37 Years Later

Horror Story of the Bhopal Massacre

Pranjali Bandhu

For the capitalist, no crime is heinous enough at the altar of profit: “100 per cent will make it ready to trample on all human laws; 300 per cent, and there is not a crime at which it will scru- ple...”1 Karl Marx

The gas leak in Bhopal in   the night of 2-3 December, 1984 is regarded as the worst industrial disaster of the twentieth century. It is a story that can bear multiple retellings as the tragedy continues with no closure in sight and we are far from learning its lessons. On this day over 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate (some say it was phosgene used in its production)2 and other lethal gases including hydrogen cyanide leaked from Union Carbide Corporation’s pesticide factory. Over 8000 people were killed in the immediate aftermath and over 500,000 people suffered from multi-systemic injuries. The vegetation in an area of 4.5 sq km around the factory was severely affected. Leaves bore the brunt of the damages. Consumption of fruit from trees in affected localities was avoided for that season. Cultivated plants suffered greater damage than wild ones. It killed birds and other creatures and thousands of domestic animals—buffaloes, cows, horses, goats, dogs, etc.

In subsequent years the death toll was established to be over 25,000 souls. There was no end to the physical and mental agony faced by the survivors: breathlessness, loss of appetite, pain, menstrual irregularities, recurrent fever, persistent cough, eye irritation, immune and neurological disorders, fatigue, weakness, anxiety, and depression being the most common symptoms; many became blind; abortions, still births and infant deaths were prevalent. Future generations of the survivors inherited the ravages of the toxins. Children born to gas-hit survivors suffer genetic disorders.

Among victims of the COVID-19 pandemic, gas tragedy survivors account for a high number of casualties. They suffer from the co-morbidities that make them more susceptible. Case fatality rate is higher than in the general population and hundreds have died; thousands more are suffering from respiratory and other health issues. As part of the general negligence, this time round, too, the government has not been sufficiently responsive to their needs. They were also used as guinea pigs for the COVID Vaccine trials without their consent and any follow-up.

The responsibility for the massacre on such a vast scale rested squarely on the UCIL (Union Carbide India Limited), a subsidiary of the US-based multinational Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), and the Government of India. Union Carbide Corporation, a US-based multinational had controlling shareholdings in the Indian subsidiary, and was responsible for the design, construction, operation and maintenance of the factory. For the sake of super-profits for imperialist monopoly capital and share in this loot by the collaborative Indian bureaucrat and comprador bourgeoisie, obsolete technology was used and minimum safety standards disregarded, despite earlier leaks and the deaths of many workers. UCC already had a long history of causing death and injury in different parts of the world. In 1981, 402 employees in Carbide’s Eveready battery factory in Indonesia were found suffering from kidney diseases due to mercury exposure. In the same year the company was fined in the US for spilling over 250,000 gallons of propylene oxide, a cancer-causing chemical, in the Kanawha River in West Virginia. In Bhopal, prior to the disaster, environmental safety concerns with relation to the Carbide factory expressed by private citizens and the local press, particularly by the late journalist Rajkumar Keswani, were either ignored or rebutted with legal threats by the company, and repressive managerial measures were employed against workers who raised occupational health concerns.

The immediate causes of the disaster are related to the cost-cutting drive started by UCC from its headquarters in Danbury, Connecticut, in 1980. The moves, directed at enhancing profits, included reducing personnel, use of low quality construction material, cutting down on vital safety measures and adopting hazardous operating procedures. Workers had to pay the cost of these economy measures with their lives, health and jobs. The senior officials of the corporation, privy to a ‘Business Confidential’ safety audit in May 1982 were well aware of 61 hazards, 30 of them major, and 11 in the dangerous phosgene/MIC units.

On the night of the disaster, water being used for washing the pipelines entered the tank containing MIC through leaking valves. The refrigeration unit, which should have kept the MIC at about zero degrees centigrade, had been shut off by company officials to save on electricity bills. The entry of water in the tank, full of MIC at ambient temperature, triggered an exothermic runaway reaction and, consequently, the release of the lethal gas mixture. The safety systems were under repair and non functional. Lest the neighbourhood community be ‘unduly alarmed’ the siren of the factory had been switched off! Poisonous clouds from the Carbide factory enveloped an arc over 20 sq km before the residents could run away from its deadly embrace.

