The Bhopal Disaster of 1984 was the worst industrial disaster in the history of the world. It was caused by the accidental release of 40 tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC) from a Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant located in the city of Bhopal, capital of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. UCIL was a joint venture between Union Carbide USA and a public-private consortium of Indian investors.
When the gas leaked, all safety devices — water spray, scrubber, and alarms — failed to function. None of the employees of UCIL were affected, but there was no evacuation plan or mechanism to alert the citizens of Bhopal; and there was no suggested “antidote.” The leak killed thousands outright and injured between 150,000 and 600,000 others, at least 15,000 of whom later died from their injuries. Some sources give much higher numbers of fatalities. Tens of thousands and their next generations continue to suffer.
When constructed, the UCIL factory was in an area exclusively earmarked for industrial development and was a considerable distance away from the populated part of Bhopal. As time went by, slums developed in what had been a “green zone.” A few months before the incident, Arjun Singh, chief minister of the province, had given legal titles to those slums, which were his vote-bank. The slums were small, and were constructed of mud walls and tin roofs. No water or sewage facilities existed. The people who lived in these slums were the most affected by the gas leakage.
Very early in the morning of December 3, 1984, I was awakened by incessant honking and sirens.
As I write this, 29 years after the incident, the factory, now in disrepair, has been under the direct control of the government for over 15 years, but it has yet to be dismantled and cleaned. To research this article, I visited the factory. I entered the premises, with no barriers or security to stop me. Children were playing around. The roofs were falling apart. There were still bags of substances lying there. As one of the documented victims, I even tried to collect the money due to me, just to experience how the system was working. I did that five years ago but procrastinated about finishing my article, for reasons I will explain.
A lot has been written about the conduct of UCIL, but little attention has been paid to the conduct and character of the state and people of Bhopal. It is clear to me that the state washed its hands of all responsibility. So did the people.
A superficial observer might see the tragedy as merely one of the most visible features of a land of catastrophes. Yet its origin was in the human mind and its development depended on the specific defects of a collective worldview.
My parents’ house is only a block away from the highway in suburban Bhopal. Very early in the morning of December 3, 1984, I was awakened by incessant honking and sirens. Noise and lack of personal space are an essential part of life in India. My brain would have flawlessly filtered out the noise and let me sleep, had it not identified an unusual flavor in it.
We had recently been witnessing horrible riots. About a month earlier, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had been killed by her Sikh bodyguards. Early in the year, Indira had sent army tanks and commandos into the Sikhs’ most sacred temple, although their mission could have been achieved by simply disconnecting the water supply. Indira had run a brutal and murderous regime in separatist Punjab, a predominantly Sikh state, but she had the "moral" support of most Indians. What followed her murder was a pogrom against Sikhs around the country, organized by the ruling Congress Party. Sikhs were raped and burned alive in Bhopal. Their properties were destroyed. The servile armed forces and police were mostly silent spectators.
My acquaintances affirmed that the Sikhs deserved what they got. When the stories came out that the police had pulled the fingernails out of some people, against whom there was no evidence, most of my acquaintances seemed to have no moral qualms about it.
Asking myself what new was happening on the morning of December 3, I went to the rooftop of my parents' house to check. There were thousands and thousands of people on the highway. Cars jammed the roads. I had never seen so many cars; there weren’t many in the city, and those that existed were mostly owned by the government. Every self-respecting bureaucrat had a siren on his car. The cars were all going in one direction, and with a very strong sense of purpose: out of the city, as fast as they could. This was clearly an exodus. Winter mornings in India are very smoggy, from biomass burning for heating, cooking, and Indian cities’ preferred way of disposing of roadside garbage. What I smelled, however, was not the normal smoke, or the ever-pervading smell of India, which has scores of sources, including the rotting feces of the majority of Indians who still go out in the open.
Only many hours later did All India Radio announce a minor, insignificant gas leakage in Bhopal. By this time, hospitals were overflowing, hundreds had died, and human and animal corpses littered the streets.
