On this day in 1989, US multinational Union Carbide agreed a deal to pay $470m to victims of the world’s worst industrial disaster. Campaigners say that was never enough

Children play near water towers in front of their homes near the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, India
Children play near water towers in front of their homes near the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, India ( Getty )

When the gas first started seeping into their thatch and wooden homes, many residents of the poorer neighbourhoods of BhopalIndia, thought they were being afflicted by a neighbour burning chillies.

It was only when they went outside, coughing and with stinging eyes, that they saw the devastation wrought by the worst industrial accident the world has ever seen; 40 tonnes of deadly methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas that billowed out of Union Carbide India’s pesticide plant in the middle of the night.

Panic set in as people started dropping dead in their homes, in the street, drowning in their own bodily fluids. Most ran in the direction of the area’s only major hospital, not knowing that the factory, in the same direction, was the source of the gas.

What also became apparent only later, and is still being disputed, was the number of people affected by exposure that night of 2-3 December 1984. The Indian government now officially recognises that 574,000 people were poisoned, and that of those almost 5,300 died. 

Shehzadi Bee, 63, was then living with her four young children in a small makeshift house in the Blue Moon Colony near the main road leading up to the pesticide factory.

16 February 2019

Her neighbourhood was among the first reached by the cloud of gas that spread across the city. When she heard the commotion outside, she rushed her children out and thought she was lucky, she tells The Independent, to find a truck that was evacuating people to safety.Promoted storiesTitan Mother Of Pearl Dial Analog Watch for WomenRs12,340 – titan.co.in5 ways to transform your grooming routinePG Diploma in Data Science—Starts 25th February 2019Amity University Onlineby TaboolaPromoted Links

“Once me and my children had boarded, the scene on that truck was horrible. Everyone was having breathing issues, burning in their eyes, and then they were vomiting, and passing stools. Nobody knew what was going on, what was happening to them.

“People were falling unconscious. Then we saw people dying inside that truck before our eyes. Many, many people died.”

The truck took Ms Bee and her children across the city to Lal Ghati, an area near the airport and away from the gas. But her husband spent two months in a hospital ward and, from chronic chest pain to loss of vision, she says the family suffered “many health issues” in the years since. She says she received 25,000 rupees (£275) compensation in total, staggered over five years.

To this day, Union Carbide – now wholly owned by the US multinational Dow Chemical – has not paid a single cent to almost 470,000 people who were affected, the government says. That’s because they were not included in the settlement, signed in 1989 and overseen by the Supreme Court of India, that saw the company pay out a total of $470m (£367m) in compensation.

Activists say the agreement, reached 30 years ago today, was inherently unjust because it played down the numbers of dead and injured. 

The government, which alleviated some public outcry by paying an additional sum of tax-payers’ money to victims and their families in 2010, has now filed what’s known in India as a “curative petition” to the Supreme Court, urging it to reconsider its ruling and compel Union Carbide to pay more.

While the tragedy of the leak took place in 1984, “a big wrong was [also] committed by the court in ’89”, said Rachna Dhingra, member of the Bhopal Group for Information Action founded in 1986.

“People feel cheated. If you look around Bhopal, there are some areas where every fifth household has a child with a disability. You see that they have been left to fend for themselves, denied what they feel was rightfully theirs in terms of compensation… by this corporation.”

The Supreme Court already dismissed a previous curative petition from the government calling for Dow to pay another $1.2bn. Activists say that, on the basis of the lasting and widespread health impacts felt by hundreds of thousands in the city, the amount being fought for this time round should be closer to $8.1bn.

Even those who were included in the 1989 settlement received only a “pittance”, Ms Dhingra told The Independent. Under the original terms, the compensation to the family for a death was 100,000 rupees – a bit over £1,000.

She compares the $470m total paid by Union Carbide to the $21bn BP was fined over the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, saying the victims had been “considered dispensable human beings”. 

“The issue of race is a very important part of this,” she said. “We had a Dow spokesperson who told us that ‘$500 goes pretty far over there’. People here are considered lesser human beings – still to this day.”

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Aziza Sultana was 20-years-old at the time of the gas leak. She was pregnant and asleep at home with her son and daughter just a kilometre from the Union Carbide factory when they woke up coughing and started vomiting.

They ran through the streets to the nearest hospital but found it abandoned, and she ended up passing out on a pile of garbage. At some point during the ordeal she suffered a miscarriage.

“Since that night, six members of my family have suffered long-term breathing problems and seven have become sick with cancer. My two children have also developed disabilities and, after the miscarriage, my husband and I decided never to have a third child.

“My family was provided 50,000 rupees (£550) compensation. It was not enough at the time, and we are still suffering the after-effects of the tragedy. 

“There is so much anger in us, we have cried for so long. If we would only be given the proper compensation, our lives would at least become a little easier after that.”

The Supreme Court will examine the new curative petition in April, and Ms Dhingra says NGOs are hopeful – after writing to the local government every month for the past eight years – that their points about the numbers of injured will finally be listened to.

A spokesperson for Union Carbide said the company had filed a response to the petition and “intends to vigorously defend itself”. 

They pointed to the Supreme Court’s initial characterisation of the 1989 settlement as “just, equitable and reasonable”, as well as the government of India’s own defence of it in 2006 on the basis that “each and every claimant has got compensation as per law and his entitlement”.

“The 1984 gas leak in Bhopal was a terrible tragedy that continues to evoke strong emotions more than three decades later. But allowing these emotions to blur the line of rationality and absolve the filter of logic is not only wrong, but also sends a strong message that the Indian government does not honour rule of law and its own commitments,” the spokesperson said.