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."
Likewise, a 1973 Union Carbide document, signed by Anderson himself, noted that the technology to be used in the Bhopal factory was "unproven." A safety review conducted by Union Carbide experts in 1982 warned of a "serious potential for sizable releases of toxic materials" at the factory. Nevertheless, Union Carbide and later Dow have always insisted that the explosion was caused by sabotage.
What’s more, even though Union Carbide’s own safety experts had warned two years before of a "serious potential for sizable releases of toxic materials," managers of the Bhopal factory had no system in place to warn and evacuate residents in the event of emergency. Indian government officials likewise failed to insist upon such basic precautions.
In a second parallel to today’s BP oil gusher, once the predictable disaster took place in Bhopal, company officials downplayed its scope and severity in their statements to the media and the public. As thousands of survivors streamed into Bhopal hospitals that night, Union Carbide spokesmen denied that methyl isocyanate was poisonous, calling it "nothing more than a potent tear gas." BP’s CEO Tony Hayward was equally candid in the early days of the current crisis, assuring outsiders that the environmental impact of his company’s deep sea gusher would be "very, very modest."
And one more parallel: when it came time to be held accountable for the destruction, Union Carbide and Dow Chemical did all they could to minimize their financial and legal exposure, again with ample assistance from the relevant government authorities. Indian government officials that did try to pursue justice were repeatedly thwarted. In 1991, an Indian court ordered Union Carbide officials, including Anderson, to face criminal charges. After Anderson and the other defendants failed to appear, India’s Supreme Court named them "proclaimed absconders"—that is, fugitives from justice—and pressed for their extradition. After sitting on the extradition request for years, the US State Department refused it without explanation in September 2004.
A spokesperson for Dow Chemical told me that the Bhopal case was fully settled in 1989, when Union Carbide paid $470 million to the government of India in 1989 to settle all claims related to the disaster. But the $470 million figure was based on discredited estimates that only 3,000 people died at Bhopal; the actual death toll was at least seven times that many. What’s more, Bee told me, "Union Carbide made that settlement with the government, not with the people affected. We don’t accept it." Independent experts, including authors Arun Subramaniam and Ward Morehouse, in their book "The Bhopal Tragedy," have estimated the total damages of the disaster—including healthcare for survivors, compensation for families left without breadwinners and restoration of local ecosystems—at anywhere from $1.3 billion to $4 billion.
Let the Bhopal case be a horrifying reminder: it is a constant temptation for profit-maximizing corporations to cut corners on safety. The only protection for the public is eternally vigilant government regulation, both before and after the fact, backed up by strong public pressure that demands no less. When a disaster occurs and can be shown to result from corporate negligence, a government must not only insist the company pay compensation to all who are damaged, as President Obama has done in the case of BP. The government must also impose significant sanctions on the guilty, including fines and jail time for the officials responsible. Anything less only encourages further bad behavior, as Rashida Bee and her fellow Bhopal survivors have learned all too well.