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Flowers at the altar of profit and power: The continuing disaster at Bhopal

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We are not flowers offered at the altar of profit and power. We are dancing flames committed to conquering darkness and to challenging those who threaten the planet and the magic and mystery of life. (Rashida Bee, a Bhopal Survivor who lost six family members in the disaster, in Lewis, 2007)

We hope that this verdict today helps to bring some closure to the victims and their families. (Robert Blake, the US assistant secretary of state for South Asia, on the court case of June 2010, in America – Engaging the World, 2010)

In June 2010, over 25 years after the massive gas leak which killed thousands at a chemical plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, an Indian court finally handed down sentences following successful criminal prosecutions related to the disaster. After the original charges of culpable homicide had been watered down, seven senior managers working at the Bhopal plant in 1984 were found guilty of death by neglect (an eighth so charged had died during the legal process), given two year prison sentences and fined the equivalent of approximately $2,100. Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL), then a subsidiary of the American company Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) and since 1995 of Eveready Industries India Ltd (EIIL), was fined $11,000. All those found guilty were Indian nationals but Warren Anderson, American CEO of UCC at the time of the gas leak, UCC itself and Union Carbide Eastern (UCE), another subsidiary of UCC with oversight over UCIL, could not be considered for trial in their absence: the court labelled these three named defendants  ‘absconders’.

From some viewpoints, the convictions may represent justice, albeit of a limited kind. It is certainly exceptional for any senior manager to receive a custodial sentence following occupational deaths or environmental damage. In a whole series of ways, however, the verdict merely represents another in a long series of instances of justice denied. Hazra Bee, of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, responded to the sentences by stating “We feel outraged and betrayed. This is not justice. This is a travesty of justice … the paltry sentencing is a slap in the face of suffering Bhopal victims”. On the same website, Sathyu Sarangi, of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, commented that “by handling those guilty of the world's worst industrial disaster so leniently, our courts and Government are telling dangerous industries and corporate CEOs that they stand to lose nothing even if they put entire populations and the environment at risk”.

In this article, presented in five Parts over the next few months, we draw on a considerable literature (see our Bhopal bibliography) to consider the claims of Sarangi, Bee and others in the context of the long struggle for justice by the victims and residents of Bhopal – a struggle that continues, but within which the recent convictions represent a landmark.

In Part One we try to convey some sense of the horrendous experiences of those who were exposed to the toxic cloud. In Part Two we look at Union Carbide’s response to and explanation of the disaster, contrasting it with more persuasive explanations. In Part Three, we pose and provide an answer to the question: was the disaster unforeseeable? In Part Four we explore some of the manoeuvrings that went into the determination of the deeply problematic “settlement”. Part Five explores the relationship between corporate rationality and corporate crime and ends with a reflection on the effects of the view, intrinsic to neoclassical economics, that in the human world primacy should be given to market relations. There is an intimate relationship between this mode of thought and the view that everything has its price, or, in other words, that money can compensate for any loss or injury.

Overall, we address and assess the complex claims and counter-claims around responsibility for the disaster, and seek to demonstrate that the settlement failed neither to provide justice for the victims nor apply justice to the perpetrators. This Bhopal tragedy is not, sadly, a Shakespearean tale. It is, of course, all too real – despite the attempts by a toxic capitalism and its political allies to deny its nature and dimensions, their consistent lies and obfuscations regarding its causes, their callous and persistent efforts to enforce closure upon people who will not be silenced. It is a disaster of unprecedented proportions, which continues every day, with effects far beyond the city walls of Bhopal.

Part One: the Disaster at Bhopal


The City of Bhopal

Bhopal is an ancient city originally founded in the 11th century by Rajah Bhoj, a member of the Hindu Parmara dynasty, which for centuries dominated central India. At the eastern extremity of his kingdom Bhoj created a large artificial lake and on its banks, to monitor the border, he built the city of Bhojpal. Its fortunes were closely tied to that of the dynasty and as this declined so did the city. It was re-founded in the 18th century but now as the semi-sovereign city-state of Bhopal and was ruled by male (and, famously, female) Muslim Nahwabs, until 1949 when its sovereignty was formally ceded to the Democratic Republic of India. In 1956 Bhopal, 'the city of the lakes', became the capital of Madhya Pradesh, the newly created and largest state in India. Not surprisingly there was soon a burgeoning government sector, which became the city’s largest employer and producer of goods and services and, indeed, the major consumer of much of these same goods and services. With state support there were also rapid developments in the manufacture of cotton, textile, jute and electrical products. Most of this development occurred in 'New Market' or 'New Bhopal', somewhat south of what now came to be called 'Old Bhopal'.

