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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Deadly Decade

Air Date: Week of

It's been ten years since the deadliest industrial accident in history. Thousands died and thousands more were maimed. Scott Neuman reports on the aftermath of the chemical accident and the pressure that's building for stricter laws to try to avert such a disaster from happening again.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Shortly after midnight on December 4, 1984, a series of 5 safety systems failed at a Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India. As a result, a cloud of deadly cyanide gas, methyl isocyanate, was released into the atmosphere. By morning, more than 2,000 people in the surrounding area were dead. In the months and years that followed, the death toll continued to rise in what remains the most fatal industrial accident in history. A decade later, most of the survivors of Bhopal are still awaiting compensation for the deaths of family members and for their own mounting medical bills. And as Scott Neuman reports, many believe India has failed to heed the lessons of Bhopal, and that there's a high risk of another chemical accident.

(Ambient conversations)

NEUMAN: In the shantytowns that surround the now closed and rusting Union Carbide plant on Bhopal's north side, a group of volunteers is trying to document the medical condition of people who continue to suffer the long-term effects of cyanide poisoning. In a dilapidated wood and brick structure, an elderly woman recounts the night 10 years ago that changed her life.

WOMAN: [Speaks in Indian dialect]
TRANSLATOR: So everywhere there was smoke and everyone, people went running. So she also ran to an area called Daramkarta, then she fell down unconscious. When she went to the hospital, she doesn't know how she reached there, and she saw people, all the people in her community area die, dead there.

NEUMAN: The 70,000 people treated in the hours immediately following the gas leak overwhelmed Bhopal's several hospitals and dispensaries. Dr. N.P. Misra was working as dean of the local medical college in December 1984. To cope with the overflow, Misra says the roads around the city's main hospital were converted into makeshift wards. Meanwhile, he and his colleagues desperately scrambled for information on how to treat the gas victims. Union Carbide had no plan for such a large-scale disaster, and Misra says the company failed to provide adequate guidance in those crucial hours.

MISRA: They could not tell us exactly what is the toxic effect of the gas, and how best it could be treated. Secondly, they also did not tell us whether the information on this subject was available anywhere else if it was not with them. Thirdly, they did not give us any substantial help in carrying out treatment of these patients. Until 4 or 5 days later when a team arrived from their United States office.

NEUMAN: At least two-and-a-half thousand people died within the first few days after the accident. Several thousand more have succumbed to gas-related injuries in the 10 years since. But the company moved quickly in an effort to mitigate the disaster, says General Manager for Union Carbide India, Kumaraswami.

KUMARASWAMI: We flew in whatever medicines the local doctors prescribed at that time, was mostly the [sounds like "cortisones"] for the eyes and something for the lungs and other things. And then we flew in a lot of oxygen cylinders which became very short in Bhopal.

NEUMAN: But when then Union Carbide chairman Warren Anderson arrived in India with an on-site survey team, he was promptly arrested by Indian authorities. Soon after, he was released on bail. Since then, Anderson has repeatedly failed to appear before the Bhopal District Court, where criminal charges against him and other Union Carbide officials are still pending. Union Carbide's Kumaraswami won't comment on any issues related to the criminal proceedings. But in 1989, a $470 million settlement was reached with the Indian government to compensate the gas victims. A much smaller figure than what the government had originally demanded.

(Woman speaking in Indian dialect)

NEUMAN: But progress toward settling those claims and distributing the money has been painfully slow. For the gas-affected poor, the cost of medical treatment is often more than they can handle. And for most of the victims, like this woman, the money has not come.

WOMAN: [Speaks in Indian dialect]
TRANSLATOR: The women here live in very bad condition, and all over, the health condition is deteriorating, and there's no help or no compensation or whatever. That has also an effect on the generations to come, as she was telling about some person who's living near to her house. His wife died on the night of second December; he delivered, his other wife, second wife gave birth to two children, and both the children are handicapped.

NEUMAN: Since 1984, steps have been taken in India to regulate industries that produce toxic substances. Those industries are now liable for any environmental damage or loss of life caused by negligence. The government also now has the power to shut down industries it deems unsafe.

MEHTA: But unfortunately that is not happening.

NEUMAN: M.C. Mehta is an attorney who has argued before the Indian Supreme Court on behalf of stricter environmental laws. Mehta says the laws are not being properly enforced because India's aggressive new economic policies encourage foreign investment at any cost.

MEHTA: And these multinationals, because of stringent laws in other countries, they are coming to India. Because here they know that the laws are there but their implementation is nowhere.

NEUMAN: The Environment Ministry has primary responsibility for enforcing those laws, but repeated attempts to set up an interview with Ministry officials were unsuccessful. M.C. Mehta warns that the seeds of another large-scale disaster already exist in India. He says unsafe and poorly-regulated chemical plants are operating in most of India's major urban centers.

MEHTA: Bombay is sitting on a volcano without knowing when will it erupt. Similarly, in Delhi also, there is an industry which is still manufacturing chlorine, and it is in the heart of [the] city. There is a factory which the government industry, which is manufacturing DDT, and this DDT has been banned, but they are manufacturing here. There are many Bhopal-like accidents all in the offering in this country.

(Traffic sounds; horns blowing and trucks)

NEUMAN: A small, unimpressive stone sculpture is the official monument to the victims of the world's worst industrial accident. The real monument, the factory itself, is across the street. The cement walls that surround it are littered with angry graffiti condemning Union Carbide for what happened here. One slogan calling for Union Carbide to quit India seems to have been fulfilled. The company has just completed a deal to sell off its Indian subsidiary. Meanwhile, India's economic reforms are designed to prove to foreign industries that the country holds potential for new large-scale investments. Now the government must reassure its citizens that the Bhopal disaster will never be repeated. For Living on Earth, I'm Scott Neuman reporting.



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