Of what use is memory?

The Union Carbide gas explosion in Bhopal still lingers, 36 years later.

Though occurring all too frequently, few industrial tragedies have imprinted so strongly on international struggles against multinational corporations as the gas explosion in Bhopal.

By Lital Khaikin
Published in Volume 1, Issue 4 of The Sparkplug
December 2020

Out of sight, out of mind. When the spectacular moment of tragedy has worn off its effect in the media, the world forgets the survivors’ ongoing struggle for justice — environmental remediation, health-care, labour protections, and anti-imperialist struggle against multinational chemical conglomerates.

A persistent ghost

On December 2, 1984 a pesticide plant, formerly owned by American chemical company Union Carbide, exploded in Bhopal. The walls of a storage warehouse collapsed, leaking methyl isocyanate (MIC) into the air. MIC, also known as chloromethane, is a clear and colourless irritant that penetrates skin and targets the nervous system, can cause seizures and paralysis, reproductive toxicity, and long-term damage to internal organs. Within four months, over 1,400 people had died. Up to 25,000 are known are known to have died from gas and contaminant exposure in the years that followed. In a humiliating exercise of incompetency, the state government of Madhya Pradesh has still not removed over 300 tonnes of toxic waste that is entombed in the old factory.

In 1979, zoning regulations were changed1 to allow the plant to be set up in a densely populated area. Years of warnings to the Madhya Pradesh administration about the dangers of the Bhopal plant went unheeded.  Years of gas leaks leading to hospitalizations and deaths went ignored before the ultimate tragedy occurred.

The Arthur D. Little Report (1988), produced by a consulting firm hired by Union Carbide, considered the possibility that blame for the explosion should be placed on sabotage by an employee. Union Carbide decried how the Indian government prevented the company’s investigative contractors from speaking to the plant’s employees, which it perceived as impeding the investigation. Yet there was little acknowledgement of the pressure or intimidation – direct or implicit – that workers might feel being questioned by investigators who were being paid by Union Carbide.

The Jackson Browning Report2 (1993), which was the second report produced by Union Carbide, also referred to a disgruntled employee, while chastising the Indian government for pursuing criminal charges against the company’s executives, emphasizing how the government pursued its original claim of $3 billion – which the US company had pushed down to a settlement of $470 million.

As historian and journalist Vijay Prashad wrote3 in 2014, the CEO of Union Carbide was never brought to justice before his death – for the cost-cutting and negligence of his company, or for the Indian government’s charge against him for “culpable homicide”. Today, the plant is owned by Michigan-based Dow Chemical and, though the disaster appears to have disappeared from public memory in North America, the survivors of the Bhopal explosion continue to suffer the consequences of this tragedy.

The breaking wheel of neocolonialism

It is often on the basis of providing opportunities for a so-called “better quality of life” that companies like Dow Chemical have been allowed to set up their operations, while actually exploiting lax labour, environmental and taxation regulations in their host countries. As Indian farmers rise in popular protest against the country’s neoliberal land reforms4 in late November, the story of Bhopal is both commemorative and remains urgent within wider anti-corporate movements.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has based his policies on a vision of Atmanirbhar Bharat5–an economically self-reliant (or, depending on the translation, “self-sufficient”) India that emphasizes local manufacturing and production. Reflecting a global surge of right-wing populism, this principle also intersects with the right-wing Hindutva nationalism6 that has characterized the Prime Minister’s tenure; but more so, it is incongruously positioned alongside the proclamations that India is “open for business”. This summer has seen Modi escalate his calls for US investment across many sectors, from military and aviation, to technology and data analytics, to the pharmaceutical industry, to energy and infrastructure. As the US has pledged over $40 billion in 2020 alone, Modi flaunted7 the incentives India has made for private investment.

Yet in a national climate that Modi has referred to as “a perfect combination of openness, opportunities and options”, residents of Bhopal beg to differ on this official line of optimism.

When US President Donald Trump visited Bhopal in February 2020, activists with two local organizations known as Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karamchari Sangh, and Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Purush Sangharsh Morcha, brought attention to the corporate and military interests that motivate US-India dealings, and the US  government’s sheltering of Dow Chemical from responsibility. Among many other instances, these activist groups have also spoken out8 against local government corruption for the misappropriation of compensation meant for survivors.

Trump’s trip to Bhopal received little attention in western media, but protests flared across Madhya Pradesh in opposition to predatory US investment, as well as the silence on Bhopal. Quoted in India Today in February, Rachna Dhingra of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action described9 how the US Department of Justice has refused two summons by the Bhopal district court to Dow Chemical “on charges of corporate manslaughter” since Trump’s election in 2016.

The legacy of Union Carbide and Dow Chemical in Bhopal recalls the decades of anti-colonial struggle in mid-19th century India, where states sought to shake off the hold of British occupiers and the exploitation and slave trade of the East India Company. By 1956, the formerly independent state of Bhopal had merged with Madhya Pradesh and Vindhya Pradesh, and ultimately integrated into greater India—the city of Bhopal becoming the capital of the present-day state of Madhya Pradesh. Today, the larger picture of the region’s development is determined not by local priorities and interests, but by those directed from Modi’s government, and corporate liaisons, in New Delhi. And not even thirty years after integration, the government of Madhya Pradesh would assume responsibility for the clean-up after yet another multinational corporation that sacrificed people for profit.

