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Excerpt from The Culture of Make Believe

Bhopal (p. 281)

From chapter "Killers"

Because in this story the bodies were disposed of quickly— dumped into the Narbado River, burned, buried in mass graves, hauled off by the military—no one will ever know how many people were killed by the forty tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC) released from Union Carbide’s Bhopal, India, plant on December 3, 1984. Crematorium and cemetery records suggest more than eight thousand human beings died soon after the leak. Other estimates run as high as fifteen thousand, and death rates among those poisoned remain twice normal, meaning death counts continue to rise. For political and economic reasons the Indian government and Union Carbide both placed the number of dead at less than four thousand (far more, by the way, than the number killed in the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings). Politics and economics aside, however, so many people died that a doctor at a local hospital noted, “We didn’t even have enough space to keep the corpses. We stacked them one on top of another like they were bags of wheat.” To find Bhopal after the toxic release one had merely to look for vultures circling overhead. In addition to the deaths, approximately thirty-two thousand people suffered injuries to their eyes and between two hundred thousand and five hundred thousand were otherwise injured. More than a decade later, people still suffered throat irritation, choking, chest pain and extensive damage to the lungs, vomiting, diarrhea and other gastrointestinal distress, damage to livers and kidneys, muscular weakness, altered consciousness and brain damage, miscarriages, stillbirths, birth defects, including children born with second- and third-degree burns across their bodies, profuse vaginal discharges, cervical erosion, the suppression of lactation. An estimated sixty thousand are permanently disabled. Even more carry psychological scars from having witnessed death on such a mass scale.

Eight thousand dead. Two hundred thousand injured. Any mere accounting of the dead and injured, however, is too abstract for our purposes, and false to the degree that it fails to express the event as experienced by a living being. Contrast the economic language of Union Carbide officials, who stated in the company’s 1984 Annual Report that “victims of the Bhopal tragedy could be fairly and adequately compensated without a material adverse effect on Union Carbide’s financial condition” with that of a victim of poisoning: “They were dead, every one of them, hundreds of them dead. They were all trying to get away from the gas. The dying were urinating, defecating, and vomiting…. In a few minutes I will be dead. What will happen to my body? It will rot here, or someone may burn my remains in this chamber of death…. If ever there is a hell, it must look like Bhopal on that gas day. It looked like the end of the world.” Another victim: “I was rendered unconscious by the gas, and they put me in a track with corpses destined for the cremation ground. I awoke with the impact, when I was thrown from the track onto a heap of dead bodies. My wife died. I have a four-month-old daughter, who is not well at all.” The stories build on one another, hundreds of thousands of them, one for each victim. There was Habib Ali, who was awakened at home by the smell of the gas. Having believed the words of his employer, Union Carbide, he thought, “Thanks to Allah that it was only MIC and not phosgene, which killed people’; he survived, but would never work again. There were people who ran toward the plant and toward their death, never having been told of MIC’s danger. There was twelve-year-old Sunil Kumar Rajput, who ran with his mother, father, and six siblings across the prevailing wind, hoping to reach the edge of the cloud; the wind shifted and only Sunil survived. There were Munnibai Balkishensingh and V. K. Sharma, both of whom worked at the Bhopal railroad station. Munnibai tried to flee but passed out, to awaken only at the moment she was set on fire to be cremated. Instead of fleeing, Sharma and three other railway employees telephoned other stations to stop traffic from entering Bhopal, and before they collapsed were able to warn passengers on an arriving train to stay on board. There was Sajda Bano, whose husband had been poisoned by a Union Carbide gas leak three years earlier. Not having heard Sharma’s warning, she and her two sons stepped off the train and collapsed on the platform. There was Ajeeza Bi, who has had three miscarriages since she was gassed: “They were all born dead. All with black skin like the color of coal and all shrunken in size. The doctors never told me why such things are happening to me.”

