hell on earth


Since we are just days away from the anniversary of history’s worst industrial disaster, I thought it was important to highlight a couple of relevant articles on the subject starting with this excellent piece in The Tribune of India.

For many who survived the dark night of December 2-3, 1984, in Bhopal, dawn is yet to break. The leak of 40 tonnes of lethal methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas from the Union Carbide Corporation’s (UCC) pesticide factory — the worst industrial disaster in history — killed or disabled several lakhs. By the third day of the disaster, around 8,000 had died. Today the number of those who died stands at 20,000. Lakhs who survived were debilitated for life. Of the 5,20,000 who were exposed to the poisonous gases, 1,20,000 remain chronically ill. Nor is that all; till today children in the city are born infirm and deformed.

Successive governments, Union Carbide Corporation and its new owner Dow Chemical shrugged off responsibility for the compensation and rehabilitation of victims. After years of legal wrangling for compensation, more than five-and-a-half lakh survivors of the tragedy are facing another threat. The hazardous waste, still lying abandoned at the site, is continuously seeping into the ground water.

With the scientific evidence of contamination in ground water increasing and spreading with every passing day, the wait for a sequel to the 1984 disaster has started.

20,000 dead and still no justice. It reveals a lot about the way the World works when you see what kind of justice is provided after a terrorist attack by comparison. Is there any new momentum gaining in an effort to bring help and closure for the continuing victims?

It seems the government [Indian], which has been criticised for its lax regulation of the UCC and reluctance to pursue legal claims, is finally ready to hold Dow Chemical, the multibillion chemical company which took over the UCC, liable for the ground contamination.

Vinuta Gopalan, a Greenpeace India campaigner associated with the Bhopal campaign, terms this a good sign, even though it has come quite late in the day. “But that is how governments work. There is a lack of political will to enforce corporate responsibility and Dow Chemical refuses to fulfil its medical and social responsibility. It is not a question of 1000 houses but of 25,000 persons who still do not have access to piped water. These days tankers supply water to some areas, but during summers and monsoons matters become worse.”

There was likewise a move in the U.S. Congress last year led by representatives Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and Frank Pallone (D-NJ) to supply some pressure.

Eighteen members of Congress sent a letter to Dow Chemical today [June 22, 2003], condemning the corporation for “refusing to address” liabilities associated with the 1984 chemical gas disaster in Bhopal, India, the worst industrial tragedy in human history. “The disaster in Bhopal continues,” the letter states, “and is likely to worsen if Dow Chemical does not step forward to fulfill its responsibilities,” the letter said.

…The letter, circulated by Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), a current Democratic Presidential contender, and Frank Pallone (D-NJ), follows a meeting on Capitol Hill with Rashida Bi and Champa Devi Shukla, two women survivors and leading members of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB). At the meeting, organized in May by Kucinich and the ICJB, the survivors testified to the ongoing humanitarian and environmental crisis in Bhopal. Following the meeting, Kucinich and Pallone drafted the Congressional sign-on letter, and at least one member, Jim McDermott (D-WA), expressed an interest in visiting Bhopal on the 19th anniversary of the disaster in December 2003.

The members of Congress demand that Dow provide medical rehabilitation and economic reparations for the victims of the tragedy; clean up contamination in and around the former factory site in Bhopal; and ensure that the Union Carbide Corporation, now a 100% subsidiary of Dow, appears before the Chief Judicial Magistrate’s court in Bhopal, where UCC faces criminal charges of manslaughter. Signatories include U.S. Representatives Kucinich (D-OH), Pallone (D-NJ), Grijalva (D-AZ), Brown (D-OH), Jackson-Lee (D-TX), Baldwin (D-WI), Towns (D-NY), Holt (D-NJ), Stark (D-CA), DeLauro (D-CT), Crowley (D-NY), Faleomavaega (D-Am. Samoa), Solis (D-CA), Payne (D-NJ), Hinchey (D-NY), Schakowsky (D-IL), Markey (D-MA), and Lee (D-CA).

