Remembering the Bhopal Gas Disaster

The son of a survivor reflects on one of the worst environmental disasters in history, and the American company that continues to evade justice 36 years later.

Saif Ansari

December 3, 2020

Remembering the Bhopal Gas Disaster
Eleven days after the gas leak, a Bhopal train station is permanently full as entire families leave to seek refuge elsewhere. (Alain Nogues/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)

Growing up, I didn’t see it discussed much in my family. My mother withheld most of the pertinent details. But from what I understand, she was a young woman when the plumes of gas reached her neighborhood that night, a few kilometers south of the factory, east of the famous Taj-ul-Masjid. Chaos erupted in the streets. My mother and her family piled into my grandfather’s station wagon and drove north, past the factory to the east, and sought refuge at his farm on the outskirts of the city. My uncle fled east instead, along with his wife and children, to a suburb and stayed with a friend before joining the rest of my mother’s family at the farm a few days later. The farm became a safe haven for my mother's family as the country grappled with the aftermath of what would come to be called the worst industrial disaster in history.

Thirty-six years ago, between December 2 and 3, 1984, around 40 tons of methyl isocyanate and other toxic gases escaped from the underground reservoirs of a pesticide plant — owned by Union Carbide India Limited, a subsidiary of the U.S. company Union Carbide — in Bhopal, a major Indian city in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, inundating hundreds of thousands of sleeping residents in the middle of the night. MIC is an intermediary in the production of several common pesticides, including carbaryl, and continues to be sold under the commercial name Sevin. A highly toxic and volatile compound, methyl isocyanate, or MIC, can cause irritation and pain if inhaled or consumed in quantities as low as 0.4 parts per million. The Indian government found that upwards of 500,000 people out of a population just under a million were exposed to MIC, as well as a host of dangerous chemicals, including chloroform, carbon tetrachloride, and phosgene — a lethal substance responsible for 85% of all deaths from chemical weapons during World War I.

Residents woke up in the middle of the night and struggled to breathe — eyes burning, throats choking. Men, women, and children fled for their lives, many in various states of undress. People fell to the ground, seized with violent convulsions as they frothed at the mouth, writhing in pain. Scores were trampled in the ensuing stampede. Others drowned in their own vomit or suffocated as fluid-filled their lungs. By the time the sun rose, thousands of corpses had lined the streets of Bhopal. Rashida Bi, a long-time activist, famously said to the press that survivors like herself were “the unlucky ones. The lucky ones are those who died that night.” It’s estimated that over 3,500 people perished overnight. In the years since, over 20,000 have died, and hundreds of thousands have been afflicted with lifelong injuries and diseases.