I have heard the Bhopal disaster referred to as an accident. I do not see the deaths as any more accidental than the killing of the woman in San Francisco by a dog trained to kill, nor the filling of prisons built to be filled. Union Carbide makes bulk industrial chemicals, many of which are poisonous, and it does so to make a profit. MIC is a pesticide, and therefore by definition a poison. Just how accidental is it that people are poisoned by an intentionally fabricated poison? To minimize costs and thereby maximize profits, Union Carbide reduced safety features at the Bhopal plant: Human power was cut in half; training in how to safely handle MIC was reduced from one year to five days; technical manuals were never translated into Hindi, the workers’ native language; safety features were unusable for months at a time (for example, on a different occasion there was a fire at the plant, during which the plant’s fire truck was unusable, sitting on a jack with all four tires removed; Carbide’s response to the fire was to remove outspoken union leaders and entertain government officials at luxury hotels); a Union Carbide operating manual stated, “If odor or eye irritation is not detected, the MIC is not present,” although MIC can’t be smelled until it reaches concentrations one hundred times higher than the threshold for safe human exposure.


Late in the evening of December 2,1984, water used to clean pipes found its way into a tank of MIC, triggering a chemical reaction that dramatically increased the tank’s temperature and pressure. The MIC began to escape, and by 12:40 AM the leak was out of control. A siren sounded at 1:00 AM but was quickly turned off so it wouldn’t panic the people living nearby. The alarm would have awakened people, but at that point many of them may still not have known what to do: Union Carbide never told those living around the plant what the alarms meant. It was not turned on again until 2:00, long after a poisonous fog had blanketed the area for miles. No one associated with the company had contacted the police; even when the magistrate called the Union Carbide works manager, J. Mukund, at home, Mukund said, “Our technology just can’t go wrong. We just can’t have such leaks.” A company official finally arrived at the police station at 3:00 AM to say that there had in fact been a leak but it was now under control.

Although Union Carbide was aware that MIC is one of the deadliest chemicals the company fabricates—having commissioned confidential research in 1963 that concluded methyl isocyanate “is highly toxic by both the peroral and skin penetration routes and presents a definite hazard to life by inhalation” and additional research in 1970 confirming that MIC is “highly toxic by inhalation”—the company repeatedly stressed to workers and others that the chemical was harmless. Further, Union Carbide never developed an antidote, prompting Dr. Hireesh Chandra, head of the Department of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology at Gandhi Medical College, to later state—and this may be the most fundamentally sound (as well as the most fundamentally disregarded) statement anyone has ever made—that a company “shouldn’t be permitted to make poison for which there is no antidote.” (Readers should be aware, by the way, that far from having ready antidotes, nine out of ten chemicals used in pesticides haven’t even been thoroughly tested for toxicity. The United States alone suffers at least 1400 toxic chemical accidents per year.) The company had told at least one doctor, N. P. Misra, dean of the Gandhi Medical College, of the dangers of MIC. But Misra, who was closely linked with Union Carbide, never told his colleagues of these dangers. When asked why, he replied, “This is not the only compound about which you do not know . . . There are thousands of other potentially dangerous compounds about which you do not know today, as you did not know about MIC.”

Union Carbide clung tightly to the public fiction that MIC is harmless: When victims began streaming into a Bhopal hospital, doctors called Union Carbide’s chief medical officer at the plant, Dr. L. S. Loya, who stated that MIC “is not poisonous” (Dr. Loya’s mother later died from the effects of the gas); when at 4:30 AM newsmen arrived at the factory, Mukund assured them that “Our safety measures are the best in the country,” and stressed that MIC was merely an irritant and not a poison; another Carbide official, whose name was not, surprisingly enough, Noah, standing within one hundred yards of dead bodies, told the press that “nothing has happened. Can’t you see us alive?”

Later, Dr. Loya was candid about why Union Carbide had hidden the dangers of MIC from the community: “If I say that ‘I’m carrying a deadly thing in my pocket,’ people just turn you out of the town. [They] don’t allow you to remain there, even though you aren’t going to use it . . . Here people are so emotional … if you tell them that, then the next day there will be a big procession and do-to-do and la-dee-da, ‘will you please stop this factory, we don’t want it,’ even though it is not dangerous. Telling the truth is sometimes a difficult problem in our country.”