More recently, in September Rep. Pallone introduced a bill, H. Con. Res. 503 that officially recognized the Bhopal disaster:

“The Bhopal disaster is widely regarded as the worst peacetime environmental catastrophe in world history,” said the New Jersey congressman during a speech on the House floor. “This important resolution expresses our commitment to work with the Indian government and others to ensure that Union Carbide provides environmental and medical rehabilitation in Bhopal and is held responsible for its actions.

“India is the largest democratic country in the world and enjoys a close and mutual friendship with the United States based on common values and common interests,” Pallone continued. “As a result, our countries should come together to recognize the gravity of the Bhopal disaster and the ongoing environmental problems in Bhopal caused by Union CarbideÂ’s policies and practices.”

Pallone’s resolution, H. Con. Res. 503, expresses Congress’ commitment to working with the government of India, Dow Chemical Corporation, and the victims of the Bhopal disaster to ensure that Union Carbide provides complete medical, social, and economic rehabilitation to the victims and their families. The legislation also calls on Union Carbide to completely restore the polluted plant site to a habitable condition, fully remediate the drinking water supply, and to appear before the Bhopal District Court for prosecution on the criminal charges pending against it.

There should be several more articles on this in the next few days to keep an eye out for, but hopefully this post will serve as a primer.

27 thoughts on “hell on earth

  1. Bhopal is a tragedy, but was it really necessary to post the picture of a dead child on the front page? Perhaps a link to the image, with disclaimer, might have been better… Pictures of dead people can be disturbing.

    As always, just my two paise.

  2. I’m sorry if I have offended the sensebilities of any readers but I stick by my decision to post the picture.

  3. Photographs testify to what has been, ‘immortalizing’ one moment of a person’s life to a two-dimensional medium. Simultaneously, to look at the frozen image of a person photographed arouses a sense of one’s own mortality, of the fact that the person photographed will inevitably (or has already) died, as well as the person encountering that image. A sense of annihilation, of madness, if you will, grows in the viewer that tries to reconcile the long-forsaken with the flat, ever-present image placed before her. See Barthes’ Camera Lucida for a much more eloquent description of this phenomenon.

    Yes, this image instills emotions of grief and horror. It is also the best testament to an incomprehensible tragedy deserving of adequate retribution.

  4. After this accident, Union Carbide should probably have been bankrupted by a class action lawsuit – assuming that it was their negligence that led to the disaster (I don’t know all the specifics).

    That said, foreign investment is one of the key elements in modern India’s rise. The problem is that the Union Carbide accident has become a rallying point for all kinds of kneejerk anti-capitalists who don’t realize that the death toll is far higher on the other side, and that industrial accidents are – by a good margin – the lesser evil relative to total state control.

    That is, many – not all – of the people who think Union Carbide proves capitalism’s evil never acknowledge that Communists – Naxalites, Maoists, etc. – have killed many more than 20000 people in India and tens of millions around the world.

    I’m thinking in particular of Arundhati “I’m far from anti-Communist” Roy.

    I have been called (among other things) ‘anti-Communist’: I’m not anti-Communist, I’m far from anti-Communist, but I believe that nothing, and nobody (and that includes myself and my book), is above criticism.

    Roy will never write essay after essay on those gunned down in the name of utopian leftism or class war because it wouldn’t be PC for her to do so. But she’ll cry crocodile tears for the UC victims while supporting the Iraqi insurgency.

    The key difference is that Union Carbide is an exceptional accident under capitalism, while mass murder is the unexceptional rule with communism (and famine the rule with socialism).

  5. Yes, let’s blame the Communists for everything. They are the root of all evil. Somehow they must have had a hand in Bhopal. As long as we deflect the perception of any possible blame toward capitalism. While we are at it let’s throw in a mention of A.Roy for good measure. It never hurts to vilify her even by some tangential argument. She must deserve it for something.

  6. For those that have the stomach for it here is a link to a moving photographic exhibit titled, “Exposure: Portrait Of A Corporate Crime,” by Raghu Rai.