This was also the time of the 'Green Revolution' which dramatically improved the productivity of India’s agricultural sector.   There was a marked increase in the production of food, which was seen as due to the use of new strains of cereal, new forms of irrigation, new fertilizers and pesticides, mono-cropping, the extensive use of farm machinery, with the larger farms facilitating, and their owners particularly benefitting financially from, economies of scale, and from the opening up and greater geographical reach of impersonal markets. Consumers were encouraged to look to the market for the necessities of life, farmers to orient to it to provide land, employees, manufacturing goods, and customers, and workers to rely on it for their incomes. The play of market forces allowed the better-capitalized farmers to purchase farm machinery and to buy land from other farmers who wished to/needed to sell their small, ‘inefficient’ farms. The latter farmers were thereby released from the obligations imposed by traditional communitarian Indian village life and could, if they so wished, seek work elsewhere. "[B]etween 1961 and 1971 the number of agricultural labourers in India increased by 70 percent [over 20 million], while the number of farmers decreased by 16 percent (15 million)" (Everest 1986: 110). This modernizing Indian society required, a commodification of social relations, already well developed in many urban areas where machinery, fertilizers and pesticides were imported and sometimes manufactured. If modernization brought with it the possibility of new ways of living in, and thinking about, the world, it also generally increased inequality (Freebairn 1995: 266) and removed traditional forms of protection and security and exposed populations to new dangers on a massive scale.


The Company: UCC, UCE and UCIL

Beginning in the late 1950s, the American multinational Union Carbide (UCC) had become increasingly involved in the development of pesticides. At its Institute Chemical Facility, in West Virginia, it successfully manufactured Temic (Aldicarb) and Sevin (Carbaryl), and these sold well in the US. UCC came to identify India as a potentially strong market and in the early 1960s exported to it 1,400 Metric Tons (MTs) of Sevin. Soon after, another 850 MTs of Sevin were exported to India but this time as a gift paid for by the Red Cross and the U.S. A.I.D. Food for Peace Program. In a full-page advertisement, ‘Science Helps to Build a New India” (below), in National Geographic Magazine, UCC announced, “Union Carbide, working with Indian engineers and technicians... recently made available its vast resources to help build a major chemicals and plastics plant near Bombay”. The plant was to be owned and operated by UCIL was the major Indian manufacturer of batteries and allied goods, and, as the Carbide Chemicals Company (CHEMCO), a major distributor and producer of chemicals. This area of its activities was given a major boost with the opening of the Bombay plant in 1961, and it was there in 1966 that CHEMCO pioneered India’s petrochemical industry by installing its first Naphtha cracker (D’Silva 2006).

In 1966, in order to refocus, integrate and regionally co-ordinate its vast array of global interests, UCC created three new large companies, Union Carbide Europe, Union Carbide Pan America and Union Carbide Eastern (UCE).   Each of the three companies reported directly to UCC and was responsible for overseeing its interests and equity in the companies in its region. UCE was responsible for overseeing UCIL and the latter generally reported directly to UCE.   In 1966, UCC had also created a global Agricultural Products Division and UCIL soon followed suit by creating its own Agricultural Products Division to which it assigned the Bhopal plant. (Prior to 1967, the superior corporate body to UCIL will be referred to as UCC, and from 1967 the superior corporate body will generally be referred to as UCC/UCE.)

In 1966, UCIL applied for a licence to build in Bhopal a facility for formulating the pesticide Sevin - this was a 'low tech', relatively low-risk process, involving the addition of chemically inert materials to the 'moderately toxic' carbaryl - and, when, a year later this was granted, it immediately began to build the facility on a 5-acre site near the railway terminal in Old Bhopal. At that time the population of Bhopal was approximately 300,000. In 1970, UCIL applied for a new licence this time to manufacture carbaryl using an MIC-based process. After long drawn out negotiations, it was agreed that UCIL would go ahead with the Sevin plant by expanding its original facility from 5 acres to more than 80 acres. Construction of the various components of the pesticide manufacturing plant began in 1976, and in 1981 the plant began to produce MIC and Sevin. By 1984 the total population of Bhopal had grown to approximately 800,000, with 200,000 people living near the UCIL chemical facility and particularly to its South, near the railway terminal and the bus station. Few of the inhabitants of this area had very marketable skills. If they supported their families by paid employment, their work required relatively little formal training and they earned low wages. Many were underemployed or unemployed. Generally their housing was impermanent and often built on squatted land. An advantage of this area was that it included the railway terminal and the bus station, allowing its inhabitants to go far afield in their search or work. Its greatest disadvantage would turn out to be its proximity to the UCIL facility.

