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Bhopal – India’s Hiroshima

June 19, 2010

The third of December, 1984 will stand out as a black day in the history of India. Union Carbide India Limited’s Bhopal plant witnessed an industrial disaster like one the world has not seen. The lethal Methyl Isocyanate gas leaked from one of its containers and that resulted in death of more than 15,000 people. Twenty six years have passed and now the courts have pronounced judgment in which the eight convicted Union Carbide employees have been given a two year imprisonment or fine – as if this was just another road accident.

There are people who say that this was an act of sabotage by one of the disgruntled employees. Others say that water seeped into the tank where this lethal substance was stored and the resultant chemical reaction saw MIC leak out of the containers. What is clear is that officials from Union Carbide’s American office visited Bhopal in early 1984 and pointed out grave laxity in the maintenance of the plant. There was a definite impropriety in the way the plant was being run. Precious lives were lost and the effects of the gas were so profound that women have had miscarriages and deformed babies have been born since in the area. It was like a small nuclear device had been dropped in that part of Bhopal.

Union Carbide paid a pittance of $470 million to the 3,000 odd people who had died. The Supreme Court has since adjudged that more than 15,000 people have been killed during the industrial disaster that was Bhopal. Thousands others have been affected for life. UCIL has since been taken over by Dow Chemicals.

The controversy that is raging on in India is as to how and why Mr. Warren Anderson who was the CEO of Union Carbide was allowed to flee the country. It is clear that he travelled from Bhopal to Delhi in the Chief Minister’s aircraft. Arjun Singh who was then the Chief Minister is silent on the whole affair. The name of Narsimha Rao who was the Home Minister then is also being dragged into the controversy. What is clear is that Warren Anderson was allowed to leave India by the highest in the Indian political and administrative echelons. It also transpires that while Bhopal was in such dire straits, the then Superintendent of Police was busy seeing off Warren Anderson.

The bad news is that the area around UCIL’s Bhopal plant is still contaminated and the underground water is causing diseases and ill health to the residents there. There has hardly been any healthcare provided to the victims of Bhopal gas tragedy. They have also not been educated about the effects of the contaminated environment around them. Most of the victims of Bhopal have not received a paisa in compensation. There has been apathy all around. If one looks at the pictures of the victims of Bhopal one is shocked and revolted. Reminds one of the apocalyptic disaster that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were for the Japanese. Remarkably, while it was the American navy that made Hiroshima happen it was again an American chemical company that was the reason for the deaths of thousands in Bhopal. What is most disturbing is that in both cases there has been neither any remorse shown nor an apology extended.

The problem lies with us too. I am very skeptical about the role of the then government and the ham handed manner in which the whole thing has been handled since. There was politics being played out when what was needed was help to the victims of the disaster. It is amazing that UCIL could get away by paying a pittance of $470 million. Did money change hands? Were their some unscrupulous Indians who made money from this disaster? The role of the various NGO’s that have been active is also not above board. These NGO’s have played a dubious role and apart from a few most of them descended on Bhopal for all the wrong reasons. The government and the people of India have been oblivious to the plight of the people of Bhopal. And now when after all these decades there has been an insipid judgment and the focus has returned on the victims of Bhopal there is again politics being played out with a blame game as to who let Anderson flee India.

The fact of the matter is that Bhopal has been a blot on the face of India – not because the worst industrial disaster happened here but because the way we handled the whole thing. The government was toothless, the people were mute spectators and the cries of the victims of Bhopal have remained unheard. Lapierre, the famous French author wrote a book on the disaster but even that did not wake us up. A silly judgment that equated Bhopal to any other road accident has started a debate. Justice Ahmedi went by the book and had he given a stiffer sentence he would have been condemned for extending his brief. Bhopal has also shown that the laws in India are inadequate for such disasters and that the courts are just too slow. It took more than 25 years, a quarter of a century for some kind of judgment on the case with the accused free to go to a higher court. This is a travesty of justice. The law needs to be amended and industrial disasters need to be handled differently.

There was this lone voice in Ratan Tata who came forward and said that his group would take up the task of cleaning up the area so that the health of the people there does not get affected. One would have expected many other Indians to come forward and join Mr. Tata in this noble cause. Not one Indian stood up. They are glad that Ratan Tata is going ahead and getting the place cleaned up at a cost of hundreds of crores. Rest of us will sit back and watch while he spends his group’s precious resources for the welfare of the people of Bhopal. Can there be anything more shameful for a people, a nation. I am appalled at the lack of sensitivity that the government, the various political parties and the people of India have shown in the case of Bhopal. Dow Chemical’s have washed their hands off Bhopal. But then what can we expect from foreigners when we ourselves do not care for our people. Bhopal is an example of how not to go about things. The rest as they say is perfunctory.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 19, 2010 11:54 pm

    I cannot believe that this can be true

  2. praachi permalink
    June 21, 2010 12:41 am

    I really liked this blog by ullas sharma.He has rightly said that the government of India,the the Chief Minister did not take the right decision regarding the bhopal gas tragedy,Mr.Warren should have been punished,as he was responsible for what happend.2 yrs of imprisonment is not done.Its really unethical on the goven. part to actually measure the lives of so many people with just 2 yrs of punishment.they should severly punished.

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