A cold sweat broke out on me. My legs felt numb. This too was something we experienced quite regularly in life. Even under normal circumstances, nerves were at the breaking point, particularly the nerves of those who tried to live by reason and evidence and a sense of causality and who did not have the warped instinct of relieving tension by perpetuating it. Each premonition of something bad evoked a blurry sum of earlier, unpleasant memories. Human beings have an amazing capacity to block such memories, but the crux of the incidents still survives in the subconscious, influencing much of our behavior and personalities all our lives.
That cold morning of December, standing alone on the rooftop, I knew something terrible was afoot. Normally, however, such challenges would never lead us to live by the alien concept of a more fulfilling and productive life. The challenge was to preempt personal destruction in a society in which nearly everyone considered it his duty to run other people’s lives, a society in which reason and objectivity had absolutely no place. It was a life of tug-of-war, of wasted energies and unnecessary sufferings. The mode of discussion offered “expediency” as a supreme “moral” value. It was based on rhetoric and soundbites. Anything could be rationalized away, for nothing was held by philosophical anchors. The mindset of the people was rooted in the medieval period and incapable of communicating on the grounds of logic, reason, and evidence.
And now a very major crisis was in progress.
I woke up my parents and took their radio — an unlicensed, smuggled one — to see if Mark Tully of the BBC, or the Voice of America, or Deutsche Welle had some news. These were our only sources of real news. Alas, Bhopal, a city of a million people, was then relatively unknown, and the international organizations did not have their tentacles there. All India Radio (AIR) was playing the music of state-funded musicians. Only many hours later did AIR announce a minor, insignificant gas leakage in Bhopal. The announcement was lumped together with irrelevant and marginal items. By this time, hospitals were overflowing, hundreds had died, and human and animal corpses littered the streets.
A half-dead family of six, friends of my dad, arrived from their place very close to the Union Carbide factory. They brought in the first news, about a gas leak. In the afternoon, we heard a rumor that the factory had been set on fire by the families of the victims and was leaking a much higher quantity of the gas, and that the fire was spreading to the nearby, massive petrol tanks of the state-owned companies. I thought that something akin to a nuclear bomb was in the making. This rumor made logical sense. The conduct was what one might expect from the people of Bhopal: their first instinct would be to set Union Carbide on fire rather than help their families or remedy the problem. Another exodus began, one far larger than the one that occurred in the night. We had no other choice but to join the herds.
AIR did not have any news in the afternoon, for the “irrelevant” news had already been announced once. By this time, our political leaders were safely in the higher-altitude resort town of Pachmarhi, about 200 km away, where all hotels were owned by the government. Earlier in the night, when I was watching from our rooftop, it was to this town that the cars with sirens and flashing lights were taking our utterly spineless and irresponsible politicians and bureaucrats. They had hijacked whatever small emergency services we had. It is important to note that ambulances mostly did not exist, as they don’t even today.
The conduct was what one might expect from the people of Bhopal: their first instinct would be to set Union Carbide on fire rather than help their families or remedy the problem.
Once settled down in Pachmarhi, the official class started issuing self-righteous, brave instructions. They decided that there was no need for the people of Bhopal to evacuate, so they issued orders to petrol stations to close. Our telephones, as usual, were not working. Moreover, all out-of-the city phone calls had to be made manually, using an operator of the state-run telephone company. Even on a normal day, he was difficult to find. That day and for several weeks thereafter, he had gone missing. Tens of thousands of people were now arriving, sitting on the rooftops of trains, hoping to get information about their relatives. Everything that could go wrong was going wrong in that overcentralized system.
For months thereafter, the government was administered from the distant resort town. Even after our rulers returned, their food and water continued to be imported from faraway places. For over a year, the state continued to give us minimal information, if at all. We lived like helpless victims in a war, ever cautious and ever nervous. I am confident that this incident would have stayed out of the news were there no multinational company involved and had the state not realized that there was a opportunity to benefit from it.
For a couple of decades from that day, the sound of sirens would make my heart pound and my palms and armpits sweat. Indeed I am finishing this article after much procrastination, with my psyche revolting against my efforts to relive those days.
The immediate aftermath
For many days after the incident, I worked as a volunteer in government hospitals. There was a serious shortage of doctors, as most had run away. Hospitals were manned by student doctors. Every space was occupied, with several people on the same bed, people on the floors and in the corridors, on the roads leading to the hospitals, and in the parks outside. There was no one to look after them; they were dying miserable deaths.
