There are many different ways that large multinational corporations affect local communities in developing countries- environmentally, physically and psychologically (Labunska et al, 1999; Mitchell, 1996). Yet it is only when this global industrialization results in a catastrophic event where people’s lives and health are at risk that the world’s media and legal systems pay attention. However, such attention is often short-lived and lacks any depth of study to monitor the lasting effects on people and communities. Such is often the story with industrial accidents in the developing world- countries with lower safety measures and a greater economic need to win over a large profitable contract are both more likely to harbor an industrial accident (Mitchell, 1996) and less likely to be able to appropriately manage and deal with one. At Sambhavna Trust in Bhopal, I am looking at issues of social justice and health promotion in the context of developing countries affected by industrial accidents, and in particular, the legacy of the industrial accident in Bhopal. I am looking for a definition of social justice that looks to the future, one that aims for a just reaction and response to industrial accidents. The industrial accident in Bhopal, India and its repercussions has been termed ‘the world’s worst industrial disaster’ (Hanna et al, 2005, p.6) and provides a great starting point to explore such a definition of social justice.
Five past midnight in Bhopal
At five past midnight on 3rd December 1984 a pesticide plant in Bhopal owned by the American company Union Carbide leaked 40 tons of methyl isocyanate gas (MIC) into the surrounding environment (Broughton, 2005; Hanna et al, 2005; Mitchell, 1996). MIC is highly toxic and can be fatal. Short term effects on people’s health include burning in the respiratory tract and eyes, blepharospasm, breathlessness, stomach pains and vomiting. These acute symptoms can lead to death by choking, reflexogenic circulatory collapse and pulmonary pedema, as well as damaging the kidneys, liver and reproductive organs (Sriramachari, 2004). Through the night of 3rd December 1984 thousands of people died- the official number remains unknown; the Government of India declares the death toll to be at least 3800 (Broughton, 2005), while other estimations by independent organizations, NGOs and the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB) vary between 10,000 and 30,000 (ICJB, 2010; Eckerman, 2005). A further 100,000- 150,000 people are estimated to have permanent injuries as a result of the MIC exposure and the stillbirth rate in those affected increased by up to 300% (Eckerman, 2005). The overwhelming majority of those affected were living in bastis (local term for temporary, substandard accommodation communes) surrounding the factory, where birth records were rare and number of inhabitants unknown. Mass cremations and burials began the day after the accident. There are varying reports on the specific causes of the gas leak though it is clear that poor maintenance of the plant since it ceased production months earlier, led to the magnitude of the problem; several key safety systems were switched off under Union Carbide Corporation’s instruction, including the MIC tank refrigeration system, in order to save money (Eckerman, 2005; ICJB, 2010; Hanna et al, 2005).
The deserted Union Carbide factory still stands, unvisited except for the occasional journalist or trespassing children since the accident. The site of the disaster was never cleared or cleaned of its toxic waste. The factory continues to omit toxic, poisonous gases from the many abandoned sheds, storerooms and solar evaporation ponds holding up to 27 tons of MIC and other gases (ICJB, 2010; Hanna et al, 2005). These chemicals have leaked into the soil, contamination the groundwater source for approximately 25,000 Bhopalis who live nearby (Bhopal Medical Appeal, 2010; ICJB, 2010). A Greenpeace study found chloroform, lead, mercury and a series of other chemicals in the breast milk of mothers living in proximity to the factory (Labunska et al, 1999). The factory and the chemicals within continue to cause death, breathing difficulties, damaged eyesight, reproductive complications, growth stunting, accelerated cancers and a range of other ailments and malformations for survivors and their children (Hanna et al, 2005).