The Poisonous Cloud and Its Victims

At one o’clock in the morning of December 3rd 1984, while there were a few night owls working or socializing in Old Bhopal, most of the inhabitants - boys and girls, mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers - had long been asleep. Unbeknown to any of them, the nearby chemical plant had begun to spew out a cocktail of gases, vapours and liquids, forming a large low-lying cloud which spread out from the plant, particularly in a south and south easterly directions. Some of those living near the chemical plant may have heard the sound of its public warning siren. Others, quite early on, detected a faint odour of gas. But the sounding of the alarm was typically inconsequential and there was nothing unusual about leaks of gas that temporarily irritated the eyes. There was no obvious reason why those who lived nearby should feel that they needed to evacuate the area; there had never been any rehearsals for evacuation because there was no evacuation plan. Local people had no way of knowing how to prepare for or respond to any gas leak. They had never been told about the toxicity of the chemicals used by UCIL.

Suddenly the white cloud of highly concentrated gas began to blanket the area, enveloping those out in the streets and insidiously creeping under the doors and through the gaps in the walls of the improvised dwellings typical of the area. People began to find it hard to breathe. Some were immediately overtaken by respiratory paralysis and died in their beds. Eyes watered and burned, everybody was coughing, some were vomiting, some collapsed - and many of these, too, would die. Some fled out to the streets, parents scooping up their children while doing so. Those with the greatest resources monopolized the transportation, which would take them to safety. The vast majority, if they could run, began to run; running hither and thither,in any direction that would leave behind the poisonous gas, at least so they hoped and prayed. Some ran not into safety but into even more of the gas (Mukherjee 2010). Some of the ‘lucky’ ones who successfully ran away from the gas cloud still did not escape tragedy: Ganga Bai, a twenty-eight year old mother, had managed to pick up her two-year-old daughter to run for several miles to safety - only to find that the child she was carrying was dead in her arms (Shrivistava 1987: xvi-xvii). Others found on their return that those they had been forced to leave behind were dead or permanently disabled.

Many made their way to one of Bhopal’s four main hospitals. Although medical staff immediately began to treat patients, they had no information on the composition of the gas, the specific harms it inflicted, nor the appropriate antidotes. They improvised, guessing which treatments were appropriate: for breathing problems trying a combination of oxygen, bronchodilators, diuretics and corticosteroids; and for eye problems little more than water. The scale of the task overwhelmed the duty doctors and the nursing staff. Many of the sick, some close to death, were piled on top of each other in the corridors, amongst the dead and aborted foetuses - almost half the pregnant mothers exposed to the gas were to lose their foetuses.   Other acute symptoms included burning in the respiratory tract and eyes, blepharospasm, breathlessness, stomach pains and vomiting. The main causes of death were choking, reflexogenic circulatory collapse and pulmonary oedema.

After some four hours, the gas began to dissipate but the damage it was doing to the bodies and minds of the people of Bhopal was only just beginning. Eventually, the duty doctors at the hospital nearest the plant, the 850-bed Hamidia Hospital, managed to get hold of UCIL’s medical officer. The latter set the tone for UCIL and UCC personnel in that, while some of the information he provided was accurate, it was so incomplete and intermingled with so much incorrect information that, in effect, it was misleading. While he identified Methyl Isocyanate, MIC, as the leaking gas, he also claimed that it was not poisonous - rather a form of teargas, at worst an irritant. He further claimed that there was no specific antidote for MIC, but washing out the eyes and the mouth with water would be enough to remove any dangerous effects (LaPierre and Moro 2002: 327). In fact, MIC is extremely toxic. Washing the eyes might provide some immediate relief, but MIC tends to stay in the body. This mattered a great deal, because while it is in the body it continues to inflict damage and the longer it stays in the body the more permanent is the damage. He did not warn them that in addition to MIC there was likely to be present in the gaseous cocktail that had spewed from the plant such gases as ammonia, phosgene, monmethylamine, hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide, and nitrous oxide, each of which had known and specific toxic effects.  It is impossible to know if his inaccuracies were part of a conscious strategy, or if he misled them, at least in part, as a consequence of his ignorance.  But if he was, indeed, ignorant, he could have been 'willfully' or inadvertently so, but in either case ignorance is no justification for making unfounded claims. Whatever the reasons, he provided the hospital staff with inaccurate information.

