The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Bhopal, India 20 years ago:
The Union Carbide factory decimates the city

Dec 20, 2004

On the night of December 3, 1984, the chemical factory of the U.S. company Union Carbide exploded in Bhopal, India. It was one of the largest industrial catastrophes in history, unleashing a poisonous cloud of methyl isocyanate, cyanide and phosgene.

Between 3,000 and 10,000 people died immediately or in the first days which followed – the exact number is unknown. The neighborhood next to the factory was a shanty town and in the panic, many bodies were burnt in funeral pyres to avoid epidemics.

Twenty years later, 150,000 people still suffer from the aftereffects of the explosion. The ground water used for the city is still polluted and the ruins and waste of the factory are still there, slowly poisoning the soil.

It was a catastrophe waiting to happen as soon as the factory opened in 1980. Union Carbide built the factory cheaply in India, in order make and sell the pesticide Sevin. The equipment used to store the gas to make the insecticide, a gas that is extremely difficult to handle and store, resembled equipment of the 1940s and 1950s in the U.S. This type of equipment was no longer allowed in the U.S., which was one of the main reasons prompting Union Carbide to locate the factory in India. The company expected to make enough from operating the factory to cover the cost of its construction in just three years. There was no emergency plan for accidents, no instruction on what to do and no protective equipment. In 1981 a worker died; in 1982, 25 were poisoned. The same year, a team of inspectors from the U.S. noted some hundred failures of safety rules. Further, since the sale of Sevin wasn't as high as Union Carbide had hoped for, it slowly reduced new investments in Bhopal as well as the number of workers, letting the plant degrade. The night of the catastrophe the refrigeration system didn't function right, the alarms that were supposed to sound with a change in temperature weren't connected, the decontamination towers and the incineration flare stack were partly dismantled.

Since December 1984, Union Carbide has done everything possible to escape its responsibility for the disaster. The third biggest chemical corporation in the world, it was able to come up with 3.3 billion dollars to defend itself against a takeover by a competitor, but it refused to pay the three billion dollars in compensation that the victims asked for. Finally in 1989, the corporation agreed to pay 470 million dollars, the minimum it could get away with. Most of the money went to middle men and to bribes and corruption, with the victims getting very little.

It is a sinister joke to call the Bhopal disaster an accident since it was clear it was going to happen. The corporate heads had to know that their factory in India was a bomb waiting to explode. The only unknown question was when it would happen. And since the factory was located in the midst of a city of 900,000 people, they had to know it would kill or injure tens of thousands of people. Clearly, this was a premeditated crime. But that didn't prevent the heads of Union Carbide at the time and the stockholders of Dow Chemical, which bought the company in 1999, from enjoying the flood of profits, amassed in part from Bhopal, while refusing to accept its liabilities.