The day of the leak, Dr. Chandra and a team of doctors from the Gandhi Medical Center began performing autopsies, and quickly discovered that many of the victims had been poisoned not only by MIC but cyanide as well; the reaction that led to the leak of MIC produced cyanide and several other toxic chemicals. That first day all one hundred and fifty-five autopsies revealed cyanide poisoning. Blood levels of cyanide were so high that many doctors began to suffer effects of cyanide poisoning from gases inhaled during autopsies. That afternoon, Chandra recommended injecting victims with sodium thiosulfate, a universally recognized antidote for cyanide poisoning. In response to a request from Bhopal, Dr. Bipin Avashia, Union Carbide’s medical director at an MlC-producing plant in the United States, made the same recommendation.

This treatment, however, was not generally made available to victims. Since Union Carbide was facing what it already viewed as a nearly insurmountable public relations problem, and since cyanide carries powerful connotations among the general public—including its use in Nazi death camps—the company did not want people to associate cyanide either with Bhopal or Union Carbide’s ongoing and worldwide use and storage of MIC. Consequently, the company denied cyanide was present, and Dr. Avashia backed away from his earlier recommendation. The corporate press in the United States went out of its way to support the company’s denial, blacking out the cyanide story for more than three months after the disaster, only lifting it in April of the next year when both the Wall Street Journaland The New York Timespublished articles supportive of Union Carbide’s position. The Indian government also denied cyanide’s role in the disaster, keeping secret a study revealing that the air near Union Carbide’s plant still contained cyanide even three days after the leak, as well as a study by the Indian Council of Medical Research verifying sodium thiosulfate’s usefulness in treating victims. To further the fiction, the government quickly placed an effective ban on the drug’s use, despite sodium thiosulfate’s freedom from significant side effects and its verified utility.

Public pressure eventually caused the government to inject a few victims—mainly wealthy ones—at one hospital, on a pilot basis. When, by June of the next year, the government still refused to allow destitute victims to receive injections—at one point arguing victims were too ignorant to produce urine samples necessary for testing after treatment, prompting an angry demonstration of women holding beakers of urine—several groups of volunteer doctors occupied part of Union Carbide’s plant and established there the People’s Health Clinic. During the next three weeks the clinic treated about a thousand people with sodium thiosulfate.

Horrified government officials recognized the clinic had become a rallying point for victims and moved to shut it down. At 1:00 AM on June 25 police raided the clinic on the grounds of “illegal occupation,” arresting and beating nine volunteers. They confiscated records and supplies, and turned them over to Union Carbide. Forty others associated with the clinic were awakened at their homes, taken to the police station “to prevent trouble,” verbally abused, and locked up. Later that day, police used clubs to disperse a demonstration of three thousand gas victims, beating scores of men, women, and children and arresting twenty-one. This use of force against its own citizens was by no means unique; perhaps the most appalling use of force by police occurred when a group of women who had been made widows by the leak demonstrated for aid. Police beat sixty of them. The government defended its actions by claiming those running the clinic “were playing into the hands of the vested interests and had to be dealt with firmly before they caused needless and avoidable misery to the already suffering victims. They were cynically exploiting the people by organizing demonstrations. The government did not close down any voluntary clinic,” and so on.

To step away from Bhopal for a moment to the larger discussion, I need to ask again whether the white people who captured Africans to sell as slaves hated Africans. How about the people who transported them: Did they hate Africans? How about those who passed laws legalizing the slave trade? And those who wrote editorials in support of it? Those who bought products created with slave labor? Did Pimp Soldier hate the women he called his ho’s? Do those of us in North America who live on Indian land hate Indians? Did those who supported Union Carbide hate the people of Bhopal? By what right did the traffickers in human beings conduct their trade? By what right did those who own and run Union Carbide set up a factory to manufacture poisons in Bhopal? Who gave them that right? What entitled them to do this? None of these questions are rhetorical: I want answers. In order to fabricate these poisons, and ultimately poison these people, what contempt must those who own and run this company feel for those they may poison? Or do they feel even less than this? Do the people even exist? These particular people, living these particular lives. Are these living beings less important to them than abstractions, than numbers on ledgers. What is the relationship between these numbers and these people?

