‘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.
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.
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.
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?