The broken promises to the victims of Bhopal

On the anniversary of the world's worst industrial accident, watch Ed Bradley's 60 Minutes report on the aftermath of the Bhopal disaster

It's been 30 years since the world's worst industrial accident: the December 1984 toxic gas leak at a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India.

On the anniversary of this tragedy, we're looking back at Ed Bradley's report from Bhopal two years after the leak. While there, he reported on what has been called the second tragedy of Bhopal: the relief effort.

Immediately after the disaster, the Indian government promised to rehabilitate the area and its residents, including the 4,000 who had sustained permanent lung damage. When Bradley got there, however, he found that the government's efforts were "mired in bureaucratic apathy and incompetence."

The following is a script of "Bhopal," which aired on May 3, 1987. Ed Bradley is the correspondent.

It's been two and a half years since the worst industrial accident the world has ever known, the one at Bhopal, India, where fumes from a chemical used for making pesticides escaped from a factory owned by Union Carbide of India and drifted over the city. The government of India, acting on behalf of the victims, brought suit against the huge Union Carbide Corporation, which owns 51 percent of Union Carbide of India. The Indian government says the accident was due to negligence; Union Carbide says it was employee sabotage. Damages could run to $3 billion.

Shortly after the accident, the Indian government vowed to make its relief effort a model for future disasters, but what strikes a visitor to Bhopal today is how fragmentary and disorganized that relief effort has been.

Today the factory is closed, and this graffiti, the skull with the dollar signs and the words "Killer Carbide," are an indication of how people here feel about what happened. Immediately after the tragedy, the government stepped in with a long list of promises. There would be a major mobilization to rehabilitate this area and its people. But what has happened here, what the actual relief effort has been - well, some people here are calling that the second tragedy of Bhopal.

The original disaster had begun around midnight and continued into the early morning hours. The fumes drifted over the densely packed slums surrounding the plant. What a pesticide does to insects, it now did to human beings.

The dead were laid out in rows along the streets, hurriedly hauled off for fear of an epidemic. Some children, according to Hindu custom, were laid directly into the earth. For Hindu adults, hastily built funeral pyres burned everywhere. According to official figures, some 2,300 people were killed, but experts think that in all the tragic chaos, hundreds, perhaps thousands more deaths went officially unrecorded, only ashes left behind.

That was more than two years ago. Today, if you walk through the slums that surround the plant, as we did with Mazhar Ullah, a local reporter, just about everyone you meet was a victim or has a relative who was a victim. Even now mobile Red Cross units are out every day. Some, like this woman, can't even make it to the van. Her lungs and breathing capacity were permanently impaired. Most others, though they may look normal, are also permanently crippled inside. This woman's husband, son, and grandson were killed by the gas. With damaged lungs, she no longer has the strength to work. She says her family received the equivalent of $833 for each person killed. This woman can't work for more than an hour without becoming exhausted. The $125 relief payment she received from the government is gone. The medicines no longer do much good. Beside her, her ten-year-old niece, whose father and brother were killed. She is too weak to remain in school, and there is always the pain.

Dr. N.P. Mishra: Eyes and pain in joints, and abdominal pain.

Scientists studying the disaster victims in Bhopal now estimate that 20 percent of the 200,000 people exposed to the gas have permanent damage to their lungs and respiratory system.

Ed Bradley: That would be 40,000 people.

Dr. N.P. Mishra: Approximately.

Ed Bradley: With irreversible damage.

Dr. N.P. Mishra: Yes.

That means 40,000 people, most of whose lungs are so damaged they are unable to do the work they once did, many unable to do any work at all. The scientists have also found ominous signs of genetic damage in 12 percent of the victims tested. That's six times the normal rate. And one result of that, says Dr. N.P. Mishra, could be cancer.

Ed Bradley: So that, somewhere down the line, these people could develop cancer?

Dr. N.P. Mishra: Later on, after many, many years, as one had seen in Japan, who were exposed to nuclear explosion.

Ed Bradley: So it could also affect their children. Their children could have birth defects?

Dr. N.P. Mishra: Yes. These chromosomal abnormalities can lead to congenital malformations in the next generation.

How do you put a price tag on so much suffering, and who is to blame for the gas leak? In a bitter suit, the Indian government points the finger at Union Car bide, and with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, the company is fighting back.

