compassion can create hope from despair. Since opening its doors half
a kilometer from the blast site in 1996, the clinic has treated
thousands of Bhopal victims by combining the best of both eastern and
western health care.

The staff biochemist, for example, doubles as a yoga teacher. Yoga is
central to the clinic’s approach, as is Ayurvedic herbal medicine.
Patients pay nothing for treatment, even though they get far more care
than at the crowded public hospitals India’s poor usually visit.
First-time patients at Sambhavna have broken down in tears, the
clinic’s Web site reports, because in 15 years no doctor had ever
listened to their chests … or taken their pulse … during
examination.

Yoga therapies have produced some of the most remarkable results.
Chronic respiratory disorders are Bhopal gas victims’ most prevalent
complaint. But a two-year study Sambhavna conducted indicates that
regular yoga produces significant improvement in lung function; more
than half of all yoga patients were able to stop taking pharmaceutical
drugs against breathlessness.

The clinic’s staff includes community health workers who go door to
door to monitor public health in Bhopal — a key task since official
monitoring stopped in 1994. These surveys aid doctors by showing which
diseases are increasing. More broadly, the surveys prove that, 20
years later, locals continue to fall sick and die in large numbers.

Sambhavna’s holistic approach sees both illness and healing in social
context. The clinic thus insists that the long-term solution to
disasters like Bhopal is to eliminate hazardous chemicals from the
environment altogether. Until then, exemplary punishment of
corporate polluters is essential — not only to achieving justice for
Bhopal but to preventing future Bhopals elsewhere.

Along with activists from around the world, Bee and Shukla are seizing
upon the 20th anniversary of the disaster this week to launch a
renewed campaign for justice in Bhopal and, more broadly, to demand
meaningful international regulation of toxic substances and the
corporations that produce them. The website of the International
Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, lists numerous planned actions and
media events.

The most important development is the addition of Amnesty
International to the campaign for justice in Bhopal. The human rights
group’s reputation for fearless evenhandedness lends extra weight to
the conclusions its Clouds of Injustice report. The report charges
Union Carbide with serious failures at Bhopal, including ignoring
overwhelming evidence of safety problems before the disaster,
withholding information from doctors and investigators, and trying to
avoid its legal and financial responsibilities for the disaster by
shifting corporate ownership and dodging court dates.

The legal case against Union Carbide is complicated by the fact that
Dow Chemical purchased all shares of Union Carbide in 2001. Dow,
however, denies any legal responsibility for Carbide’s past actions.
Dow remains firm in its position that in acquiring the shares of
Union Carbide it acquired no new liability, says spokesman John
Musser.

This novel legal theory — since when can one company buy another
company’s assets but not its liabilities? — may soon be tested.
Nitynand Jayaraman of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal
says that activists plan to press the Indian government to include Dow
Chemical in the outstanding criminal case against Union Carbide; the
government could then attach Dow’s assets if it refuses to appear in
court. Gary Cohen, the director of the Environmental Health Fund in
Washington, says, Dow wants to expand in India, and we’re going to
make that very difficult, by raising questions about the
trustworthiness of a corporation that refuses to heed a court summons.

Amnesty International urges that Dow Chemical, as Union Carbide’s new
corporate parent, take a series of actions to make amends. Those
actions include: paying for a full clean up of the Bhopal site and its
contaminated groundwater, standing trial as requested in India and
paying full economic, medical and environmental reparations to the
victims. More broadly, Amnesty echoes the activists’ call for tougher
regulation of chemical production, especially within impoverished
communities and countries. Clouds of Injustice proposes that the
United Nations adopt an international human rights framework that can
be applied to companies directly to ensure transparency and public
participation in… the operation of industries using hazardous
materials.

A further complication to this case is that Union Carbide did pay $470
million to the government of India in 1989 to settle all claims
related to Bhopal. But there is much less to that settlement than
meets the eye.

The $470 million figure was based on now-discredited estimates that
only 3,000 people died at Bhopal; the actual death toll is at least
seven times that many. What’s more, says Bee, Carbide made that
settlement with the government, not with the people affected. We don’t
accept it. And $330 million of the settlement money has been tied up
in legal wrangling instead of reaching victims. When India’s Supreme
Court ordered in July that the $330 million be distributed forthwith,
activists appealed the ruling, arguing that victims deserve four times
that much.

Independent experts, including authors Arun Subramaniam and Ward
Morehouse in their book The Bhopal Tragedy, have estimated the total
damages of the disaster — including health care for survivors,
compensation for families left without breadwinners and restoration of
local ecosystems — at anywhere from $1.3 billion to $4 billion.
Activists have filed a civil suit in the United States in an effort to
force Dow Chemical to pay that compensation.

Whatever the exact amount that is owed, it’s clear that the people of
Bhopal have been terribly mistreated. First they were left defenseless
against a horrific but predictable disaster; then they were given a
legal run-around for 20 years instead of just compensation for their
suffering. There are many shades of gray in life, but sometimes the
truth is black and white: it is shameful for Dow/Union Carbide to keep
ducking its obligations in Bhopal and shameful for the U.S. State
Department to help it do so. Doing the right thing — standing trial
and facing a court’s judgment — may cost Dow/Union Carbide
financially, but continuing to stonewall could blacken the company’s
reputation forever.

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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