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The unending tragedy of Bhopal

Soutik Biswas | 13:40 UK time, Thursday, 3 December 2009

A boy disabled by the Bhopal gas leak playing cricketTwenty five years and several thousand dead and disabled men, women and children later, answers to most of the thorny questions about the world's most horrific industrial tragedy are still blowing in the wind in Bhopal.

Why has the compensation to the victims been so paltry? Why is there a thick fog over the extent of contamination of groundwater in the Union Carbide factory neighbourhood? Caught between NGOs and a secretive Big Government, nobody is quite sure what is happening.

And above all, many ask why those responsible have been allowed to go free? After all, they say, money - whatever the amount - cannot compensate for a crime of such magnitude, whether committed because of negligence or sabotage. If this happened in the West, campaigners say, the company would have been held to account, perhaps driven to bankruptcy by compensation claims. But since this is India and the poor are dispensable, justice in Bhopal has been a travesty.

Also what about the blot to Bhopal's image and its inglorious reputation as a 'gassed' dystopia? Locals say the city lost its innocence after the tragedy. "Life in Bhopal had been laid back and gentle. But the gas tragedy changed all that. Nowadays everybody whinges, that's all that they do," says Raj Kumar Keswani, the city's best-known journalist. "Also, the tragedy divided the people. In a strange way, people who got compensation are often reviled by people who didn't."

Mr Keswani should know. He has lived all of his 59 years in Bhopal and was the only journalist who cried himself hoarse for two years before the tragedy, saying the Union Carbide plant had lax safety procedures and that the city was "sitting on a volcano". He had written a series of articles on the doomed plant, petitioned the courts and worked the politicians. Nobody listened to him. The shut Union Carbide factory in Bhopal

After the tragedy he challenged the government, accusing it of a sell-out to Union Carbide - the Indian government sued the company for $3bn but settled for 15% of the amount - and Mr Keswani became a mythic hero of sorts: Dominique Lapierre, for example, mentioned him in great detail without once talking to him while writing another best-seller. "He wrote that I used to go around in a car with a bagful of CDs because I was a music lover. Those days, as a struggling journalist, I had an old scooter and CDs hadn't even come to India," Mr Keswani laughs. This is one of my favourite Bhopal stories - it tells you how fact and fiction blur in the chaos of India.

The gas tragedy, in a perverse way, actually ended up oiling parts of the grassroots economy of Bhopal. As thousands of dollars of still inadequate compensation money poured in, this sleepy city was transformed, say its residents. Bhopal never had an economy of its own to speak of apart from one state-owned behemoth; the city of Indore to its west was always the commercial hub. Also, Bhopal belongs to one of India's most backward states - Madhya Pradesh - with human development indicators comparable to sub-Saharan Africa.

Twenty-five years later, Bhopal is a mini boom town, largely a result of India opening up its economy and partly because of the money that flowed in after the tragedy. It got some decent new hospitals, property grew and the city became the headquarters of a powerful vernacular media group which also publishes Harry Potter in Hindi. New malls are coming up and dozens of new private colleges - most of which are now suffering from lack of students - have opened up. Finally, Bhopal appears to giving its bustling cousin Indore a run for its money

Today, a street-smart, English-speaking social activist and darling of the international media and a street-fighting, hardboiled activist help the victims, in their own way, to live and fight for compensation. Maimed by gas, Bhopal's lost generation struggles to survive and to make sense of what is happening around them - pictures of children whose futures have been snuffed out by the gas make one's blood boil and leave a feeling of numbness and helplessness.

An anniversary like Bhopal's should be a solemn time to remember the dead and pledge to help the living dead, not become circuses of the kind they have become today. 1984 was India's annus horribilis - the army stormed the Golden Temple, Mrs Gandhi was assassinated, Sikhs were massacred in revenge - but, in hindsight, Bhopal must count as the greatest tragedy of them all.

The story of Bhopal, as Mr Keswani says, is a story of a proud city and its people cheated and betrayed by a country and the world. For India, it is a collective shame and a disturbing reminder that its poor don't matter. Most of the time anyway.