Union Carbide’s pesticide factory in Bhopal was set up at a time when the Indian government was firmly resolved to carry out the Green Revolution. Financed by the industrialised countries and aggressively promoted by the Indian government, this revolution sought to increase food production through the mechanisation of agriculture, the construction of major dams for irrigation and the introduction of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. As part of official policy for ‘special technology areas,’ the Union Carbide Corporation was allowed to hold a majority 50.9 per cent ownership of Union Carbide India Limited, far exceeding the limit set by the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act at that time. In 1969, despite objections by conscientious officials, the Madhya Pradesh state government allowed Union Carbide to locate its inherently unsafe factory in the midst of densely populated settlements, where the inhabitants were mostly migrants from rural areas where they found it difficult to eke out a reasonable livelihood.

In exchange for a pro-Carbide official policy, the company rewarded officials and agencies who ensured its unregulated growth and expansion over the years. In the employment of senior managerial personnel, preference was given to the sons of bureaucrats who mattered, and regular contributions were made by the company to the ruling party coffers. Government agencies and officials responsible for monitoring and regulation under various Industrial Licensing Acts and Ordinances and factory laws then operative chose to look the other way even as the situation progressed inexorably to a disaster waiting to happen. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy as well as in subsequent years the Indian government has been accused of protecting the interests of the multinational over those of its own citizens.

In the initial period many concerned individuals, journalists, medicos, scientists, and organisations of diverse backgrounds, even from other countries, converged on the city and provided much-needed relief and publicity. Tort lawyers from the US descended on the city and offered their services. However, the support extended by many a NGO was short-lived and swiftly withdrawn in the face of government repression on all non-government activity in relation to the disaster. Even such international health organisations as WHO and UNICEF, which had the necessary resources to respond to the disaster, chose to stay away from relief and rehabilitation efforts, apparently on the ‘advice’ of the Indian government. The involvement of the Red Cross was cut short due to the withdrawal of funds by Union Carbide. Political parties provided only sporadic support to the struggle of the survivors.

The UCC denied all responsibility for the ‘accident’ and stressed an out-of-court settlement with the Indian government. This, true to its servile role of kowtowing to the wishes of its masters, promulgated a special ordinance reserving for it the exclusive rights to represent the Bhopal gas victims both inside and outside the country and thus to enter into any compromise, or out-of-court settlement with Union Carbide. The entire operation ‘hush-up’ saw to it that the ‘world’s worst industrial disaster’ left almost unaffected the giant corporation’s business, so that Mr. Anderson, then chairman of the UCC, who was allowed to go scot free, could say, “we see no need to recommend a change in our dividend payments” to reassure his worried stockholders.

There was horrifying callousness on the part of the UCC and the State/Central governments towards the health of the affected population. No proper clean up was done; soil and groundwater remains contaminated.3 Crucial findings regarding the nature of the gas as well as the findings of the autopsy were withheld from the medical community as well as from the public. Though Union Carbide possessed a line of treatment for MIC (methyl isocyanate—the gas which purportedly leaked out) poisoning, it was not disclosed, despite polite noises by the Madhya Pradesh government that it should please hand over this data (Indian Express, 27 February, 1985, p. 9). Instead, direct misinformation was fed to the press by medical officers of Union Carbide, Dr. Jaeger of the World Health Organisation, and the Ishwardas Committee of the Government of M.P. in the form of statements like: “there is no evidence of cyanide poisoning”, and “only lungs and eyes have been affected.” This was to avoid criminal charges and large compensation amounts. The treatment was, therefore, only symptomatic and thus ineffective. Medical research carried out became a monopoly of government agencies without including and consulting the medical community and the people as a whole.

Left largely to fend for themselves, the survivors carried on with the help of many committed activists what is possibly the longest struggle of its kind in the world. Thousands of them held innumerable demonstrations in Bhopal and Delhi demanding justice and conditions for a dignified, disease-free life. Gas-affected women from both Hindu and Muslim communities are the mainstay of the movement of the survivors and it produced leaders like Hamida Bi, Rashida Bee and Abdul Jabbar. They continued to hold regular public meetings and protests until the COVID pandemic hit them. Government repression on the agitation was often violent and brutal and hundreds of protestors were jailed under trumped-up charges and grievously assaulted by policemen. The complete absence of effective international laws, jurisdiction, and executive structures for the regulation of MNCs allowed this company and its later owner, Dow Chemical,4 to get away with a massacre of unmatched proportions.

Relief, compensation and rehabilitation work by the UCIL was grossly inadequate and so is government aid. The major share of even this has gone into the pockets of corrupt officials. This same government spends crores of rupees on elections, on extravaganzas like the Asiad, CHOGM (Commonwealth Head of Governments Meeting), metros, Statue of Unity, Modi Stadium, Central Vista, ad infinitum. Similarly horrendous amounts are spent on strengthening the police force, the BSF, the para-military forces and the other armed organs of the state to brutally keep down the people precisely when they agitate for their just demands; in this case, when they agitated for minimum relief, medical care and the removal of UCIL. The organs of the state are used to keep the ‘Indian nation’ intact for loot by the imperialist powers and their minions in India.

