From A World to Win News Service

The Bhopal Disaster, Yesterday and Today: A System of Mass Destruction

Revolutionary Worker #1269, February 27, 2005, posted at

We received the following from A World to Win News Service.

February 14, 2005. A World to Win News Service.Twenty years have passed since history's worst industrial disaster, a crime against humanity committed by world capitalism. The main victims were the poor masses in the Indian city of Bhopal. Poison gas leaking from a pesticide plant owned by the American-owned multinational Union Carbide during the night of December 2, 1984 killed at least 8,000 people immediately. The number of dead rose to 22,000 in the 12 years that followed. The worst area hit was the slum next to the factory. Most of the victims were poor people from villages who had moved to the city in search of jobs. "Many--particularly children and the elderly--died in their beds as the gas seeped into their homes. Others, including women clasping babies, fled only to collapse in the street. Many were later found, huddled, sick and dying in the city's doorways. Herds of oxen lay dead and the bodies of goats littered the roadsides where they used to roam. Leaves on the trees were yellow and shriveled--crops in the fields were scorched and covered with a fine white film." (BBC, August 28, 2002)

This Is Bhopal Today

As the sun rose over Bhopal the next morning it was announced that the air was cleared of the gas. But the city would carry the physical and psychological consequences of those horrible few hours for decades--if not centuries- -to come. Unborn generations are doomed to suffer from it. In other words, this was not the end of suffering for the people of Bhopal but just the beginning.

The death toll is still mounting today. On average one survivor dies of poison gas-related causes every day. Many people were left blind."More than 100,000 people are suffering from chronic or debilitating illnesses," Amnesty International reported.More than half a million have suffered from exposure to the gas.

"In the narrow alleyways of the shantytown near the plant where thousands of the gas victims still live is the house of Raisa Bi. She has been struggling to provide medicines for her ailing husband, who suffers from acute stomach pain and breathlessness. Life has never been the same for Raisa and thousands of others in her neighborhood since the gas disaster struck.

"Nagma, aged 21, earns a living for her disabled parents and brother by making paper bags. She was one year old on that fateful morning in 1984. `We have little hope,' she says." (BBC, December 3, 2003)

"Approaching her 20th birthday, Deepika weighs just 33 kilos and is a little more than 1.3 meters tall. Her periods, which started last year, are erratic and she suffers from dizzy spells. She is unable to concentrate for long and has yet to finish school.. Deepika's story is not atypical in Bhopal." ( Guardian , November 29, 2004)

"Gazmian is 20 years old. He was born in the middle of the disaster, which is where he got his name. He lives a simple life in the poor neighborhood of Navab colony in Bhopal. His face is full of acne and his painful body hardly can move.... Gazmian's life is one of the 500,000 destroyed by this disaster.. He has never been able to work; his breathing problems make it impossible for him to do any physical work." ( Le Monde Diplomatique , January 2005)

It is not clear how many more generations will suffer from this disaster, but it is clear that "we are only just beginning to see the results of what the gas did to the human body," says Satinath Sarangi, an NGO involved in providing medical help to the victims.

And as an investigative report by BBC broadcast on December 2, 2004 put it: In Bhopal today there are abnormally high levels of skin cancer, lung cancer, gastro-intestinal cancer, genetic defects, serious menstrual problems and miscarriage rates seven times the national average, poor co-ordination, memory loss, partial blindness, paralysis and impaired immune systems.

In Bhopal today there are shorter children with smaller heads. Women are experiencing premature menopause, at age 30 to 35. The number of cancer and tuberculosis cases is four times higher among people living in the gas- affected area than elsewhere. Many gas victim babies have been born with deformities. Every day 4,000 people queue at the city's gas relief hospitals with ailments ranging from damaged lungs and severe heart problems to wrecked immune systems and diseases such as tuberculosis. This is Bhopal today!

An Accident--or Profits in Command?

The Union Carbide plant in Bhopal produced methyl isocyanate (MIC), an intermediate compound used in the production of the company's pesticide Sevin. MIC is one of the most toxic and lethal substances known to man. The company knew that MIC was fatal if inhaled.

According to the BBC investigative report, the doctor at the plant raised her concerns about the safety of 20,000 people living near the plant after a worker died from inhaling MIC. She wanted a plan of action in the event of a leak and for the local people to understand what the chemicals made there could do. She resigned when the company refused to listen to her. So an accident was waiting to happen when shortly after midnight on December 2, 1984, "a large volume of water had apparently been introduced into the MIC tank, causing a chemical reaction forcing the chemical release valve to open, and allowed the gas to leak." ( New Scientist magazine, December 2002) Union Carbide has always claimed that the leak was the result of a deliberate act of sabotage, but no evidence for that has ever been found and investigations suggest otherwise.

