Bhopal gas tragedy: How the victims of one of the world's worst industrial accidents are still waiting for justice thirty years later

The death of the chief executive of Union Carbide, who was never held to account for one of the world’s worst industrial accidents in 1984, deprives survivors of the restitution they deserve

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The women of Bhopal lined up yesterday to spit on a photograph.

They slapped the image with the soles of their shoes and threw rocks at it, leaving the typically bland black and white headshot of a typically bland American executive covered in mud and spittle.

The demonstration outside the crumbling perimeter wall of the Union Carbide chemical plant in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh – its derelict skeleton just visible above the overgrown foliage in the grounds – was called at short notice after news emerged that Warren Anderson had died a month ago, aged 92.

The announcement of his death was typical of the man who has hardly been seen in public for three decades, avoiding a half-hearted extradition process from the Indian government after its courts declared him an absconder from justice for his refusal to answer summonses for culpable homicide.

In death, the chief executive of Union Carbide Corporation – who presided over what was, at the time, the world’s worst industrial accident, almost 30 years ago – managed to stoke as much anger as when alive. “He should have been brought here,” said Kasturi Bai, 65, who lost a son, two daughters and a daughter-in-law in the tragedy. She received just 25,000 rupees in compensation – about £300. Mr Anderson is reported to have died in a Florida nursing home on 29 September.

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Victims who lost their sight after the poison gas leak in front of the Union Carbide factory (AFP/Getty Images)

His death could not contrast more sharply with those who died in the disaster in the early hours of 3 December 1984. Thousands of men, women and children who lived next to the plant choked to death, their eyes stinging and lungs burning. The plant spewed out 42 tons of methyl isocyanate – a poison gas used for manufacturing pesticides. Some died in their homes, others in the mass exodus as parents carrying their children tried in vain to flee the poison cloud.

“This demonstration is to show that we will chase them even in death,” said Satinath Sarangi, the director of the Sambhavna Trust Clinic, founded with donations from Britain following the Bhopal Medical Appeal. It cares for the survivors who to this day suffer from diabetes, respiratory problems, heart problems, eye and joint problems. Women were particularly badly affected. Many have gynaecological difficulties. Some miscarried, others were left to bring up their families alone. Children too are still being born with mental and physical disabilities.

The true cost of the tragedy remains unknown. The official number of dead was put at 3,787, but it is estimated 25,000 have died because of the leak and half a million were poisoned and left with permanent injuries. On the white board in the reception of the Trust Clinic, the figure 30,131 is written – the number of patients registered in the last 30 years.

The anger is still palpable in Bhopal, not just because warnings of safety at the plant were allegedly ignored for years before the disaster. In the immediate aftermath, a cyanide antidote was withheld to support the claims that cyanide had not leaked. Campaigners say thousands more have subsequently suffered because chemicals dumped at the plant infected the groundwater.

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Indian children born with congenital disease, second generation victims of the1984 Bhopal gas tragedy, participate in a candle light vigil (Getty Images)

They are angry because they have never had justice. Mr Anderson was never held accountable, despite being briefly arrested when he visited the plant in 1984. He was released after three hours’ house arrest after paying bail and promising to return. In 2010 a court handed down jail terms of just two years to Indian officials who oversaw the pesticide plant. The officials, all of them Indian, were found guilty of death by negligence and sentenced to two years in jail but were released on bail, pending an appeal. They were the first criminal convictions brought in association with the tragedy.

Two years before that, in 1998, the leased site of the plant in the heart of the city – which contained hundreds of tons of rusting, contaminated debris and spilled chemicals – was returned to Indian authorities.

Union Carbide fought compensation payouts tooth and nail – arguing that all 200,000 claimants would have to appear in court because disease was endemic in the area and how were they to know claims were not spurious. In the end, in 1989, just $470m (£294m) was paid in a deal with the Indian government agreed without the survivors’ knowledge. Those who did receive compensation ended up with about $500.

Union Carbide was bought by Dow Chemicals in 2001 and Dow has always denied legal responsibility for what happened at Bhopal.

Rashida Bee, a founder of the Chingari Trust Clinic, a school for children born with disabilities such as cerebral palsy linked to the disaster, said: “For the last 30 years the people of Bhopal have been asking for justice. We are still asking.” Tim Edwards, of the Bhopal Medical Appeal, said last night: “Any death is sad news, and this is no exception. However, Mr Anderson’s death has also gone some way to deny hundreds of thousands of Bhopal survivors the truth and reconciliation that should have been their right through processes of law and justice.”

Mr Anderson’s death passed almost unnoticed until an article appeared in Vero Beach 32963, the weekly newspaper of the Vero Beach barrier island in Florida. Tarun Thomas, the manager of Chingari, said Mr Anderson must had known mistakes were made. “He has seen the disaster that cost so many lives. I don’t think he would have died peacefully.”

In an interview with The New York Times five months after the tragedy, Mr Anderson said: “You wake up in the morning thinking, can it have occurred?” He added: “And then you know it has and you know it’s something you’re going to have to struggle with for a long time.”

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