Union Carbide’s response
Since December 1984 Union Carbide has consistently refused to identify the chemical agents that caused the accident for legal liability reasons- making effective treatment for survivors difficult (Bhopal Medical Appeal, 2010). In addition, the corporation has still not confirmed what was in the toxic cloud in December 1984 (Dhara & Dhara, 2002). There is a chance that the cloud also contained HCN (hydrogen cyanide- a more deadly gas formed when MIC reached 200 degrees Celsius) so patients were originally administered with sodium thiosulfate- a known therapy for cyanide poisoning but not for MIC exposure. Despite patients responding well to the sodium thiosulfate, Union Carbide withdrew an initial statement recommending its use when they realized the extra legal implications of cyanide poisoning (Mangla, 1989; Varma, 1989; Anderson, 1989; Dhara and Dhara, 2002). This is one of the many claimed ways Union Carbide attempted to manipulate, disguise and withhold scientific data to the disadvantage of victims (Broughton, 2005). To date no comprehensive scientific research has been funded or carried out into effective treatment for those affected by the accident in Bhopal (ICJB, 2010).
The American chairman of Union Carbide in 1984, Warren Anderson was arrested for culpable homicide just days after the disaster but paid USD 2000 in bail then fled India and has yet to return. Warren Anderson, along with other Union Carbide workers from the American contingent, continues to escape criminal charges. Major questions regarding safety, negligence, causes and clean up remain unanswered by those responsible.
The Indian Government declared itself the sole representative and legal spokesperson for the Bhopal ‘victims’ in an Act passed in 1985 (Broughton, 2005; Hanna et al, 2005). Union Carbide successfully brought the case to Indian courts, and after a five year legal battle made an out-of-court settlement payment to the government of USD 470 million (Broughton, 2005). Compensation channels were rife with corruption and incorrect data. Survivors facing chronic illnesses due to the gas leak received a maximum of USD 500 as compensation, if they were granted anything at all, which in most cases was not enough to cover the medical costs alone (Sarangi, 1995; ICJB, 2010). Outstanding criminal charges against Union Carbide and Warren Anderson regarding cleanup of the factory have ben brought to New York but never come to fruition. In February 2001, Dow Chemicals merged with Union Carbide forming the second largest chemical manufacturer in the world. Dow Chemicals (the name retained) claims not to accept any responsibility for a factory it never owned (despite paying liabilities for previous Union Carbide cases based in Texas, America) (ICJB, 2010).
Lying in the heart of the community of those affected by the Bhopal disaster of 1984 is the Sambhavna Trust. Just 200 meters from the abandoned union carbide factory, the Sambhavna (meaning ‘possibility’) Trust Clinic is the only facility providing free treatment to both gas and water affected persons. Since its establishment in 1996, it has provided free Western medicine, Ayurvedic and Allopathic treatments to those affected by the industrial disaster. Sambhavna also does community health outreach programs for those unable to travel to the clinic and records health data on patients to assist research studies.
Sambhavna is internationally funded by private donors and is locally managed. The clinic is also a member of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB) and provides a key hub for people to obtain information and resources regarding the ongoing legal claims and their rights.
Social Justice in Bhopal
Talking to the victims of the disaster as well as the staff members, volunteers and doctors at Sambhavna, I am beginning to form a clear definition of what social justice means for the twenty five year long Union Carbide case in Bhopal and the health and wellbeing of those affected.
- Alina Pokhrel
- Anderson, N. (1989) Long term effects of methyl isocyanate, in Lancet, Vol.2, Issue 8662, p. 1259
- Bhopal Medical Appeal, (2010) Online Updates and historical information. Accessed July 2013 from: http://www.bhopal.org
- Broughton, E. (2005) The Bhopal Disaster and its Aftermath: A Review, in Environmental Health: A Global Access Science Source, 4:6, accessed July 2013 from: http://www.ehjournal.net/content/pdf/1476-069X-4-6.pdf
- Dhara, V.R & Dhara, R. (2002) The Union Carbide Disaster in Bhopal: A review of health effects, in Archives of Environmental Health, p. 391-404.
- Eckerman, I. (2005) The Bhopal gas leak: Analyses of causes and consequences by three different models, in Journal of Loss Prevention in the Process Industry, Vol 18, p. 213-217
- Hanna, B; Morehouse, M & Sarangi, S. (2005) The Bhopal Reader, New York, The Apex Press
- International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB), (2010), Online updates and historical information. Accessed July 2010 from http://bhopal.net/