" New Scientist 's investigation of the accident and subsequent studies by the company and trade unions showed that a faulty valve let nearly a ton of water being used to clean pipes pour into a tank holding 40 tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC). The resulting runaway reaction produced a cloud of toxic gas." If MIC is kept cool it is not violent, but if it is mixed with water it boils dangerously and will eventually erupt. This danger was well known. Regardless of how the disaster happened it should have been contained by safety measures that are necessary and required for such deadly chemicals if the lives of the people were not equated to the pests that were to be killed by the company's product. It is true that four different safety systems were installed to prevent water from leaking into the plant's MIC tank. But the New Scientist reports argue that it was not contained because "Bhopal had far more limited emergency equipment than Carbide's U.S. plant." That night none of the four emergency measures worked.

A refrigeration system--a cooling system that would have prevented the reaction between the MIC and the water that got into the system--was switched off. At least it would have slowed the process and workers could have smelled the leak and found the source.

A second safety system, "a gas scrubber" which could neutralize the MIC with caustic soda, was not operating. It was only on standby.

Unlike the U.S. plant, Bhopal had no crucial "knock-down" tank where the mass of chemicals that boiled out of the MIC tank might have settled. Then only gases would have escaped, which could have been burnt off by flare towers or by filtered out by a "scrubber." The third safety device that still could have prevented the disaster, the flare tower, was not working. It was shut down for repairs on the night of the accident. The U.S. plant had a second back-up system. Bhopal's only scrubber was overwhelmed by the mass of liquids and gases that boiled up at a rate over a hundred times what it was designed for.

The managers at the factory had turned off the factory alarms so as to not cause panic in the town.

Union Carbide's actions are a crystal-clear example of how the imperialists value the lives of the masses, especially in the oppressed nations. Even when it comes to simple and obvious safety measures, they have a double standard. The root cause of the disaster was not negligence on the part of the company's workers or low-level managers. It was the design and operations procedures of the plant itself, which may have followed instructions from Union Carbide's U.S. headquarters and at any rate were approved by them according to a 1972 company memo. The basic reason was not something unpredictable but the all too predictable workings of a system ruled by the drive for profits even at the cost of the lives of tens of thousands and the misery of hundreds of thousands more. To put it in the most immediate terms, Union Carbide had been trying to achieve profitability at the expense of elementary safety measures, putting the whole city in unnecessary danger.

Indian farmers were not buying the company's pesticide Sevin. A drought had added to the problem. In just four years the Bhopal factory went from being a potential money spinner to a financial liability. The company instituted a cost-cutting program that directly or indirectly affected safety measures considered mandatory in the manufacture of this dangerous compound: "One third of the work force was fired. Production of Sevin was slowed down. In the MIC unit safety systems are scaled back. Safety checks are made less frequently. The number of supervisors was halved." (BBC investigative program)

After a series of actions by campaigners and a subsequent court order, in November 1999 the company released some internal memos that reveal parts of the untold story. "According to a 1972 memo, if Carbide issued enough shares to raise the $28 million estimated cost, the company's stake in its Indian subsidiary would drop below 53 percent. It would have reduced the control of the company. To prevent this it would have to `reduce the amount of $20.6 million,' with the cuts `mainly on the Sevin project.' This meant using what another memo admitted were unproven technologies, mostly on systems not directly involved in the accident. However, the Sevin production system involved in the accident had had `only a limited trial run,' the memo states." ( New Scientist)

If this disaster could be called an accident, it was an accident that could have been prevented with very straightforward precautions--if the capitalists could have given less weight to their profit and a little more to the lives of hundreds of thousands of human beings living near the plant. But despite their greed and their criminal nature, there is truth to their argument that Union Carbide's executives could not have been expected to act otherwise--if they had, they would have ceased to exist as capitalists. They would have lost money and for that the whole system would have punished them, from finance capital that would have turned off the company like a light to the courts before whom they may have been brought for the most criminal form of negligence, the betrayal of their duty to the interests of their lenders and stockholders.

Were Those Responsible Brought to Justice?

Using the pretext of its "sabotage" claim, Union Carbide has never accepted culpability for the disaster. The company still refuses to face trial in the Indian court hearing the criminal charges brought against the company and its staff. In the 20 years since the disaster, neither the U.S. nor the Indian government has obliged the company to stand trial. Instead of a court deciding what damages it should pay, Union Carbide was able to negotiate a settlement with the Indian government, which was supposed to represent the victims.

In the imperialist world system where the courts are designed to defend capital, not the people, the workings of "justice" have been even more predictable than the disaster itself.