We were given a bunch of different tablets to distribute to those dying. I asked a doctor on duty how I should decide what to administer. He responded with complete equanimity, “Give whatever.” Later we ran out of them all. Either way, except for a couple of VIP rooms with dedicated resources for the well-connected, these were hospitals in name only. The VIP rooms were empty, because the VIPs had escaped the city unscathed.
The Bhopal incident would have stayed out of the news were there no multinational company involved and had the state not realized that there was a opportunity to benefit from it.
For a few days I worked to collect information about those missing. What struck me most was that so often if someone’s daughter was missing she was not even mentioned. Indians at that time had no concept of getting compensation for a calamity like this. The state-owned insurance companies hardly paid anything, even to victims of road accidents. A few days after the incident, when people got to know that there might be compensation involved, they started mentioning their missing daughters. It took me many years to understand this attitude. For the same people, a daughter missing for a night was suspicious and not acceptable to the family. We collected the people’s information on scraps of paper, which I am sure never went into any official records.
What went deep into my teenage heart during those initial days was that most people behaved deplorably. People of Bhopal had killed and raped Sikhs. Of course, only a small minority had actively participated, but not for lack of interest, only for lack of “courage." As I have said, most that I knew gave their intellectual support to the anti-Sikh pogrom. That day in Bhopal when the gas was leaking, drivers ran their cars over other people without blinking their eyes. I wondered how, for those in such misery, thought of a possible illicit relationship their daughter might have had during the night as more important than her wellbeing.
Our utterly spineless and irresponsible politicians and bureaucrats had hijacked whatever small emergency services we had. It is important to note that ambulances mostly did not exist, as they don’t even today.
My "help" at the hospitals was a complete waste of time and energy, and emotionally draining. Disgusted, I stopped volunteering. It was obvious in my mind that given the individual mindsets, the culture, and the institutions, what was happening was nothing exceptional. The Bhopal gas tragedy was a product of our karmas.
I had never known a life without fear. I still vividly remember the fear that the blackouts during the Indo-Pak war of 1971 generated in us, when I was only four years old. Then came famine. Through most of the 1970s, even our relatively well-off, well-connected family had to depend on rationed sugar and oil or on the black market. Indira appointed herself a dictator in 1976 and instituted emergency powers in the hands of the police. My elders lived in constant fear of the warrantless arrests the police could make. One of my relatives had to pay several thousand dollars in bribes for the crime of owning an imported cigarette lighter. Our family and others had to melt away precious gold coins of major historical value, the only alternative being to deposit them at a government office for no compensation while taking the risk of possible arrest. Then the problems of terrorism started in Punjab, in Kashmir, and in the northeastern provinces. There was a constant state of tension with Pakistan. We lived a life of continual, amorphous, chronic anxiety.
Were the people of Bhopal going to reflect on their deeds and thoughts, their irrationalities and superstitions and their worldviews that had placed a huge brigade of rude and uncultured pests in positions of power? Would they see the causal link between their worldview and the spontaneous emergence of extremely corrupt institutions? Would their medieval thinking give ground to rationality? A major tragedy has a possibility of focusing people’s minds. Was the gas tragedy going to make people see how their dependency, totalitarianism, lack of pride and self-respect, their expediency with no moral underpinnings, and their lack of respect for others had generated nonstop catastrophes and had created fissures for sociopaths to rise to positions of power?
Extreme distrust of the state
Eventually it became clear that the Union Carbide factory would cease to exist. It was time to empty some of the bigger chemical tanks. When the time came, the state told us that the process was going to be flawless. The “brave” politicians and bureaucrats, of course, went to the resort-town of Pachmarhi, to watch the event from a safe distance. But on this occasion, people refused to trust them. Bhopal, a city of over a million people, was a ghost town for several days. The Indian army, which has a major base close to Bhopal, and which did show up during the aftermath of the gas tragedy, was brought in to police the streets.
My elders lived in constant fear of the warrantless arrests the police could make. One of my relatives had to pay several thousand dollars in bribes for the crime of owning an imported cigarette lighter.
