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Thu Sep 27 12:59:32 MDT 2001
Los Angeles Times, August 30, 2001 Thursday Home Edition
Cloud of Despair in Bhopal;
Victims of 1984 industrial disaster still battle health effects from gas
leak and an Indian judicial system that is called corrupt and uncaring.
Responsibility remains in dispute.
BY PAUL WATSON, TIMES STAFF WRITER
BHOPAL, India-- Sunil Verma just wants to be left by himself. He doesn't
trust strangers. Companionship is a creeping terror.
Almost 17 years ago, a toxic cloud drifted from the Union Carbide pesticide
plant here, turning the air lethal and the leaves black. It killed seven
members of Verma's family, including his parents, and he still lives in
fear of demons he cannot see.
"I hear sounds in my mind," Verma said through an interpreter. "I only feel
like staying in a lonely room. I can't stand going into a crowd." Verma is
a patient at a clinic for survivors opened five years ago by a charity
called the Sabhavna Trust. Up to 100 patients come to the two-story
building every day for treatment of chronic lung ailments, eye problems,
psychiatric disorders and other illnesses common among Bhopal victims.
Satinath Sarangi, a metallurgical engineer who manages the trust, rushed to
Bhopal after hearing the first radio reports about the disaster in 1984. He
made Bhopal his adopted home, its survivors his extended family and,
through it all, became a determined campaigner against economic
He sees Bhopal not as a tragedy in one act but part of a dangerous trend
that continues to play itself out across the developing world.
"We call it the curtain-raiser," Sarangi said.
To Sarangi, and the like-minded who protest with him in the streets of
richer nations, the lessons of Bhopal have been lost on governments of the
developing world. Those countries are paying a high price, he says, as they
try to balance the need for jobs against the pressures of foreign
investment, often in hazardous industries considered too dirty--and
risky--for more developed nations.
While Bhopal's survivors try to live with the medical fallout of a long-ago
disaster, thousands of them also are fighting in U.S. and Indian courts for
Tribunals set up by India's government to settle claims are attempting to
close the books on Bhopal this year, amid widespread accusations of
corruption. Victims complain that compensation payments, averaging about
$580 each, cannot even cover loans many took out to pay medical bills,
funeral costs and other expenses.
Tribunal authorities say they were inundated with false claims. But
activists suspect India's government is keeping payouts to the bare minimum
so that foreign investors will see that cheap labor comes with a bonus: low
liability for industrial accidents.
As if that weren't enough, no one has yet decided who will clean up toxic
waste that environmental groups say is still seeping into drinking water
from the ghostly ruins of the abandoned pesticide plant. And even now, no
one is certain whether the disaster was caused by negligence or, as Union
Carbide insists, was an act of sabotage by an unhappy worker.
A new day had just begun on Dec. 3, 1984, when a runaway reaction
overheated a holding tank of highly toxic methyl isocyanate. It spewed out
a poisonous cloud that the moist night air transformed into a swirling
chemical vapor of at least 65 gases, including hydrogen cyanide.
The cloud of toxins crept close to the ground and enshrouded people as they
lay in their beds or tried to outrun the gas, burning their eyes, throats
Verma was sleeping on the floor with four brothers, four sisters and their
mother and father when the gas seeped into every corner of their crowded
slum around 1 a.m.
Within hours, at least 2,000 people were dead. Nearly 600,000 have received
compensation for injuries, either from the initial leak or its aftereffects.
Years later, the official death toll is more than 5,000, but activists say
the number of deaths from gas-related illnesses is closer to 20,000. And a
few hundred thousand survivors are still fighting the noxious legacy of the
world's worst industrial disaster.
They are trying to sue Union Carbide in the United States despite the
company's $470-million out-of-court settlement with the Indian government
in February 1989.
India's Supreme Court said the settlement was better than the victims could
have received under local law. But by keeping the claims out of U.S.
courts, the deal also forced the tens of thousands of unsatisfied claimants
to search for justice in the crooked maze of India's judicial system.
More than 1 million people, almost double Bhopal's estimated population at
the time of the gas leak, filed claims with the local tribunals created by
the federal government to decide compensation. The tribunals rejected
almost half. The average payout to almost 560,000 survivors who received
settlements as of June 1 was $580, official figures show.
That's much less than a year's starting salary for the lowliest of
government workers, the messenger who delivers everything from memos to tea
and is officially known as a peon. India's government set compensation
limits based on incomes from the 1980s, even though the first payments were
not made until almost a decade after the leak.