In the aftermath of the disaster, Union Carbide pursued a strategy of containment which had as its sole objective the protection of the company’s assets. On the public relations front the company expressed concern for victims while simultaneously denying MIC’s toxicity; denying cyanide’s role in the deaths; blaming lung damage on preexisting tuberculosis; denying the leak’s long-term health effects; acknowledging as victims only those who died in hospitals; blaming “the cultural background or the basic educational level” of Bhopal citizens; blaming “overregulation” by the Indian government; claiming that either a (nonexistent) group of “Indian extremists, which calls itself ‘Black June’,” or a disgruntled ex-employee sabotaged the plant; claiming that the effects of the gas leak, while regrettable, were more than counterbalanced by Union Carbide’s positive role in India as a producer of pesticides and other bulk industrial chemicals; and blaming the company’s Indian subsidiary; claiming, in the words of Carbide chief executive officer Warren Anderson, “You can’t run a nine or ten billion dollar corporation all out of Danbury” Connecticut, headquarters of Union Carbide (this statement is, of course, a powerful though unintended indictment not only of Union Carbide but all transnational corporations, as well as the other large economic and political institutions that govern our lives). Within four months of the leak, Union Carbide’s denial had progressed to the point that Anderson could say, “The company did nothing that either caused or contributed to the accident, and if it comes to litigation we will vigorously defend that position.”

Financially, the company was no more forthcoming. Union Carbide’s first settlement offer was for $100 million; the second was for $240 million. The latter corresponded precisely with Union Carbide’s insurance coverage; had the offer been accepted by the Indian government, the disaster would have cost Union Carbide nothing, apart from the money it spent to hire Burson-Marsteller, the public relations firm that has also represented Nigeria during the Biafran war, Romania during the reign of Nicolae Ceausescu, the Argentinian military junta in the late 1970s, Babcock & Wilcox after Three Mile Island, A. H. Robbins during the Dalkon shield IUD controversy, Exxon after the Valdez oil spill, and Hydro-Quebec. Union Carbide also spent an estimated $50 million on attorneys. The offer was rejected, however, and Union Carbide began selling or spinning off assets and distributing the cash from these sales to shareholders. Some of this restructuring came about because Carbide needed cash to fight a hostile takeover attempt, but much of it was done simply to place the company’s assets beyond the reach of Bhopal victims.

The response of the Indian government was more closely aligned with the needs of Union Carbide than of its citizens. Soon after the leak the Indian ambassador to the United States said both governments were trying to “contain the damage,” and continued, “I know the two governments are in close touch with each other trying to maintain an even atmosphere even though there is this enormous public sense of dismay and even outrage.” The Indian poet and activist Ganesh War was more direct: “And besides the misinformation and misleading, the government is playing a nasty game, to save Union Carbide and companies like it in India.”

An example of the government’s game playing—and this forms a potent contrast to the treatment afforded my students at the prison— was its handling of Anderson’s visit to India after the leak. Anderson— who was himself going to Bhopal to “contain the damage”—was arrested as he deplaned in Bhopal. But the arrest was a public relations move designed not only to protect Anderson from Bhopal residents clamoring for his execution but also to quell public outrage and mask governmental culpability. Anderson was “jailed” in Union Carbide’s luxury guesthouse for six hours, after which he was released on $2,100 bail and flown out of Bhopal on a government plane. Later that day a government spokesperson said there “never was any intention of prosecuting him,” but nonetheless used the arrest as an opportunity to put the kibosh on rumors that India had surrendered to American (or Union Carbide) imperialism.

Beginning the day of the disaster, when the Indian army carted off truckloads of dead bodies—bodies that were never accounted for—the Indian government kept secret from its citizens much information relevant to the disaster. The government sealed the factory, impounded its records, and prohibited workers from talking to the media. It instituted a secret judicial inquiry, later abandoned, and refused efforts at cooperation and requests for information. It refused to make public the results of medical and epidemiological studies, victims’ medical records, research on the long-term effects of MIC, and results of air, water, and other environmental studies, prompting a newspaper to note that while a gas leak may have been acceptable to the government, a news leak was not. The government even tried to destroy the remaining MIC and thus remove the possibility of testing. After the Indian High Court forced fifteen kilograms to be set aside, Union Carbide “destroyed” the rest by converting it into the pesticide Sevin and selling it for $200,000.

