Bhopal: A Tragedy Turns 26

By Umang Kumar

On The Harvard Crimson

The year 1984 was never supposed to be a cheerful one. It was a time of dystopia as memorialized by the novelist George Orwell in his novel of that name. It proved no better for many residents of Bhopal in central India who have, since that fateful year, experienced a continued dystopia and nightmare. For those affected by the lethal leak of methyl isocynate (MIC) gas from the chemical plant owned by Union Carbide Corporation on the night of Dec. 2 1984, every year has been 1984 all over again, with seemingly endless experiences of denial of justice. For several years government health establishment refused to recognize the presence of long-term effects of the gas. The compensation handed out to the affected ($500 per person affected and $2000 per lost life) was largely a botched process and a disgraceful compromise compared to earlier precedents of financial compensation in the case of industrial disasters. The guilty were never prosecuted. A recent verdict convicted some of the guilty to a mere two- years in prison, and completely let others off the hook.

It has been 26 years since the leak happened, but the Bhopal disaster is a continuing one. The city of Bhopal continues to be contaminated by poisonous chemicals from the abandoned factory that leach through the earth and groundwater and circulate in the ecosystem. In fact, the drinking water supply for 18 communities in the area remains contaminated.

As one stands 26 years away, looking back, what sense does one make of “Bhopal?” The pungent and acrid odor of MIC gas that incapacitated people’s lungs and immune system on the day of the tragedy has probably faded away. Inadequate compensations have been doled out, books have been written, documentaries have been made and innumerable protests by activists on the ground have generated a fair amount of international outrage. The ownership of Union Carbide has changed hands and the reins are in the hands of the Dow Chemical Corporation now but the guilty parties elude arrest.

How long do bad memories remain in people’s minds? What was the issue again, people ask? Has it not been settled? If Union Carbide no longer owns the plant, why hold the new owners Dow responsible? Haven’t the survivors moved on? Aren’t there greater tragedies that have overtaken our world since? Such questions reflect the fatigue that sets in as days and years go by. They try to banish the criminal event away from our consciousness, once and for all, hoping it will all sort itself somehow.

But a part of the Bhopal story is the incredible struggle that survivor groups and their supporters have been waging despite the disadvantage that passing time and fading memories bring. This is a struggle against forgetting. This is a struggle against impunity — impunity on the part of those ultimately responsible for the disaster. This is a struggle against big, self-righteous corporations and bumbling governments. Mostly it is just a struggle to keep the struggle alive and going.

Between three to eight thousand people perished in the wake of the gas leak, depending on the reporting agency. But death and disease have never left Bhopal. The website of the non-profit clinic, Sambhavna (“The Possibility”) which provides free treatment to the survivors, states that, “An estimated 120,000–150,000 survivors of the disaster are still chronically ill. Over 25,000 have died of exposure-related illnesses and more are dying still.”

The disaster that struck Bhopal is still with many of them, transmitted from generation to generation. Most of those affected by the gas on the day of the leak were poor people. Their lives were considered cheap and dispensable. They were voiceless to begin with. Had the gas affected some of the richer parts of the city of Bhopal, we would probably had seen a different story unfolding. The survivors have braved every form of apathy year after year. They, along with their supporters, tirelessly working to seek redress, have not lost sight of the basic issues of denial of justice.

Student groups from four universities–Boston University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard, and Tufts–held protests on their respective campuses this December 3, the day of the 26th anniversary of the disaster. They distributed informational handouts, performed symbolic die-ins, and collected signatures for a petition. “The Bhopal disaster is so deeply tragic because it demonstrates how governments and corporations differentially value human life,” said Lauren A. Onofrey ’12, a student at Harvard and an activist with the Harvard AIDS Coalition. At the conclusion of the day’s events, a Boston-wide protest and candle-light vigil was held near the Harvard T stop from 5 p.m. onwards. As one of the participants in the protest there observed, “This is not just about Bhopal; this is about injustice everywhere.”

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We believe Dow & DuPont must finally accept responsibility for Bhopal. Until then, The Bhopal Medical Appeal funds two award-winning clinics in the city. Both offer free, first-class care to victims of the gas disaster or the ongoing water contamination. The survivors have nowhere else left to turn – please help if you can.