  7. Images are a tough thing: you never want to hide the truth and yet, you never want to be bombarded with so many images that you become ‘numb’ to what you see. I’m with Abhi on this one. This is what happened and this reflects a truth – many, many, many innocents died due to an Industrial accident and should have been compensated. I don’t know where the blame should lie in all of this – whether it was the company’s fault alone, or if it was related to a disgruntled employee, or poor government oversight, or what. But it happened and what I would most like to see is how things have changed in India – what are people doing to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again? That is the only good, if you can use such a word, that can come out of this. Learn from what happened so it never, never, never happens again.

    I never forget the images of the dead bodies I have autopsied (which I don’t do regularly anymore, mostly performed them in residency), or the smell, or the feel. Sorry if I am grossing you guys out, but this is the truth of the thing: there is death and it is, in this instance, vile. A real evil.

    May God have mercy on this gentle little soul.

  8. Here’s the story behind that picture, from the old Bhopal.org site.

    This terrifying yet tender picture has become the icon of the Bhopal disaster and is the symbol of the justice campaign. It was taken on the morning after the night of gas by Magnum photographer Raghu Rai, who had flown from Delhi when news of the catastrophe reached the capital. He was standing by the grave with another photographer, Pablo Bartholomew, whose pictures may also be seen on this website. The father of the child, having covered her with earth, could not bear to say goodbye, and gently brushed away the earth for a last look at his daughter. Raghu told us that both he and Pablo were in tears. Had they not been in the city that morning, it is possible that we may never have seen for ourselves how hideous was the fate visited on the people of Bhopal. No film exists of the event, there were no TV cameras to record the death throes of the poor neighbourhoods which had gone to sleep early that Sunday night because the people had to go to their jobs, which were mostly hard physical labout, in the morning. For thousands, the morning never came.

    That page also has survivor accounts. Not for the squeamish. And these Pablo Bartholomew pictures aren’t pretty either. Please go see this page for a pretty comprehensive list of resources.

  9. the picture haunts me, and that’s what this tragedy deserves– more than five seconds of my attention. i totally stand by abhi’s decision to use it.

    that child’s face summoned my outrage and i’m glad that it did…feeling righteous anger is better than my usual state of being comfortably numbed out on cable, blogs, newspapers…we should pick a day when we all call Dow to scream– and i’m no arundhati roy. i’m just horrified.

  10. While the picture may have focused your attention on the Bhopal tragedy, it did the opposite for me in the context of this particular article. I was disturbed enough by the picture to skip reading this article.

  11. The Bhopal disaster remains to this day one of the biggest scars of my youth…not knowing much about geography, I remember frantically asking mom and dad if my cousins and family lived near Bhopal…fortunately, they were not…however, I could still see the horror through TV and also reflected by my parents’ and nanima’s faces…

    I still remember in 1984 – in the days following the disaster, the resident rich kid/town asshole Brian Martin asked me one day during tennis practice – “hey Anchor (sic)! Who killed more Indians that Custer?….Union Carbide!”…

    I didn’t say or do anything or first, but I was seething – I felt I had to do something; perhaps out of some sort of adopted loyalty to my parents’ homeland – Discretion is the better part of valor, I always thought – however, on that day, I said ‘fuckit’ and got kicked out of tennis practice for picking up a ball and drilling him in the back of the neck at point blank range…he and his friend chased me around court 2, but never caught me…

    I run into him from time to time when I’m visiting the family in Kentucky – a banker now, married with 3 daughters, and he’s still an asshole…

    …wish I could forward him this pic and see his reaction if that was his daughter being buried…

    Anyways – that anecdote is 20 years old, and never really thought I’d actually type about it…or even share it with anyone…but seeing this picture made me seeth in the same way that I did when I was 10…figured it was worth penning…

    not to mention this article was in my inbox today as well…


    -God, help those that still suffer -

  12. Anonymous Cow:

    But it has clearly stirred up discussion, and worked for alot of people here. I’ll try to do a follow up post which is a bit less graphic and a bit more specific about the accident, based on the link that apul provides above.

  13. I thought the photo captured the tragedy of Bhopal beautiflly — remember seeing it just after the tragedy (one of Rai’s finest) and it still resonates.