During the first months after the disaster, Union Carbide spent on relief about three cents per victim per day. The Indian government added about thirty-eight cents per victim per day. By mid-June of 1985, nine hundred and forty-six people had received an average of $118 each, 13,906 people had received an average of $16 each, and four thousand families had received $125 each.

Lawyers and activists working with people in Bhopal wanted to sue Union Carbide for all of its assets, about $10 billion. Since estimates of Bhopal’s economic losses alone—including neither medical treatments for victims nor punitive damages against Union Carbide—ran to more than $4 billion, the idea of turning the company over to those it had poisoned was not economically unreasonable. But that’s not what happened.

Because Union Carbide is chartered in the United States, the Indian government filed suit in New York. Union Carbide attempted to transfer the legal proceedings back to India, stating explicitly its fear that an American jury might value an Indian life as highly as it would an American life: “Indeed, the practical impossibility of American courts and juries, imbued with U.S. cultural values, living standards and expectations, to determine damages for people living in the slums or ‘hutments’ surrounding the UCIL [Union Carbide India, Limited] plant in Bhopal, India, by itself confirms that the Indian forum is overwhelmingly the most appropriate. Such abject poverty and the vastly different values, standards and expectations which accompany it are commonplace in India and the third world. They are incomprehensible to Americans in the United States.” Further, the company argued, trying the case in this country would set a bad precedent: Since many transnational corporations are based in the United States, “the courts of the United States would soon be overwhelmed by litigation from all parts of the globe.” The company did not mention in its arguments that Indian courts do not allow punitive damages to be awarded. Nearly a year and a half later the judge agreed and the case was transferred to India.

Once in India, Union Carbide continued to drag out the proceedings. It dismissed victims’ claims on whatever grounds it could find, stating, for example, that “the plaintiffs are illiterate and do not understand the contents of the affidavits on which they have placed their thumbprints. Therefore … the complaints must be thrown out.” It appealed even minor procedural matters to the Indian Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, the meager relief efforts in Bhopal had stopped; even the people who were completely disabled received no compensation. That is how 1986 passed, and 1987, and 1988. Still, Union Carbide delayed. Finally, in 1989, at the order of the Indian Supreme Court, the Indian government and Union Carbide agreed to a settlement of $470 million: an average of $793 for each of the 592,000 people who filed claims. Groups representing victims challenged the settlement as too low, as did a new Indian administration elected later that year, but in 1991 the Indian Supreme Court upheld the amount. Still, the corporation stalled: Hundreds of thousands of survivors of Bhopal wait even today for compensation.

In 1984 Union Carbide had predicted that “victims of the Bhopal tragedy could be fairly and adequately compensated without a material adverse effect on Union Carbide’s financial condition.” The prediction was right, insofar as it concerned the company’s financial condition: The terms of the settlement were so favorable to Union Carbide that when the settlement was announced, Carbide’s stock rose two dollars on the New York Stock Exchange. But fair or adequate to those it poisoned? Listen again to a voice from Bhopal: “Since the gas I have not been able to work a single day. The gas killed my daughter; she died in the morning after the gas leak. I am breathless all the time and I cough badly. My eyes have become weak, too. I have been admitted to the MIC ward more than five times since 1987. Last year, I was there for nine months at a stretch. This year, I have come home after eight months.” Another voice, this of someone who was six on the day of the leak: “My father could not do any work after the gas disaster. He used to remain sick and in 1986 he died. My mother used to be sick also. … She used to get breathless and used to cough all the time . . . My mother died in February 1988 in the hospital . . . Carbide’s officials must be punished. If these officials are let off easily, they will go on killing people and making them sick. What happened in Bhopal should not happen anywhere else.” And yet one more voice, this of a woman whose husband was killed by the gas and who is herself too sick to work: “I believe that even if we have to starve, we must get the guilty officials of Union Carbide punished. They have killed someone’s brother, some one’s husband, someone’s mother, someone’s sister; how many tears can Union Carbide wipe? We will get Union Carbide punished. Till my last breath, I will not leave them.”

