On the night her world changed forever, Rashida Bee was 28 years old and had already been married for more than half of her life. Her parents, traditional Muslims, had selected her husband for her when she was 13. The couple lived together in Bee’s parents’ modest home in the industrial city of Bhopal, in central India.
On that fateful night, Bee recalled, she and her family had gone to bed after sharing a simple supper. But shortly after midnight, in the early hours of December 3, 1984, Bee was awakened by the sound of violent coughing. It was coming from the children’s room.
"They said they felt like they were being choked," Bee later told me, "and we [adults] felt that way too. One of the children opened the door and a cloud came inside. We all started coughing violently, as if our lungs were on fire."
Fleeing into the street, Bee found pandemonium. There were corpses everywhere, she said, many of them children. People still alive were bent over double or splayed on the ground, retching uncontrollably or frothing at the mouth. Some had lost control of their bowels, and feces streamed down their legs.
So began the deadliest environmental disaster in history–a disaster that offers unsettling lessons for Americans as the BP blowout continues gushing oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The 1984 explosion inside the Union Carbide factory sent twenty-seven tons of methyl isocyanate gas wafting over the shantytowns of Bhopal. Some 22,000 people died from the poisoning, according to a report Amnesty International published in 2004, "Clouds of Injustice." And local people still suffer today. A new generation in Bhopal endures an epidemic of infertility and grotesque birth defects, including missing palates and fingers growing out of shoulders, in part because of continuing contamination of the groundwater.
On Monday, twenty-six years after the Bhopal explosion, an Indian court finally handed down sentences in the case, convicting eight former Union Carbide officials of "death by negligence." Although Carbide was a US-based corporation and was bought in 2001 by Dow Chemical, another US-based multinational corporation, the eight men convicted Monday were all Indians, including Keshub Mahindra, the chairman of Union Carbide’s former Indian subsidiary. The eight former officials were sentenced to jail terms of two years and fined approximately $2,100 each—punishments akin to those for a traffic accident in India.
Rashida Bee, who has devoted her life since the Bhopal disaster to the fight for justice, was outraged by the perceived lightness of the sentences. "Justice will be done in Bhopal only if individuals and corporations responsible are punished in exemplary manner," she told Agence France Press.
Bee and activists with the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal have long demanded that Union Carbide’s CEO at the time of the disaster, Warren Anderson, face charges as well. Anderson, however, simply ignored Indian subpoenas and was careful never to return to India. The US State Department also came to his aid, rejecting extradition requests. Now 90, the former CEO lives in retirement in Florida.
The parallels between the Bhopal chemical explosion of 1984 and the BP underwater oil gusher of today are downright eerie. In the lead-up to each catastrophe, warnings of impending disaster were repeatedly given–and repeatedly ignored, by corporate officials as well as their supposed government regulators. In the case of BP, Abrahm Lustgarten and Ryan Knutson of ProPublica report, "a series of internal investigations over the past decade warned senior BP managers that the company repeatedly disregarded safety and environmental rules and risked a serious accident if it did not change its ways."