Bhopal Campaigner's Death Highlights Victims' Plight

The tragedy of Bhopal continues 22 years after the gas explosion.

Sunil Kumar Verma, founder of “Children Against Carbide” and a dedicated campaigner for justice for the victims of the deadly 1984 gas explosion in Bhopal, India, committed suicide on the evening of July 26. The 34-year-old activist was found wearing a T-shirt that said “No More Bhopals.”

Verma lost both his parents and five siblings on the night of December 3, 1984, when 27 tons of methyl isocyanate and other poisonous gases leaked out from the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh state. Since then he had been campaigning for just compensation for the victims and punishment for those responsible. In 1997, Verma was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, a mental illness that has afflicted several other gas victims. In his suicide note, however, he made it clear that he was fully aware of what he was doing.

Verma’s act of despair, coming after nearly 22 years of relentless struggle, highlights the continuing tragedy of Bhopal. The disaster has been termed the “Hiroshima of chemical disasters” and is considered one of the worst cases of corporate malfeasance in history. An estimated 8,000 people perished within 24 hours of the accident, and more than 500,000 suffered injuries. In total, nearly 20,000 people have been killed as a result of the incident. However, no such toll can be final because people continue to die from the lethal effects of the poison. According to one estimate, nearly 120,000 remain chronically ill, suffering a range of gastro-intestinal, respiratory, reproductive, immune system, and mental illnesses either as a direct result of gas exposure or from related complications. Medical care, for the most part, remains woefully inadequate.

Yet not a single representative of Union Carbide has ever faced trial. The then-CEO of the company, Warren Anderson, and other accused persons were arrested a few days after the leak and then released on bail. The local court issued non-bailable warrants in 1989; however, these were soon voided when the Indian government reached a settlement with Union Carbide, withdrawing all criminal cases in lieu of $470 million in compensation. The deal freed the corporation of all accountability and left the survivors without recourse. Interminable delays in releasing payments and the non-payment of interest over the years have meant that, on average, survivors have received only $500 each. In 2001, Union Carbide was bought out by Dow Chemical, the world’s largest producer of chemicals. Dow assumed all assets and liabilities of Union Carbide, yet denies that it bears any responsibility for Bhopal.

This perceived disregard of justice, as well as of issues of site cleanup, provision of medical relief, and economic rehabilitation, sparked a widespread public campaign by activists and survivors’ associations. Writ petitions were filed to revoke the immunity from prosecution that had been granted to the accused, and in 1991 the court cases were revived. Yet Anderson has yet to be extradited and remains a fugitive from the law—thanks, activists say, to the U.S. government’s complicity in protecting him and the half-hearted attempts of the Indian government.

In 2000, survivors’ organizations filed a class action suit in the Southern District Federal Court of New York, an appeal that was summarily rejected by Judge John Keenan. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals later reinstated parts of the suit dealing with contamination and cleanup issues, but Keenan has repeatedly denied class certification, rejecting subsequent suits in 2003 and 2005. The litigants have filed suit again, and the case is pending in court.

Apart from the question of criminal culpability for the disaster, contamination at the leak site remains a serious concern, and one that Dow continues to evade. After the accident, Union Carbide simply abandoned its Bhopal factory. Vats and tanks containing highly toxic chemicals continue to fester and leak, contaminating the soil and groundwater. In 1990, soil samples from the area were sent to a lab in Boston, which reported the presence of toxic organic compounds and carcinogens. A 1999 Greenpeace study identified various toxic chemicals in the groundwater, up to six million times the normal concentration. The organization has designated Bhopal a “global toxic hot-spot.” And a 2002 study reported the presence of lead and mercury in the breast milk of nursing mothers from the surrounding communities. Various other studies have been conducted to estimate the levels and nature of toxicity and the health impact. Together, they paint a bleak picture. In most cases, poverty forces people to continue to live in the area around the site and to drink the contaminated water.

Medical care for the survivors also remains far from adequate. The exact composition of the killer gas is still unknown—Dow claims it is a trade secret—which has prevented effective research into remedies and treatment of patients. There is no surveillance of the long-term health complications of the survivors. In 1992, Union Carbide set up a trust to fund hospital construction after an Indian Supreme Court order. The 500-bed Bhopal Memorial Hospital became operational in 2000; however, it has been clouded by controversy over mismanagement, embezzlement, and wrongful treatment of patients. Moreover, the facility has agreed to provide free treatment for gas victims only until 2008. A number of non-governmental organizations, such as the Sambhavna Trust, run charity-funded clinics in the area, which provide additional medical care for the survivors.

Finally, the Indian government has given only scant attention to the economic rehabilitation of survivors. Chronic illnesses have reduced the affected population, who were already poor, to a state of penury. And government rehabilitation schemes have been sorely inadequate. One state scheme, which involved training gas-affected women to work at local printing presses, hired the skilled workers only as irregular day laborers and paid them less than the minimum wage with no sick and maternity leave.  

Over the years, Bhopal’s survivors have learned to organize themselves and make their voices heard at various forums around the world. They have been joined by large numbers of activists and sympathizers. Committed survivor-activists Rashida Bee and Champa Devi Shukla have received worldwide recognition, including being awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2004. They donated the $125,000 prize money to a medical trust for children born with congenital defects due to their parents’ exposure to the gas.

There is some indication that pressure is again building on Dow to clean up its act. Some of its shareholders have voiced open criticism, and the company’s business prospects have been hurt, at least in India. Yet considerably more needs to be done before Bhopal’s walking dead receive some measure of justice.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.