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  • 1. At 6:41pm on 02 Dec 2009, Arpan wrote:

    Timely article. Good news is the Indian culprits are still alive and around, however, it is unfortunate that they still hold important positions. What is needed is a political resolve as well as an united effort from residents of Bhopal to carry on the fight. Rest of India will follow. Media in recent times has the power to rake up these "dead" issues into people's psyche. More commentary needed from BBC and the other mainstream media to get this through

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  • 2. At 8:15pm on 02 Dec 2009, ramkum wrote:

    Thanks for your write up. I agree with the gist of your conclusions, but I am puzzled as to why you refer to NGOs as "hysterical". Note that the Bhopal issue is alive and the fight for justice is still on only because of pressure from NGOs and survivor community organizations such as the Sambhavana Clinic and Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udyog Sanghathan.

    The failure in Bhopal is not just one of the Indian govt, but also of global corporate accountability. The fact that Union Carbide (and Dow Chemical, it's current parent) has never been held accountable in a court of law for the worlds worst industrial disaster, is absolutely galling, and something the entire world should be ashamed of. The Indian government does not seem to have the gumption to seek accountability from Dow or the extradition of Warren Anderson. But this is where we the citizens of the world need to step up, and put pressure on Dow Chemical to submit itself to justice or face dire consequences.

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  • 3. At 8:49pm on 02 Dec 2009, ghostofsichuan wrote:

    I am not sure about what you do not understand about corruption. Bohpal was a prelude to the banking crisis. No one held accountable because the governments were the handmaidens to the process and governments never assume responsbility for their corruption. People simply only matter to other people, not governments, not corporations, not banks or investors. Periodicly the world reaches levels of corruption that eventually incite people to change. We are at the point and the future could be bright or very dark, but history shows that power is not given up willingly. The next great change will not be in a single country but many will be involved because corruption is the foundation of the global economy. These events take on a life of there own. India may be the only country remaining with any sense of a spiritual foundation so India may avoid the manifestations that others may suffer. The world cleans itself, like a tree in a storm, the dead and useless branches are thrown to the ground so new light can create new growth. Too much concentration in the mud and too little in the flower of the Lotus.

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  • 4. At 02:37am on 03 Dec 2009, David wrote:

    That was a HORRIBLE thing caused by a USA corporation. Did they get compensation?

    Was it enough? Im so sorry that our corporation did that to your people--treating them like worse than trash OR dirt.

    I know apologies are not enough, justice is better. And I was so ashamed to see very little happen... in justice... to that company (considering the cost to IndiaA's people :(

    David S.

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  • 5. At 11:53am on 03 Dec 2009, Ananya78 wrote:

    Brilliant post by Soutik - the most balanced one I have read of the anniversary. Bhopal is a crime of humanity against humanity. Ramkum wonders about "hysterical" NGOs - we Indians are indeed confused by the large number of contradicting voices among various NGOs that have mushroomed in Bhopal and the government stonewalling.

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  • 6. At 2:10pm on 03 Dec 2009, Newsblogsadmin (old) wrote:

    This is a revised version of my earlier post.

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  • 7. At 5:12pm on 03 Dec 2009, ramkum wrote:

    Thank you Soutik, for the revision, and dropping the word "hysterical".

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  • 8. At 6:17pm on 03 Dec 2009, AnonymousCalifornian wrote:


    I think it is telling that none of the comments here (nor the article) lambast the United States for this disaster since the company responsible was American (as is its current parent). My admiration for India has increased - I would have expected more anger against the United States.

    Dow should pay more in compensation, when it bought Union Carbide, it assumed its responsibilities, and I'm sure there are many Union Carbide officials, both American and Indian (and maybe some other nationalities) who need to be prosecuted for allowing the plant to be so poorly run and maintained that this tragedy occurred.

    Unless the American government has protected Union Carbide, and is protecting Dow, from litigation, countries shouldn't even come into this. Multinational companies headquartered in the US are hardly 'our' corporation, anyway.

