Usually, the Bhopal tragedy does not make the headlines, but it is three decades since the tragedy, and campaigners have succeeded in getting the issue more attention. There is even a film out, starring Martin Sheen as Warren Andersen, who ran the Union Carbide company that owned the plant, and who only died a few weeks ago. You can watch the trailer here.
In case it's news to you, this is what happened.
On the night of 2/3 December, 1984, a cloud of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas and probably other chemicals - this is still disputed - was released from a pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) in Bhopal, the capital of the state of Madhya Pradesh, in central India. The toxic cloud of gas spread around the shanty towns located near the plant.
Estimates vary on the death toll. The official immediate death toll was 2,259. The government of Madhya Pradesh confirmed a total of 3,787 deaths related to the gas release. Others estimates are 8,000 dead within two weeks and at least another 8,000 since.
Today in Bhopal, more than 100,000 people are still chronically sick from the effects of that night. Many are ill as a result of contamination of their wells and stand-pipes by chemicals leaking from the abandoned plant, which remains derelict and has not been cleaned up. Union Carbide was taken over by Dow Chemicals, which denies responsibility for cleaning up the factory. You can read more here.
No workers in the plant were killed. The casualties were all in the community.
Union Carbide was the most lethal in a series of major explosions. Two weeks earlier, an explosion of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) in Mexico City caused 500 - 650 deaths. In the UK, we had the Flixborough disaster in 1974. An explosion at a chemical plant there killed 28 people and seriously injured 36 out of a total of only 72 people on site at the time - many more would have died if the accident had happened during normal working hours.
Two years later in Seveso, Italy, a cloud of dioxin was released from a chemical plant. It’s one of most toxic chemicals known - used by the US air force in Vietnam. Nobody died at the time, but many animals did. A large area was evacuated, and a huge clean up ordered.
Clearly, there are special hazards in running plants dealing with large quantities of chemicals. Flixborough gave a push to the passing of the Health and Safety at Work Act, 1974, which I blogged about a few months ago.
The ILO drew up the Prevention of Major Industrial Accidents Convention, 1993 (No. 174). The European Union has a directive on the major-accident hazards of certain industrial activities, commonly called the Seveso directive.
So the sequence of terrible tragedies led to action in many countries.
Not in India.
Just like Rana Plaza, aid poured in, to help the government, not the victims. Lots of cash was available to train inspectors and re-draft health and safety law. When I arrived in New Delhi in 1994 to work for the ILO, I asked for the files on safety. One document had survived: a draft comprehensive occupational safety and health law.
Which the Indian government put in the bin.
To be fair, there were amendments to the Factories Act. Of course, that only applies to factories, so the vast majority of Indian workers received no extra protection. The amendments dropped in some clauses of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act from the UK, requiring employers to draw up a safety policy and giving them a "general duty" to promote a safe and healthy workplace.
In the last twenty years, I have not come across a single employer, employers organisation, government official or trade union who has the slightest notion that those clauses exist, let alone how the use them. Indeed according to a report by the Indian government itself, in the two decades after the Bhopal tragedy there were more than 100 industrial leaks, causing more than 7,000 deaths.
So, nothing changed. The Indian bureaucracy rolled with the punch, and got back to business as usual. Just like the bureaucracy is doing in Bangladesh right now.
And so the bodies keep piling up.
I did the maths a few years ago. My estimate was 120,000 workers a year killed in so-called accidents per year. And most other people who try and estimate the problem, come up with a similar figure.
These are sudden, violent deaths – caught in a threshing machine, asphyxiated while cleaning a pollution treatment plant, or crushed on a building site.
The figure does not include occupational diseases, which are often not diagnosed until a worker displays symptoms. While some occupational diseases, deafness for example, are not fatal, some are. There is no cure for occupational diseases.
If a new disease was discovered in India killing someone every five minutes - and people in their prime, people active economically - there would be an immediate reaction. There would be conferences and research grants; donors would provide funding.
But nobody seems to care. In the 30 years since Bhopal, which maybe killed 8,000 people, a similar number have been killed every month. That is using the most conservative estimates.
We are talking about 100,000 workers every year. Famously, when Tamerlane captured Delhi in 1398, he slaughtered 100,000 prisoners. It’s mentioned in all the biographies of the famous ruler, and all the histories of Delhi.
In the three decades since the Bhopal tragedy, that is the capture of Delhi 30 times over.
That’s three million deaths - not counting the workers dying from occupational diseases.
Somebody should make a film about it.