Under the settlement negotiated in 1989, the company paid $470 million in compensation to the Indian government to be distributed to the victims. Even if that were fair compensation at that time--and it wasn't--thousands more have died since then and the true extent of the disaster has continued to surface. Survivors say they received just over $400 each, much less than many have had to spend for medicine over the last two decades. And with this, these criminals claim they have compensated for the crimes they have committed. Just compare this with the Lockerbie airline bombing case, where the British government demanded Libya pay family members about $4 million for each victim. What does that mean? The lives of Britons are valued 10,000 times more than those of poor and oppressed people in India.

A lawyer might argue that the payments in these two cases were based on the expected lifetime earnings of those who died or, in the case of Bhopal, were incapacitated. This just shows the absurdity of a system that promises equality before the law and which has nothing to do with justice. The imperialist countries talk loudly about human rights, but the fact is that profits take precedence over the right of the people to live safely anywhere, especially in the countries where oppression creates the conditions for much of the wealth on which these imperialists fatten.

Union Carbide head Warren Anderson was arrested by the local government and charged with homicide when he traveled to India after the 1984 disaster. But due to pressure from the U.S. government he was released on bail immediately. Since then he has not presented himself to the court. India has an extradition treaty with the U.S. but the Indian government has shown no desire to start extradition proceedings against him. Even worse, that government wanted the culpable homicide charge against him reduced to negligence. That would have brought the case in line with Union Carbide's former Indian executives who succeeded in getting their charges watered down to negligence.

But a judge in Bhopal rejected the government's request in August 2002. Judge Rameshwar Kothe said, "I've always considered it a crime-within-a-crime, the move to dilute the verdict of a man who is responsible for the death of six times as many people who were killed in the World Trade Center incident." Several days after this verdict, the environmentalist group Greenpeace said their members had tracked down Warren Anderson living in the exclusive Hamptons area in Long Island, New York. U.S. authorities had always insisted they did not know Anderson's whereabouts. A spokesman for the group said, "If Greenpeace can track down India's most wanted, I find it hard to believe nobody else could have done it."

People in Bhopal have claimed the Indian government decided not to pursue Anderson in order to maintain U.S.- Indian relations and reassure foreign investors. They also believe that Delhi succumbed to pressure from Dow Chemical, the company that took over Union Carbide in 2001. They believe the government is anxious not to scare away foreign investors and they say it is right that Anderson, as the overall company leader, should continue to be accused of homicide. In its report on Bhopal, Amnesty International blamed the Indian government for not tackling safety problems at the plant and negotiating a settlement "without the participation of the victims."

The Indian government represents a comprador ruling class whose vital interests now lie in maintaining ties with U.S. imperialism and its multinational companies. For them imperialist capital is breath itself, and the lives of the people are worth only what they can get on the imperialist world market.

Imperialism's crimes against the people of Bhopal on that night in 1984 were part of a continuing pattern. Not only that disaster but decades of Union Carbide activities have contaminated its soil and water. The remains of the factory with massive amounts of toxic materials continue to contaminate water supplies and the environment around the plant site and poison the local people. Heavy metals such as zinc, copper, phosphor, nickel and mercury have been found in the water. The contamination is thousands of times more than the normal amounts, but tens of thousands of people have no choice but to drink it. Traces of those metals are now found in mothers' milk, thus contaminating future generations. Dow Chemical, the new owner of the company, refuses to take the responsibility for cleaning up. Such a cleanup would cost a lot of money and need technology not available to everyone. "Having sold their shares long ago and having no connection to or authority over the plant, they cannot be held responsible at this time," U.S. District Judge John F. Keenan said. He added the company had done enough and too much time had passed. Dow Chemical denies any continuing liability either for the state of the Bhopal site or for the victims' health. "Dow never owned or operated the Bhopal plant." And this is the only answer.

Struggle of the People: the Slogans and Hatred

On the occasion of the 20th anniversary, angry memorials were held in Bhopal and other places, even more than in previous years. Many students and activists all around the world held midnight vigils and demonstrations to demand justice for the people. In Bhopal, victims, family members and thousands of others from all over India marched through the city and burned effigies of Union Carbide and Dow Chemical. Protesters shouted, "Death to Dow and Death to Union Carbide"--"We will fight, we will win." Every year on December 2 they have been marching and demonstrating in Bhopal to remind those responsible and their defenders that they have not forgotten the crime and will continue to fight.

"Not surprisingly, the name Union Carbide generates resentment and hatred," a journalist speaking with local people observed. He could have said the same about people everywhere who know what happened. More than just an incident that happened 20 years ago, the Bhopal disaster and the treatment of the victims revealed something about the nature of the system that runs our whole world.