    As another poster pointed out, although Bhopal is the most notable, endemic corruption causes many plants to be operated poorly. Add onto this the fact that setting low standards is what allows these plants to be competitive. So it is a complicated issue. People run the risk of pollution and getting sick or even dying, but this also helps India develop at a fast pace, and lifts many from poverty. This is not unique to India by any means. It is the norm for the entire developing world.

    Meanwhile, even developed countries have problems. For instance there was a peanut-poisoning scare in the US recently because of shoddily-maintained peanut-processing plants.

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  • 9. At 7:36pm on 03 Dec 2009, ghostofsichuan wrote:

    What the people of India need to recognize is that Bhopal is not in the past but rather in the present and the future. It is a cynical process that says that this is the costs of taking people out of poverty. Are any of you willing to have your family sacrificed on the alter of greed so that others may have a job? To believe that any benefits in your life can only be obtained through the suffering of others is to also accept responsibility for that suffering.

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  • 10. At 05:25am on 04 Dec 2009, Pankaj Chopra wrote:

    I am sure USA would have dealt with the issue in a different way had its own citizens got killed in this barbaric incident..the irony remains that a leading journalist from Bhopal predicted the tragedy in making a couple of years before the actual leakage. Congress has too many stains on its hands to wash away..84 anti sikh riots, bhopal, etc.. once again it proves that politicians are only concerned with themselves and making their "Dynasties' & families powerful..what a national shame?

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  • 11. At 07:34am on 04 Dec 2009, Freespirit wrote:

    We know what 'collateral damage' means. It's a term used and abused by military, police and governments all over. Indian government is no exception. Why was Union Carbide/Dow Chem let off? The answer lies in that magic phrase. There have been so many evidences cited how Indian government officials right from the PMO, industrialists such as the Tatas (yes, yes, they all claim to be patriotic, do-gooders and we've deified them) have colluded (an example: to mollify, dilute and pulverize the might of people's movement, and also to spit at their own credibility of looking after the greatest resource - people. Unfortunately people's movements get derailed with other tragedies - floods, drought, terrorism, wars such as the one in Siachen etc. Bhopal tragedy will remain a blot in our living memory but a speck of dust in the timeline of humanity - this is how the Indian government and our so called do-gooders bank on.

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  • 12. At 1:44pm on 04 Dec 2009, ProMal wrote:

    Hi Soutik, excellent article. Just a factual correction/typo, whatever it might be. Your article says Indore is to the east of Bhopal but actually it's west of Bhopal. Hope you can make this correction. I particularly like your last 2 paragraphs and the year 1984 was indeed an incomparably tragic one for independent India.

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  • 13. At 4:52pm on 04 Dec 2009, Newsblogsadmin (old) wrote:

    Thank you for your kind comments, ProMal, and pointing out the mistake. I have made the change.

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  • 14. At 4:22pm on 05 Dec 2009, dennisjunior1 wrote:


    Very informing story about the unending tragedy of Bhopal and, its many problems ....

    =Dennis Junior=

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  • 15. At 7:28pm on 05 Dec 2009, deep22 wrote:

    from the article above-> "1984 was India's annus horribilis - the army stormed the Golden Temple, Mrs Gandhi was assassinated, Sikhs were massacred in revenge - but, in hindsight, Bhopal must count as the greatest tragedy of them all."--- How exactly is a tragedy rated?? is it the number of people that perished or the failure of justice served after the tragedy or shame in what we can do to each other?.

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  • 16. At 6:39pm on 07 Dec 2009, Mini wrote:

    As we are into the 25h year of the Bhopal Tragedy, I am somehow stumped that this was allowed to happen. Of course India did not have the leverage powers that it currently enjoys, but surely the politicians did not settle for only 15%?

    How can the concerned citizen citizen become part of the solution? I am not interested in stating that Bhopal is a mere speck in the chronicle of India, we can't give up yet.

