35 Years On, The Scars Left Behind By The Bhopal Gas Tragedy Haven’t Healed

‘Gas tragedy’ was the first thing that popped up on my smartphone’s screen this morning. Google’s autocomplete showed gas tragedy the moment I typed ‘Bhopal’ in the search bar. In all fairness, the Bhopal gas tragedy is to India what the holocaust is to Germany. The event seems to have left a scar on the city’s landscape. A lot has already been said and written about the catastrophe that ended up claiming thousands of innocent lives, but do we really care? (I doubt). It has been 35 years since the mishap showed its ugly head, but the wounds have not healed, yet.

This is how it goes: a disaster strikes us, we start crying for help; people listen to it for a couple of days. Meetings are held, action plans are developed, and things return to ‘normal’ after a couple of months.

The Bhopal disaster, also referred to as the Bhopal gas tragedy, was a gas leak incident in India, considered the world’s worst industrial disaster. Image via Getty

Union Carbide, a chemical company, based in the United States of America, had started a subsidiary in India in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. On the night of December 2-3 1984, over 500,000 people were exposed to methyl isocyanate and countless other chemical gases. The toxic gas made its way into the areas surrounding the pesticide plant. The cause of the disaster is still under debate.

Warren Anderson, the company’s CEO, was stationed at the UCC guest house in one of the city’s prime locations. Anderson was arrested but was bailed out within hours. He spent a few hours in the city and fled the country to escape punishment. He died in 2014, nearly three decades after the disaster.

Nearly 10,000 people are said to have died because of the gas leak. Legal proceedings followed, and the Government of India sued the UCC. An out-of-court settlement was reached in February 1989. Under this arrangement, the Union Carbide Corporation was required to pay US$ 470 million for the ‘damages’ caused in the Bhopal Disaster. Crops were destroyed, and thousands of trees in the vicinity became barren overnight. Fishermen were forbidden to undertake fishing activities in and around the area. A severe shortage of food grains followed the disaster.

Why Did Warren Anderson Die Unpunished?

Warren Anderson died in 2014, nearly three decades after the disaster.

The CEO of Union Carbide at the time of the disaster managed to escape punishment. Wasn’t the Indian law strong enough to serve justice to those who died? Do laws in India serve only the rich and privileged? Moreover, the UCCL was taken over by the Dow Chemical Company in 2001, which meant that the UCCL was no longer answerable to the authorities.

Furthermore, the exact chemical composition of the gases was never revealed by the UCCL management. Therefore, the authorities were not able to find a cure.

35 Years Down The Line

The government hasn’t built a memorial for the victims. The Remember Bhopal Museum was built in 2014 and is struggling because of financial problems. The museum survives on a yearly lease. 

Families of the victims who died during the gas leak have been struggling to keep their body and soul together. Recently, an activist named Abdul Jabbar died after fighting for the victims’ rights for more than three decades.

In this case, the government was quick to act and provided Jabbar’s widow with a government quarter and financial aid, but are we prepared to act in time if a disaster of such humongous magnitude strikes again? If a disaster of such epic proportions hits us anytime soon (God forbids), then the extent of damage incurred can be much greater, like the one they showed in Chernobyl. Are the country’s legal institutions prepared to put up a fight? Well, who knows?

Similar Posts

A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below