Here’s another riddle, this one perhaps even less funny than the first. Question: What do you get when you cross forty tons of poison, a major corporation, two national governments, and at least eight thousand dead human beings? Answer: Retirement with full pay and benefits.

If corporations and those who run them were held legally accountable for their actions, Union Carbide would have been convicted of murder thousands of times over, its corporate charter and the charters of its subsidiaries would have been revoked, and its officers and major stockholders would have been imprisoned or executed. Yet Union Carbide remains chartered and its officers and major shareholders remain free. Warren Anderson retired in November 1986.

The argument could be made that the officers and major shareholders of Union Carbide have not killed people directly (no one, of course, can make this claim for the corporation itself). The same, however, could be said of the eighteen defendants found guilty during the main Nuremberg trials after World War II. None of those ten executed defendants were accused of killing people directly. Not even Hider was accused of that.

This leads us, as always, back to the question of intent. One could say that the corporation and the people who run it never intended to kill anyone, that they were merely trying to make a profit. Presumably, that statement is true, and is also a central point of this book, because the same could be said for slave owners: Weren’t they just trying to make a buck? If you kill someone while you’re trying to earn what you perceive as an honest dollar, is the person you kill any less dead (is the murder any less complete?) than if you kill him in a drug deal gone bad, in a drug-induced backyard fight, if you drag him behind your pickup because you’ve been taught to hate members of his race, or if you hang him because you perceive him as a threat to the way of life to which you feel you are entitled? Does not the same contempt for the other, the same disregard, run like a silver thread through all of these scenarios?

It could be argued that the officers and shareholders of Union Carbide may themselves not be individually immoral, and thus are not deserving of punishment. But as Robert Jay Lifton, the world’s foremost authority on the psychology of mass destruction, made clear in The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, it is possible to participate in profoundly immoral activities even if one is not by oneself evil. Of those physicians whose work supported the Nazi genocidal project, he wrote, “Neither brilliant nor stupid, neither inherently evil nor particularly ethically sensitive, they were by no means the demonic figures—sadistic, fanatic, lusting to kill—people have often thought them to be.” While writing the book, Lifton struggled with “the disturbing psychological truth that participation in mass murder need not require emotions as extreme or demonic as would seem appropriate for such a malignant project. Or, to put the matter another way, ordinary people can commit demonic acts.” In the case of both the Nazis and those associated with Union Carbide, even those who may have been individually ethical lent their talents to destructive activities in order to further a perceived higher good. For some Nazis, this was the revitalization of Germany. For some associated with Union Carbide, it was making money for the corporation. The perceived higher good leaves victims who are just as dead in either case.

Although some few Nazis were held accountable for their participation in destructive projects, a tremendous number escaped justice. It speaks to our inability or unwillingness to make the connection between economics and hatred that, as Robert E. Conot noted in Justice at Nuremberg, “the German industrialists who had robbed the populations of occupied lands, exploited the slave laborers, and built the factories to work concentration camp inmates to death were universally receiving light sentences—in most cases the men were released shortly after trial in consideration of the time they had been held in captivity.”

It would be incorrect to say that Union Carbide “got away” with the killings at Bhopal simply because of the failure of judicial systems; this attribution implies, against all precedent, that courts, and, more broadly, governments, can be expected to hold corporations accountable. Instead the injustices need to be examined in the context of historical economics, and in the context of our long history of contempt for those who are exploited or killed, and hatred of those who stand in the way. No scheming cabal of judges could by themselves give Union Carbide the ability to poison people halfway around the globe: Technology, capital, and a whole economic and social way of life have combined to make that possible. This dynamic chain of relation has developed slowly, and over time (alchemically, in a crucible of consciousness and action), making Bhopal and tens of thousands of other tragedies inevitable. If we hope to stem the mass destruction that inevitably attends our economic system (and to alter the sense of entitlement—the sense of contempt, the hatred—on which it is based), fundamental historical, social, economic, and technological forces need to be pondered, understood, and redirected. Behavior won’t change much without a fundamental change in consciousness. The question becomes: How do we change consciousness?