    Now that we have identified the problem, what is the solution? I want to see some solutions stated as well. How do we support and alleviate the people's suffering? Is someone leading this internationally and nationally?

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  • 17. At 4:25pm on 09 Dec 2009, nemo64 wrote:

    The Bhopal tragedy is a grim reminder of the callousness of MNCs.There is tragedy when disaster strikes but when the guilty walk free ,that tragedy seems 'unending'.The report brings out many aspects of the chilling incident that took place 25 years ago."After the tragedy he challenged the government, accusing it of a sell-out to Union Carbide - the Indian government sued the company for $3bn but settled for 15% of the amount" There seems to be little hope for a country whose government turns a blind eye.Toxic gases continue to pollute the groundwater and little has been done.Even the NGOs must accept a portion of the blame for this failure.

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  • 18. At 08:55am on 16 Dec 2009, Ronald Almeida wrote:

    The people of India living outside the urban sectors must be admired more than anyone else in the world. They have been exploited by everyone including their own countrymen through the ages and yet they go on.
    Bhopal is just one little example.India a democracy? Bah Humbug!

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  • 19. At 11:58am on 07 Jun 2010, JOEANTONY wrote:

    Bhopal Tragedy occurred in 1984. The Indian law failed provide justice to the victims after 26 years. This is the situation of a third world country. The culprits responsible for this incident should be brought to justice immediately and order to provide compensation for each victim. International News media should support the poor victims & follow up until justice is done. This is humanity & the duty of News Media.

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  • 20. At 2:33pm on 07 Jun 2010, F K wrote:

    Thanks for raising this Soutik. My father was a doctor who was attending a medical conference in the city when this happened. He escaped to safety by hanging on to a lorry for 20 odd miles. He suffered from minor sideffects for the rest of his life but when he died in 2002 of a sudden brain stroke the experts confirmed that it was due to a direct side effect of what had happened 18 years earlier.
    He never thought about seeking any compensation as he did not need to. But we have first hand experience of hundreds of people joining the gravy train of bogus compensation claims and buying TVs, bikes, washing machines etc from that money (the same amount would enable an averae poor Indian family to survive for at least a year). Whereas, the majority of actual poor sufferers either got nothing as they did not had the money to hire a lawyer to fight their case, or had more than half of their compensation eaten up by the corrupt Indian beurocratic system (in the form of bribes, commisions etc). The shame lies as much on this corrupt system as it does on the American company. This judicial farce is just the continuation of that shame..... absolute shame.

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  • 21. At 6:33pm on 07 Jun 2010, Raghunath wrote:

    Justice delayed is justice denied. we can see the inefficiency of Indian judicial system in Union Carbide case. How come the CBI took so many years to do this investigation. After all these years all the convicts are charged with so little that even a traffic accident would cause more punishment than what these culprits are going to get. Government and judiciary had a opportunity to show the world that India is not a third world country and life and ethics are valued in this part of the world. They have just let their own people down in a big way.

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  • 22. At 06:28am on 09 Jun 2010, Peter Hawkins wrote:

    I think that the company responsible was Union Carbide(India)Limited and NOT Union Carbide USA. I think that a major shareholder of the Indian Company was the State of Madhya Pradesh. These two thoughts explain to me the slowness of the payment of compensation and of the judicial process. The solution lies in the Ballot Box.

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  • 23. At 07:32am on 17 Jun 2010, Minanath Dhaske wrote:

    Cartoon on the subject...

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  • 24. At 1:53pm on 21 Jun 2010, SShah wrote:

    How can you trust government people to look into this issue. The people of Bhopal are suffering due to the indian government corrupt attitude. This issue needs to be given to a panel of judges and media - who I belive will look after the interest of the affected people.

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  • 25. At 03:33am on 22 Jun 2010, Jack123 wrote:

    Dow or Union Carbite should compensate for this. Just becuase they belong to USA we should not let them go free. Look what USA is doing to BP. So, Dow or Union Carbite is the BP of Bhopal. Anderson must answer the victims of gas tragedy.

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