Feature Industrial Disasters

Bhopal’s legacy: three decades on and residents are still being poisoned

BMJ 2014; 349 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.g7602 (Published 11 December 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;349:g7602
  1. Sally Howard, freelance journalist, London, UK
  1. admin{at}sallyhoward.net

Thirty years after the Bhopal gas leak, Sally Howard considers the survivors’ ongoing struggle for legal redress and the mixed legacy of the public health disaster that’s become a byword for corporate malfeasance in the developing world

“Thirty years on we’re still poisoning tens of thousands of Bhopal’s residents every day as highly paid lawyers bicker between themselves about which faceless corporate body is responsible for clearing up the mess,” says Colin Toogood of the Bhopal Medical Appeal, a UK based charity that funds a clinic and rehabilitation centre in the city.

However, the recent actions of five female survivors of the Bhopal chemical disaster on 3 December 1984 have achieved some success. The women, who were left variously widowed, infertile, or with chronic respiratory illness by the disaster, started a waterless hunger strike last month in New Delhi. They called off their strike on 14 November after India’s new minister of chemicals and fertilisers, Ananth Kumar, met their demands. He agreed to increase the official figures for Bhopal’s injured and dead from those used in the 1989 compensation settlement (5295 dead, 4902 permanently disabled, and 42 severely injured) to those produced by the Indian Council of Medical Research (22 917 deaths, 508 432 permanently disabled, and 33 781 severely injured).1 Kumar also agreed to reschedule a date for the postponed Supreme Court hearing of a curative petition to correct inadequacies in the 1989 compensation settlement paid by the Union Carbide Corporation, which owned the pesticide plant.2

In February 1989, after 1985’s Bhopal Gas Leak Act allowed the government to act as legal representative for victims, it settled out of court with Union Carbide for $470m (Rs 29bn; £300m; €380m), 15% of the $3bn it had initially claimed.

Corporate malfeasance

By any interpretation, the survivors’ groups’ recent direct action was a victory. Yet …

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