The company, which finally disbursed only a measly amount as compensation for this ‘accident,’ was spending billions of dollars for research on chemical warfare every year. The Bhopal factory had a 25 crore Research and Development Unit, which was collaborating with its parent organisation Union Carbide (USA) for doing contract research to test new chemicals on crops and pests. The techniques developed for producing various pesticides have direct bearing on chemical warfare. The Central government was not aware—neither did it wish to be aware—of what was going on in the costly R&D unit even as it gave the requisite license to the concern. There are reports that chemical warfare experts came to Bhopal after the massacre under the guise of doctors to study the real effects of the gas released from Union Carbide. This data was not released for giving proper medical aid to the people because it is part of the preparation for wars, world wars and mass destructions of the peoples of the world. It is part of the despicable striving of the various imperialist powers for widening their spheres of influence, for capital export, markets and cheap sources of raw materials. Unlimited, unending infinite ‘growth’ with its concomitant rapid technological advances irrespective of their fall out on nature and humans is the hallmark of capitalist-imperialist industrialisation. People from the neo-colonial and dependent countries, besides being a prime source for extraction of surplus value, are also used as cheap guinea pigs for experimentation in chemical and biological warfare by the imperialist overlords in collaboration with the governments of these countries.

The disaster has highlighted the economic and political clout available with corporations and the systemic abuse of this power to evade liability. Also evident is the failure of Indian legislation to ensure safe occupational and environmental conditions and that of the judiciary to provide adequate compensation and justice to the victims of industrial hazards. There is a link between the production of toxic chemicals for use in pesticides and for use in chemical warfare. Often it is the same companies which produce both and profit from both. In the absence of effective agencies to hold them accountable, corporations, especially multinationals, continue to get away with genocide.

A mention should be made here about the official left parties. Without exerting themselves in the least to render real aid to the struggles of the masses, they targeted only US imperialism and demanded ‘nationalisation.’ This can only be in the interest of the collaborative bourgeoisie of India and in the interest of the method of exploitation used by Russian and other imperialisms, which want further expansion of their exploitative projects in India. They assiduously conceal the real character of this state which nationalises in order to strengthen it. They conceal who is really holding the state power. They do not question chemicals intensive agriculture that is highly detrimental to life. Truly self-reliant and sustainable development is not their goal.

Holocausts such as the one in Bhopal are part of a world imperialist system in which international corporations dominate and plunder the majority of the peoples. In such a system, inter alia:
l    The rate of pesticide poisoning in neo-colonial and dependent countries is many times that in the capitalist-imperialist countries.
l    Blatantly discriminatory standards are applied in relation to the technology used, environmental protection measures, and safety measures enforced.
l    Pesticides and drugs, among other things, banned in the imperialist countries due to their hazardous effects are sold at multiples of their cost with huge profit margins in neo-colonial and dependent countries, causing serious health hazards.
l    Nuclear power plants are being phased out in imperialist countries due to citizens’ pressure, but reactors are being offloaded on us with agreements that excuse the suppliers from all criminal liability and put caps on financial liability in the event of a nuclear disaster.
l    Vaccines developed in record time against the SARS-CoV-2 virus by monopoly pharmaceutical companies are also legally protected from liability in case of adverse effects.

Such mammoth killings are a constituent part of the deaths taking place due to starvation, malnutrition, famines, floods, pogroms, industrial accidents, occupational diseases, epidemics and pandemics. Countless people are wiped out and many are disabled and rendered unfit for work every year. All this is part of an ever-accelerating process of pushing down the living standards and working conditions of the people, of driving them in ever larger numbers towards immiseration and pauperi-sation.

1.      T.J. Dunning: Trades’ Unions and Strikes: Their Philosophy and Intention, London, 1860: 35-6. Cited by Karl Marx in Capi¬tal, vol. 1, Penguin ed., 1979, p. 926.
2.      Phosgene was used as a chemical weapon in World War I by German and American troops.
3.      In 1996, factory hazardous waste was buried in a dug out pond next to it, which continues to contaminate ground water. Now, instead of removing this waste the State government plans to pour concrete over it and build a memorial, notwith¬standing a great deal of protest.
4.      Dow Chemical itself had the legacy of being a producer of napalm used in the bombs that killed and maimed tens of thousands in the Vietnam War. In 2017, it went into a merger with another chemi¬cal company, DuPont, itself carrying the legacy of a large number of environmen-tal violations.

Back to Home Page

Vol. 54, No. 14-17, Oct 3 - 30, 2021