    What’s with all the quibbling over the picture? Not sure if I get it.. Pictures of Auschwitz ain’t pretty but they serve as a grim reminder of how hell can visit us

    And by the way, I’m no fan of A Roy (as my various diatribes will prove) and am not sure of the apportionment of culpability — but do know that the Indian government’s done a woeful job of protecting the liberties of its citizens.

  14. ok, so I know it won’t do any good, but i signed the petition on bhopal.net

    and they have google ads on the petition…. and the first ad was for DOW CHEMICAL

    go click on it and give bhopal.net some money from Dow :)

  15. FWIW, the Bhopal.com site ( as opposed to Bhopal.ORG) has the “other side” to the story – UCC claims -

    In May 1989, Union Carbide and Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) entered into a $470 million legal settlement with the Government of India, which represented all claimants in the case. The settlement was affirmed by the Supreme Court of India, which described it as “just, equitable and reasonable,” and settled all claims arising out of the incident. Ten days after the decision, Union Carbide and UCIL made full payment of the $470 million to the Indian government. The settlement award was much larger than any previous damage award in India, and was $120 million more than plaintiff’s lawyers had told U.S. Courts was fair. The settlement was reached after the Supreme Court of India reviewed all U.S. and Indian court filings, applicable law and relevant facts, and an assessment of the victims’ needs. In its opinion, the Court said that compensation levels under the settlement were far greater than would normally be payable under Indian law. By November 1990, the Reserve Bank of India reported that the settlement fund, with interest, was approximately twice what was estimated to be needed to compensate the victims. To resolve continuing legal disputes, the Supreme Court of India later upheld the $470 million settlement in its entirety and dismissed all outstanding petitions seeking review of the settlement. Pursuant to the settlement, the Government of India assumed responsibility for disbursing funds from the settlement and providing medical coverage to citizens of Bhopal in the event of future illnesses. In July 2004, fifteen years after reaching settlement, the Supreme Court of India ordered the Government of India to release all additional settlement funds to the victims. News reports indicate that there was approximately $327 million in the fund as a result of earned interest from money remaining after all claims had been paid.

    I’m far from knowledgeable enough here to comment on the discrepency…

  16. People like to put blame at the doorstep of Union Carbide claiming it is another example of American Double standards.

    Many blame the Government of India for not having the appropriate measures and the mind numbing bureacracy that has held up the funds that were paid to the victims.

    All in all, this tragedy was a failure at all levels. Corporate (Union Carbide and its local Indian counterpart) and Government (India) for its poor handling of this situation. All parties involved have failed to bring justice and closure to the people involved in this disaster.

    May God give peace to those who have passed and ease the suffering of those who continue to bear the scars and pain of the worlds worst industrial disaster.

  17. If I was one of the dead I guess I would have been happy. What can be better than death than life in hell (read India)? The more I learn and see the more I feel ashamed of nationality. Criminals like Laloo runs the governments, people breed like anything even putting swines to shame. If anyone merciful could drop a nuclear bomb to bring an end to the shame on humanity.

  18. i think this was a bad story to see a baby died like that and the parents have not step up to claim the baby . that means they don’t care about that pour baby. i understand that they probly now the baby face because they now how the baby looked. so i’m writing to you to tell you i feel very sad and tell the parent’s to step up and see if thats there baby

  19. That photo represents what happened to their people, that is what they had to look at in their streets. That baby was a child to a family that could have suffered the same fate. That photo represents this perfectly, and you shouldnt need a disclaimer for it. Those people need to “man up” and realize the facts, whether or not it looks bad.

  20. A most interesting article (and interesting links in the comments too). I have been reading up on the Bhopal disaster today as it’s the 25 year anniversary in two days… so devestatingly saddening to see the pictures of the children who have been disfigured by the tragedy. It’s almost like it’s been forgotten by the world. Damn the soulless bastards who allowed such a thing to happen, who placed priority on money and not the safety of human beings.

  21. Yes, it’s disturbing. That’s the point. We should be disturbed about the tragedy. And those who aren’t, maybe the picture of a dead child will stir their emotions. Something has to.