The Union Carbide tragedy shook people up. They had seen, with all the nakedness, the harms that the state causes, harms that in the West are usually hidden behind a softer façade. People in Bhopal had seen the utterly irresponsibility of a state that had monopolized the crisis management machinery and then hijacked it when the crisis erupted. Society realized that behind all the brave sounding talk of the state were extraordinarily spineless and timid people, with absolutely no sense of individual responsibility. “They are worse than animals,” people would say.
Over those months, I saw people becoming increasingly anti-statist. There were open discussions about making bribery legal, making it a mere transaction cost rather than a huge impediment. People frequently discussed the possibility of privatizing not only industries but particularly law and order, and crisis management machinery.
More of the same
Within months Bhopal faced another wave of social turmoil. On this occasion, the Indian government increased the scope of its affirmative policy for lower caste people in educational institutions. Riots erupted in Bhopal and in the whole of the province. The increase was designed not only to distract but to offer stolen crumbs to those who had suffered most, to make them cling to the idea of government as their savior. In the meantime, the opposition political party, BJP, was strengthening its political position by calling for construction of a Hindu temple at the exact location of a mosque in the town of Ayodhya. This was to lead to another series of nationwide riots. When I was living in the UK in 1992, one of the top news items I watched on the BBC one day was Hindu gangs freely roaming the city of Bhopal. On this occasion, Sikhs were on the side of Hindus! The people of India were extremely gullible and could be manipulated in whatever way desired by the sociopaths running the country.
Bhopal was fortunate that the UCIL was owned by an American company. Had it not been a foreign company, not a penny would have been paid to the victims. To get compensation from Union Carbide USA, making an utter mockery of the sovereignty of India, the Indian government took the case to an American court. The American court (figuratively) threw the papers to the floor. Social pressure against Union Carbide in America was the impetus for the payment. An amount of $470 million dollars was paid to the Indian government, which accordingly passed a law, the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster Act of 1985, to usurp all the money, appointing the state as the trustee of all the claims and at the same time taking away individual people’s notional right to file cases against Union Carbide. Only a part of the money was to be distributed.
The state insisted that the people of Bhopal line up outside its dirty offices, manned by abusive and repulsive bureaucrats, to collect about $4 every week. The total paid was about $500 to those who did not suffer significant physical, visible injuries. I did not want to humiliate myself and did not see the worth in lining up to collect a mere $4 a week. But in an attempt to understand the state of affairs, and in order to write this article, I went to that office to claim my money. The office proved itself by far the worst I had ever seen in my life. Given that hundreds of thousands of people had walked that space, begging and groveling, for $4 a week, it had developed a Stalinist aura, perhaps worse. When the head of the department entered the office, it was as if a curfew had been declared. Everyone was expected to stand up and stand still. I stayed sitting.
After much cajoling the babu looked at my document. But in his file my name had been erased and someone else's had been overwritten. The corrupt office had stolen my due. Despite valid documents in my hand, I had no chance of getting my money unless I paid a bribe. (I have no intention in using this article to claim my $500. If however this article leads to an investigation, I will donate twice as much to an organization that looks after the gas victims.)
Bhopal was fortunate that the UCIL was owned by an American company. Had it not been a foreign company, not a penny would have been paid to the victims.
It seemed at one point that the people of Bhopal would fight for a smaller, more responsible state. But given their groveling character and readiness to sacrifice any values for small scraps of money, the state, ironically, became only bigger. They now had a monstrous new Department of Gas Tragedy. The guy on the street, alas, does not rebel, because he lacks integrity. When he is victimized, he does not challenge those in power. His instinctive reaction is to get into a position of unearned power where he himself can victimize others. It is the triumph of a deeply embedded psychology of “might is right” and the absence of a sense of justice.
India continues to be a land of catastrophes. In 2012, over 143,000 people died on Indian roads. In India’s mostly non-moving traffic, there are 100 deaths for every 100,000 vehicles; in China there are only 36, and in the US, only 15. On average, seven people die each day on the railway tracks, just in the city of Mumbai. Only recently, 115 people lost their lives in a stampede not too far from Bhopal.
Rationality has no place here. The state will not change until the medieval mind has changed. Despite our overt claims that we would like it small and free of corruption, the state will never go away until we realize our own personal contribution to feeding it.