What has really changed in the imperialist shuffle through an India that is “open for business”, since Dow Chemical took over operations for Union Carbide? Pesticides are an incredibly lucrative market, worth10 over $50 billion in 2019 alone. Growing global food demands, and the cumulative pressures of climate change on food and industrial crops, contribute to a market increase that is expected11 to reach over $88 billion within seven years. Union Carbide’s own report from 1993 described its plant, which manufactured Sevin and Temik pesticides, as having “humane goals” to “transform” India’s agricultural sector and “[grow] national economies around the world”.

The social and economic disparity of this corporate abuse is stark. Bhopal has consistently ranked12 among the regions with the highest proportion of people living below the poverty line in India, with a ratio of 33%. Not unlike the exploitation under British colonial rule and the East India Company, this dependence on polluting industries is modern slavery, and the price to work is health and life itself.

Industrial factories are modern-day concentration camps. Casualties are lain in rows in the aftermath of the Union Carbide factory explosion.

The time that time takes to decay

Decades of headlines since 1984 relate a lack of closure, documenting how the fall-out from Bhopal is “still unfolding”, with an “endless wait for a clean-up”. In the immediate aftermath, the toxic MIC gas spread over at least 40 sq km around the Union Carbide factory. A 2010 report13 by Venkata Raman Dhara of the International Medical Commission on Bhopal and epidemiologist Rosaline Dhara parsed through the findings of numerous medical studies in the aftermath of the explosion. The researchers note that while the high mortality rates that followed the early years of the explosion declined over time, thousands still died through the 1990s as a direct result of gas exposure.

At the time of the explosion, the highest point of exposure for people would have been to the MIC gas through the eyes and respiratory system. Thirty six years later, however, Bhopal is experiencing what has been referred to by the the Bhopal Medical Appeal14 as a “second poisoning”. Chlorinated benzenes, which are present in the soil surrounding the former plant, cause damage to bone marrow and lead to leukemia. Carbon tetrachloride and heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury all cause organ and nerve damage through prolonged exposure that far surpasses the immediate fall-out of the Union Carbide explosion.

How much more unjust this cumulative trauma is today, when the disproportionate burden carried by the poor is amplified by the Indian government’s negligent response to COVID-19, as survivors of the Bhopal tragedy are reported15 to make up a disproportionate number of COVID victims—a virus that attacks the respiratory system and can cause permanent internal organ damage.

As the living memory of survivors fades through age, illness and death, future generations must still confront the long resonance of such disasters. 

A comparable study of the fall-out of chemical warfare came in journalist Laura Gottesdiener’s recent report16 for The Nation, in which she wrote about the devastating health consequences of depleted uranium munitions in the US bombing of Fallujah, Iraq in 2004, and the compounded effects of industrial development in the region. Documenting the Sisyphean efforts of Iraqi pediatricians to heal and mend amid the epidemic of birth defects that have ravaged Fallujah, Gottesdeiner describes how the toxicity of depleted uranium has contributed to new generations being born with cancers, neurological disorders and birth defects. However, the toxicity of the US munitions –dropped between the 1991 Gulf War and the 2004 invasion of Iraq—fits into a larger picture of manufacturing in the Iraqi city, where chemical warehouses and military manufacturing sites have contributed their own seepage of cyanide, lead, and other heavy metals.

Crucially, the production of pesticides is inseparable from such larger narratives of chemical warfare. How is it possible to forget the Nazi testing of Zyklon-B on the millions of Jews, leftists, Russians, Romani, LGBTQ, and disabled peoples who were victims of the Holocaust? Or the human testing17 of defoliants and pesticides between 1936-1945 in Japan, the latter particularly conducted under the command of Dr. Wakamutsu Yujiro? Dow Chemical itself infamously developed the defoliant Agent Orange and the napalm bombs that were rained over Vietnam. In the 1990s, Dow also notoriously came under public scrutiny for the company’s secret human experimentation in the ‘60s on inmates at the Holmesburg Philadelphia prison. Dow Chemical and the US Department of Defense had contracted Albert Kligman, a dermatologist and inventor of the anti-acne serum Retin-A. While testing cosmetic products on prisoners, Kligman also exposed prisoners to dioxin, a blistering agent that was used in Agent Orange.

The testing of pesticides and herbicides continues today with normalized animal abuse that hasn’t provoked any wide sense of urgency or intersectional analysis beyond that of animal rights groups. As just one example, in 2019, Dow AgroSciences (now Corteva Agriscience) was forced to end chemical testing it was conducting on dogs who were force-fed18 pesticides multiple times a day.

Chemical companies are deftly aware of this inseparable development of commercial pesticides, military testing and unethical experimentation. Their executives have sought to separate their products from these legacies by greenwashing mission statements and obfuscating their expansionism behind palatable identity politics19.

To confront this continuity between corporate neocolonialism, environmental pollution, and the military-industrial complex is to see the poisoning at Bhopal—and that of other industrial tragedies—as an act of warfare.

What else is this poisoning but a form of chemical warfare that is waged against the poorest among us, and against a planet that we take for granted? As survivors of the Bhopal gas explosion continue to pursue justice, international activists, artists and writers have kept their memory and calls alive. We are witness to the unraveling of the pollution in the decades that follow us, and carry the responsibility to preserve history at a time when our instruments of memory corrupt both accuracy and longevity.