U observes Bhopal gas-leak tragedy

The leak occurred 20 years ago, killing thousands of Bhopal, India, residents.

Mehgan Lee

Friday marked the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal, India, gas leak, now dubbed the Hiroshima of the chemical industry.

The leak, caused by 27 tons of the lethal gas methyl isocyanate escaping on the night of Dec. 3, 1984, from Bhopal’s Union Carbide pesticide plant, covered the city in a toxic blanket and killed thousands of residents.

In remembrance of the tragedy, the University’s Association for India’s Development held several events, including a petition drive, street performance, candlelight vigil and screening of the documentary “Bhopal: the Search for Justice.”

The goal of the activities was to make University students aware of the Bhopal tragedy, said Dwijendra Guru, the president of the association and a third-year mechanical engineering doctoral student.

“When people are aware that this is happening, that’s when things are going to change,” he said.

Yellow crime-scene tape roped off the street performance, held on the plaza outside the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Building and Amundson Hall. Actors depicted the night of the gas leak and called on onlookers to respond with action to the “20 years of continued injustice” in Bhopal. For the finale, performers clasped hands and repeated, “We all live in Bhopal.”

That sentiment reminds the audience that chemicals and pesticides are everywhere, Guru said.

“When are we going to stand up and ask if we have the right checks and balances to make sure Bhopal doesn’t happen again?” he said.

The group also passed around a petition, which approximately 130 people have signed. It will be sent to the current chief executive officer of the Union Carbide Corp. The petition calls for the cleanup of the Union Carbide site, the extradition of Union Carbide’s previous chief executive officer to India to stand trial and more health compensation for victims and their descendants, among other things.

Elizabeth Guillette, a research scientist from the University of Florida who has conducted a two-year study on the descendants of the Bhopal gas-leak victims, said she was happy to hear about the University of Minnesota group’s actions.

“I think a movement like this is good,” she said.

“Public education is not only part of the solution for Bhopal, it is part of the solution for preventing another Bhopal.”

Reports on the number of deaths in days following the gas leak vary widely. The government of Madhya Pradesh, the Indian state where Bhopal is located, reported that approximately 3,800 people died. However, the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, a nonprofit group seeking assistance for survivors of the tragedy, set that number at 8,000.

Survivors and offspring of the gas leak still suffer debilitating effects from their exposure to the gas and its subsequent pollution of the land and water, Guillette said in a presentation at Moos Tower. These effects include respiratory difficulties, vision problems, reproductive disorders and lowered mental capacities.

And the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal Web site reports that the disaster occurred because none of the plant’s six safety mechanisms were operational that night.

Tomm Sprick, director of the Union Carbide Information Center, wrote in an e-mail that the company “accepted moral responsibility for the tragedy immediately after it occurred and this commitment was reflected in our relief efforts.”

The company donated $2 million to a relief fund and $5 million to the Indian Red Cross, and built a hospital in Bhopal, he wrote. And in 1989, the company and its affiliate in India entered into a $470 million legal settlement with the government of India.

But the $470 million settlement broke down to $550 per survivor, said Sudha Nagavarapu, a member of the University of Minnesota’s chapter of the Association for India’s Development.

“That doesn’t cover anything, especially when you are too sick to work,” she said.

And the toxic site has never been cleaned, so residents are still being exposed to more contaminants, Nagavarapu said.