The Bhopal gas tragedy 1984 to ? The evasion of corporate responsibility Barbara Dinham with Satinath Sarangi
Barbara Dinham is a sociologist and director of Pesticide Action Network UK (PAN UK). She has kept links with Bhopal since the disaster, organized a tour of Bhopal survivors to meet UK groups fighting industrial hazards, visited Bhopal for the tenth and fifteenth anniversaries, and promoted UK initiatives to raise awareness and support the survivors. PAN UK hosts the Bhopal Medical Appeal to raise funds for the work of the Sambhavna Trust. Satinath Sarangi is a metallurgical engineer by training, with no regrets about straying from his profession. For the last 16 years in Bhopal, he has been part of the survivors’ agitations, medical care and research efforts, publication initiatives and solidarity campaigns on the disaster. In 1995, he established the Sambhavna Trust and launched the Bhopal People’s Health and Documentation Clinic. He also writes fiction for children. The authors can be contacted at the Pesticide Action Network (UK), 49 Effra Road, London SW2 1BZ, UK; e-mail: barbara firstname.lastname@example.org; web: http://www.pan-uk.org
SUMMARY: This paper describes the inadequacies in the response of the Union Carbide Corporation to the accidental release of the highly toxic gas, methyl isocyanate, from its plant in Bhopal, India in 1984. Over 20,000 people are estimated to have died from exposure to this gas since 1984, with some 120,000 chronically ill survivors. Union Carbide fought to avoid compensation or to keep it very low. The long, much delayed process of distributing compensation focused on minimizing payouts to victims. The corporation tried to blame the accident on a disgruntled employee, whereas key parts of the safety equipment designed to stop the escape of the gas were not functioning or were turned off. The corporation has always sought to underplay the health effects and has refused to release its research on the health impacts of the gas (which could have helped develop more effective treatment). In addition, the medical services in Bhopal have failed to develop a health care service that offers sustained relief and treatment to the communities most affected. This paper also describes the work of the Sambhavna Trust, a charitable body set up to work with the survivors, and its programme to develop simple, more effective, ethical and participatory ways of carrying out research, monitoring and treatment. Its programmes combine traditional and western systems for health care and it ensures that individuals and communities are actively involved in all aspects of public health.
I. THE INDUSTRIAL ACCIDENT
IN DECEMBER 1984, the worst industrial accident on record occurred in Bhopal, India. Just four hours after the leak of methyl isocyanate (MIC), the works manager at Union Carbide’s Bhopal plant said: “Our safety measures are the best in the country.”(1) Barely 100 yards from his office, thousands of people lay dead and dying. Tens of thousands more were being crippled for life. People were terrified, as they woke up to find themselves surrounded by dense poison clouds. Neither Union Carbide nor the local authorities provided direction, support, help or guidance that night or in the following days. In the intervening years, victims’ organizations have fought relentlessly for justice, recognition and support. They have received little either through the legal process or from the Indian government. Today, the toxic legacy of the disaster continues with tens of thousands of survivors suffering from chronic illnesses, the persistent presence of poisons in the soil and water and breast milk, the alarming rise in cancers and congenital problems among children born to exposed people. An initiative in the city, the Bhopal People’s Health and Documentation Clinic, started by the SambEnvironment&Urbanization Vol 14 No 1 April 2002
1. Dinham, Barbara (1989), Lessons from...