The government still is sitting on a large chunk of Union Carbide's
original payout, plus interest, and it refuses to say how much of the money
is left. But the figure is estimated to be at least $240 million, said
Srinivasan Muralidhar, a lawyer who has represented Bhopal victims in
Indian Supreme Court appeals for almost seven years.
In a country where public servants from the letter carrier on up are
chronically on the take, the victims are naturally suspicious about what
the government is doing with their money.
"It's unpardonable, particularly since they continue to settle claims more
than 16 years after the event, and not one of the victims has earned
interest on the award," Muralidhar said.
The tribunals approved payments in 14,824 claims for deaths blamed on the
disaster, most of which occurred years after. The average compensation was
about $1,300, or about 15% of the maximum allowed.
Most of the death settlements were low because the tribunals reduced the
majority to injury cases, Sarangi said. The tribunals settled more than 90%
of claims for about $550 each, the smallest payment allowed under
guidelines the federal government set in 1993, when the tribunals began
Abdul Jabbar, now a hard-line Bhopal activist, was living with his family
about a mile from the pesticide plant on the night of the leak. His father,
Abdul Sattar, died less than two years later. His brother, Munne Khan, died
Both succumbed to lung ailments, said Jabbar, who has fibrosis in one lung
and can't breathe properly.
The claims tribunal paid about $1,300 for his brother's death and about
$550 for his father's, he said. The money went to his widowed mother.
The tribunal is offering Jabbar about $550 for his own suffering, but he
refuses it and is among the thousands of survivors fighting in Indian and
U.S. courts for more. Their lawyers are arguing, for instance, that the
victims have a right to sue in the U.S. for compensation and a cleanup of
pollution that endangers the health of up to 20,000 people in Bhopal. A
U.S. appeals court heard the case this spring and is expected to rule this
"When I'm alone, I feel like tearing my hair out," Jabbar said. "There's
one disaster after another. It's only happening because the affected people
are poor people."
An investigation ordered by India's Supreme Court in 1995 found evidence
that some tribunal officials were demanding bribes from the gas victims. It
also concluded that the system was intimidating claimants into accepting
the smallest settlements allowed.
Justice Subash Balwant Sakrikar, who heads the tribunals as welfare
commissioner of Madhya Pradesh state, denied that the system is flawed.
"There are so many complaints, and in most of the cases these complaints
are bogus," the judge said in an interview.
Sakrikar said he couldn't discuss details of the complaints or the
settlements because matters still are before the courts. But in a written
reply to the Supreme Court's 1995 probe, the welfare commissioner's office
confirmed that it had fired 12 tribunal staff members for misbehavior, such
as demanding bribes from gas victims pleading for higher compensation.
>From the start, the Bhopal victims have argued that Union Carbide Corp.
should be held accountable in a U.S. court because, they say, the
Connecticut-based company designed and built the Bhopal plant, had strict
control over its operations and finances and owned a controlling share in
its subsidiary, Union Carbide India Ltd.
But a U.S. District Court judge ruled in 1986 that the lawsuit was a matter
for India's courts. A U.S. appeals court upheld the decision in 1987,
ruling that Union Carbide's Indian subsidiary was a separate and
independent legal entity, managed and operated by Indians.
Union Carbide sold its 50.9% share of the subsidiary in 1994 to a
Calcutta-based firm. Union Carbide merged with Dow Chemical Co. in February
of this year.
Ram Kuwar Bai, 80, received the minimum payout in death cases of 100,000
rupees--about $2,200--in 1994 for the death of her husband, Devi Ram. She
split it with her four daughters. Today, Bai has no money left to pay a
3-year-old electric bill of about $380.
She is nearly deaf and blind and dying alone, in a room just big enough for
her bed. Her home is in a government-built "widows colony" where gas
survivors live amid raw sewage that spills into the streets from leaky pipes.
"I'm running out of breath," she apologized after coughing so hard she had
to spit into the hole in the floor that is her toilet. "I'm just waiting
for God to come and take me away. Instead of living like this, it's better
The tribunals also paid about $2,200 for each of Sunil Verma's seven
relatives, even though the panels' own guidelines allowed a payout four
Verma spent his share to make a down payment on a bus. He was trying to
start a business, but it quickly went bust.
A doctor has diagnosed him as suffering from paranoid psychosis. There is
no medical proof that it was caused by the gas leak, but survivors
frequently complain of depression, memory loss, panic attacks and other
psychiatric disorders, according to studies by the Indian Council of
Dr. Ashok Bhiman found twice as many cases of "organic brain damage" in an
area of severe exposure to the toxic gas than he did in an unaffected
district. He concluded that the leaked gas caused brain damage, but the
government pulled the plug on Bhiman's study and other research on
long-term effects six years ago.