MIC is a volatile, highly reactive and toxic chemical with a very low Threshold Limit Value (TLV). A TLV for a substance is the maximum level of its concentration in the atmosphere, when it is still safe to breathe it for up to eight hours; it is measured in parts per million (ppm). The TLV for MIC was .02 ppm: and the TLV documentation was readily available at the Bhopal site. The TLV had been determined by the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) using very limited scientific data, including some data from a number of studies UCC had funded at the Carnegie Mellon Institute, but access to this by other interested parties, including the Government of India, was denied in the name of trade secrecy (UCC 1963a,b, 1966, 1970, 1971). Sharan and Gopalkrishnan (1997: 135-141) have calculated that those affected most immediately by the gas were exposed to a concentration 2500 times its TLV while even those exposed to it considerably later faced levels of 50 times or more its TLV.

A few days after the gas leak, UCC sent a technical team to investigate the causes of the accident, and an international team of 'top medical experts' to work with the local Bhopal medical community and to produce a medical report on the effects of the gas release. One pulmonary specialist, Thomas Petty, claimed that victims of the gas release were "recovering rapidly". Another pulmonary specialist, Dr. Hans Weill, said that most “have an encouraging prognosis and .. would recover fully”. These predictions proved worthless. Nevertheless, there may have been valuable clinical information within these reports - but it was never made available to the Indian government, inhibiting the development of adequate long-term treatment. The effects of the gases on future generations was and remains unclear, even as health effects manifest themselves with disturbing regularity among the children of gas-exposed parents. Since the disaster, the city has been plagued with an epidemic of cancers, menstrual disorders and births of children with severe health problems (Varma and Gust 1993).

Estimates of how many were affected immediately and in the longer term by the gas cloud vary considerably. Initially the Indian Government stated that there had been 1,700 immediate deaths, a figure subsequently revised upwards to 3,329. In 2004, an Amnesty International report marking the twentieth anniversary of the disaster claimed a minimum of 7,000 immediate deaths, a subsequent 15,000, with 100,000 'survivors' unable to work again (Amnesty International, 2004). The Sambhavna clinic, established in Bhopal to treat the gas victims, has estimated that, Half a million people were exposed to the gas and 25,000 have died to date as a result of their exposure. More than 120,000 people still suffer from ailments caused by the accident and the subsequent pollution at the plant site” (The Bhopal Medical Appeal, n.d.). It is no surprise, but nevertheless scandalous, that the lower figure of 3,329 dead is the one that UCCIL, UCC and Dow accepts.















Even if the lowest of these estimates is the most accurate, it is clear that the disaster was one of almost unimaginable proportions and with long-lasting and lingering negative effects. Various chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects and brain damage continue to be found in local groundwater and wells (The Bhopal Medical Appeal, n.d.). These have never been subject to any sustained ‘clean up’ operation. Although assuming the assets and liabilities of UCC in a hostile merger in 2001, Dow Chemical Corporation has consistently refused to accept responsibility for the clean up of the Bhopal area.

Frank Pearce, Professor of Sociology, Queen's University, Canada, and Steve TombsProfessor of Sociology, Liverpool John Moores University.

For Part 2, click on Flowers at the Altar of Profit and Power Part 2: Explaining the Disaster at Bhopal

For Part 3, click on Flowers at the Altar of Profit and Power Part 3: Was the disaster at Bhopal "unforeseeable"?

For Part 4, click on Flowers at the Altar of Profit and Power Part 4: the Bhopal "Settlement

For Part 5, click on Bhopal: criminal, immoral or the cost of business as usual?

For info on the Pearce and Tombs 'column' here on CrimeTalk, click on Crimes of the Powerful and Insurgent Resistance

Click on References for the extensive bibliography on the Bhopal disaster used in this article and the series to follow. The series makes use of ch. 6 of Frank Pearce and Steve Tombs' Toxic Capitalism: Corporate Crime in the Chemical Industry, 1998, Ashgate: Aldershot; paperback version, 1999, Canadian Scholars Press, Toronto. See also: Tombs, S. and Whyte, D. (2007) Safety Crimes. Cullompton: Willan. Support CrimeTalk by buying these books through the CrimeTalk Shop.

A FREE pdf copy of Toxic Capitalism can be downloaded at Frank Pearce's website here.


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