Bhopal's Industrial Tragedy
By Yumna Abbas

August 6, 2007
Bhopal, India, the country of beautiful lakes, hills and people. A country where Hindus and Muslims can practice their own religions in peace and with respect for its fellow civilians. A country that isn’t exactly economically rich, but has enough services to provide its civilians with a harmonious life style. Who knew that one day, lack of law as well as lack of safety precautions would have enough power to kill the beauty and peace, leaving many without hope.
In 1982, Rajkumar Keswani, an intellectual as well a journalist, wrote out his theories as to what would happen to the pesticide plant, called Union Carbide, if it ever leaked. Its awful condition left him worried about the people that lived close to the plant where many chemicals were kept. His warnings were ignored and a part of him felt like everything would be okay. Little did he know, 2 years later, history would be made and he would witness it.
Midnight of December 3rd, 1984, the pesticide plant spewed 40 tons of poisonous gas, called methyl isocyanate, leaving many suffocating to death. As many of the people scrambled for safety, the night was a huge massacre. By the next morning, the stillness of the destruction left the birds without songs and the people without words, without tears and without hope. They never thought their lives would take a turn that no one could understand or explain.
The greatest people affected were the children, many of which died, both on the streets as well as in their mothers wombs’. The death toll was first numbered to be 2,000, though later, officially numbered to be 3,000 deaths. This was apparently not the official number of deaths. When the gas leaked, there were 60,000 people treated in the hospital and the hospital doctors claim that there were 2,500 immediate deaths and 10,000 total deaths. In conclusion, the actual number of deaths was not 3,000, but 15,000.
The cause for the gas leak is one that is still disputed about. The Union Carbide Corporation claims that it must have been a sabotage for which an employee is responsible. Union Carbide and the government of India came to an agreement where 470 million dollars was handed over to the Indians, leaving 500,000 victims with about 500 rupees, which is only about 10 dollars and not nearly enough for their medical bills as well as home life.
The toxic effects that the methyl isocyanate caused were difficult to treat because it was hard to understand. Nothing of this sort had ever happened before and so doctors had to improvise. They treated the victims to the best of their ability but a lot of the time they were as puzzled as the victims of the disaster. For many, the only cure was death. As scientists looked into it, they couldn’t explain long term effects until it had been long enough for them to observe the effects, but they did come to the conclusion that lung function declined and that the gas had great effects on the fetuses.
To study further, there were 3,000 autopsies performed as well as 4,000 – 5,000 external exams. This study showed that the residue had 22 toxic compounds and that there was an unnatural substance found in the blood and tissues samples of the victims. It was important for the people of Bhopal to know the genetic effects but this was extremely difficult, because the government stopped all research and kept all information and research. It was a small number of scientists, doctors and epidemiologists that continued on researching for a cure or at the least, the ability to explain why the effects took place.
Canada funded the research that was taking place and, eventually, there was a breakthrough that took place in Montreal at McGill University. A doctor, Daya Varma, found the relationship between growth retardation in children and methyl isocyanate and have come up with an explanation that can be wrapped up into one word; trimethylamine. It is safe to say now that trimethylamine is responsible for growth retardation and with the knowledge they have of trimethylamine, doctors were able to focus more on their victims’ retardation.
As research continued, the site that was once the Union Carbide plant was still left a mess. It was never cleaned up and a lead to a new problem; the poison was seeping into the soil as well as the ground water and slowly making its way into the lives of people. Greenpeace found up to 6 million times the expected level of mercury in the well water near the resting plant. The water had become completely polluted and more people were suffering. Their miracle came with another disaster.
This was the disaster of 9/11. Americans were able to relate the 9/11 attack to the Bhopal tragedy and gave the people of Bhopal a great opportunity. They allowed Bhopal to recreate the gas leak where the Americans tested their nuclear weaponry. It would cost 2 million dollars and would take a long time for that money to be raised, but the people of Bhopal had hope and knew that in time, they will have enough money to help the victims of the gas leak.
In July 2004, India supreme court ordered that 3 billion rupees ($367 million) held in a court bank account, must be paid to the Bhopal survivors. In September 2004, Bhopal activists and lawyers petitioned the court to re-open the 1989 settlement with Union Carbide.
So who’s left to blame, the victims of the disaster? But really, when something so tragic and disastrous happens, should we point fingers, or see who’s to blame, if so, why was the word ‘world community’ ever created? Where are the people who have the power as well as the money to make a difference? We need to do more than take a moment of silence to show respect for what has happened and we need to do more than just hope that other people will take care of it. Knowledge is Power. We have to spread the word and teach others of what we know. So that people that do have the power to do something, will do something. The world community should consist of all countries of the world, not just a couple countries or a few countries, but everyone and when this gas leak happened, everyone should have immediately gotten together and worked towards bringing the people of Bhopal their right to feel safe.


Documentary: Bhopal, CBC

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