The research, including studies into suspected links to birth defects,
psychiatric problems and other ailments, was shut down without publication
of its results. There was no official explanation.
In the years just after the leak, before Bhopal joined the list of vaguely
remembered calamities, the focus was on getting justice for the dead and
injured. Few paid much attention to the toxic mess experts say still
Today the plant is a rusting hulk of ruptured tanks and empty buildings
with broken windows. In the drains, rainwater mixes with contaminated
sediments that contain, among other things, mercury. Exposure to high
levels of mercury can cause nervous system damage, mood and personality
shifts and birth defects, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warns.
A large sign in the middle of the deserted complex says: "Not For Sale."
Graffiti sprayed in white paint on the wall surrounding the property
declare, next to a skull and crossbones, "Union Carbide Killers."
Environmental groups such as Greenpeace say the company left behind an
oozing industrial sore. Although it was partially cleaned up in 1996, the
plant continues to poison the ground water that runs to hand pumps in the
same slums that suffered the brunt of the 1984 gas leak.
In a 1999 study of soil and water samples in and around the plant,
scientists from the Greenpeace Research Laboratories at Britain's
University of Exeter found "overall contamination" and "hot spots of severe
contamination with heavy metals and/or persistent organic pollutants."
The list includes an organochlorine that is a potent kidney toxin and
suspected carcinogen, and carbon tetrachloride at levels 1,700 times above
the World Health Organization's limit for drinking water. Short-term
exposure to carbon tetrachloride may cause liver, kidney and lung damage
and long term may cause cancer, according to the EPA.
The pollution is "likely to have serious consequences for the health and
survival of the local population," the 109-page Greenpeace report concluded.
Despite earlier environmental warnings, the state Pollution Control Board
declared the dump site next to the Bhopal plant "a secure landfill" in
1997. The state government, insisting the land is safe to live on, is
offering to return it to farmers who owned it before Union Carbide set up
the pesticide plant.
The search for justice isn't just about safety issues and money. The Bhopal
victims also want to know who was to blame. Muralidhar, one of their
lawyers, says some of the strongest evidence that the plant was
accident-prone surfaced just five years ago and, he claims, is still being
ignored by India's federal police.
Union Carbide insists that a disgruntled worker caused the Bhopal disaster
by connecting a water hose directly to the tank of methyl isocyanate,
setting off an unstoppable chemical reaction.
No suspect was ever named, and a study by Indian scientists blamed faults
in the plant's design, including insufficient safeguards that they said
allowed contaminants into the tank.
But a 1988 investigation conducted for Union Carbide by Arthur D. Little
International, a Massachusetts-based consulting firm, concluded "with
virtual certainty" that the plant was sabotaged and said "it is equally
clear that those most directly involved" tried to cover it up.
Kamal Pareek, who was in charge of plant safety until he quit a year before
the gas leak, thinks sabotage was impossible.
"It's so difficult, at any given moment, to consciously release MIC [methyl
isocyanate gas] into the atmosphere," Pareek said in an interview in New
Delhi, where he now works as a consultant.
The factory had lost so much money since 1981 that safety measures were
cut, he said, adding that managers in India and the U.S. ignored many
warnings that disaster was inevitable. Separate investigations by Indian
scientists and police reached similar conclusions.
A poster left by a leftist workers group on walls near the plant more than
two years before the leak warned of danger. It was entered as evidence
before India's Supreme Court in a failed 1996 appeal.
In addition, at least one worker was killed and several others injured in a
string of phosgene gas leaks that continued at least until 1982, according
to reports filed with the Supreme Court. Union Carbide used phosgene, which
was a chemical weapon in World War I, to make methyl isocyanate. In 1986,
the U.S. government imposed a then-record fine on Union Carbide, alleging
safety violations at a pesticide plant in West Virginia; one alleged
infraction was that workers checked out suspected phosgene leaks by
sniffing equipment vents. Union Carbide denied violating the law but agreed
to pay a reduced fine.
Pareek said he had suggested not long before he quit that the company put
up its own posters and hand out pamphlets in nearby shantytowns to teach
people what to do if a major leak occurred. Management rejected the idea,
Had the messages gone out, people would have learned a simple way to
protect themselves: Hold a wet cloth over your face until the deadly gas
passes on the wind.
But as it turned out, the victims, most of them asleep, wouldn't have had
People in the shanties had complained about the noise from Union Carbide's
emergency siren, Pareek said.
"The shift superintendent on that night of the disaster decided not to blow
the siren," he said, "so that people would not get alarmed unnecessarily,
on a very cold night."
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