The multinational corporation, which prides itself on its international scope and its safety record, has done its best to put as much distance as possible between itself and this plant, even though Union Carbide owns more than half of Union Carbide of India, which operated the plant, even though it trained much of the top management of this plant at Union Carbide facilities in the United States, and even though the chairman of the company at the time claimed moral responsibility for what happened here.

That's he being burned in effigy in a demonstration just after the disaster. Though they deny responsibility for the gas leak, Union Carbide and Union Carbide of India have made many offers to aid the victims. But because of local hostility and because the government feels acceptance of such aid could affect the outcome of its lawsuit, most of Carbide's offers have been flatly turned down.

For instance, with its factory ordered closed, Union Carbide offered to turn it and the grounds, plus a nearby guest house and this research facility over to the government. It said they could be used for medical facilities, an orphanage, a training center and a park. According to Nazar Parakh, a Union Carbide of India engineer, it also offered $10 million to build a brand-new hospital in Bhopal, all with no legal strings attached.

Nazar Parakh: And that was also subsequently turned down.

Ed Bradley: So all of these things that Union Carbide offered, and Union Carbide of India offered, were turned down by the government, state and national government?

Nazar Parakh: That's right. That's right.

All this would not be so tragic if the government's aid programs worked as swiftly and effectively as the government did immediately after the disaster. But in the months since the gas leak, the government's efforts have been mired in bureaucratic apathy and incompetence. So the ones who suffer in the standoff between the government and Union Carbide are the disaster victims themselves, desperately poor and politically powerless.

Case in point: the government pledged to establish childcare centers for the victims throughout the slum areas. Most of the results are atrocious - filthy, dank, overcrowded.

Ed Bradley: What's the most she has in this building?

Man: Forty to 45, sometimes.

Ed Bradley: Forty to 45?

Man: Yes.

Ed Bradley: In here?

Man: Here.

Ed Bradley: What happens in the summer, when the temperature here goes to, what, 110 degrees?

Man: 110, 112.

The woman who ran the center told us that the already weak children just get weaker.

Ed Bradley: They're so weak that they can't follow their studies?

Man: They can't follow their studies, and they are not also gaining any weight at all.

Yet, less than a mile away, in another Bhopal slum, the Red Cross has set up a model childcare center, with a much more nutritious feeding program. The milk and foods are donated from Europe and cost the Red Cross nothing. In fact, the Indian Red Cross offered to take over the government's entire childcare system at its own expense. But the government turned them down.

S. Satyam is one of the top government relief officials in Bhopal.

Ed Bradley: They made an offer. The government said no.

S. Satyam: That's right.

Ed Bradley: Why?

S. Satyam: Because these centers are running well.

But those government daycare centers are not running well. So why did they turn down the Red Cross? One possible reason, a U.S. judge had ordered Union Carbide to give the Indian Red Cross $5 million for relief work. The Indian government had been reluctant to even let the Red Cross accept that money. Another Carbide backed attempt at aid, in Bhopal: this vocational school, well-staffed, very well equipped, set up by Arizona State University, but the funding came from Union Carbide. So last September, the municipal authorities claimed that two of the school's new buildings lacked proper building permits and resolved the matter by sending in men to trash them in full view of the students. The school is managed by Mrs. Indira Ayengar, a Bhopal social worker.

Ed Bradley: And they just battered it? And back here, they knocked all of this down?

Indira Ayengar: Yes, yes, all of this came down.

The national government then blocked the flow of foreign funds to the school. They're also now investigating Mrs. Ayengar's finances. The upshot: her school may have to shut down.

Ed Bradley: Union Carbide is using your school for good publicity. It says, "See what a good job we're doing."

Indira Ayengar: You see, this school was meant for the poor people. We don't care what publicity or we never want to sort of say anything about the- I mean, the other, all the politics behind it. The only thing I know as a managing director of the institution is that- that so many people are being helped.

Ed Bradley: How many people were being trained?

S. Satyam: I don't know, maybe a hundred.

Ed Bradley: So what happens to those hundred people when the school is closed down?

S. Satyam: That's for Mrs. Ayengar to bother about.

Her hope now is that the Red Cross may take over her school. The government operates its own vocational schools, but most of them are poorly run and poorly equipped. Many, in fact, have already shut down. Others, like this one, teaching women to make bowls out of leaves, will soon be forced to close.

Ed Bradley: So the state government sets these women up to make these bowls, but then no one buys them?

Man: No one buys them. So what's really, now they are going to close it down.

Another group of victims the government had promised to help was in the midst of a sit-in protest. They represented some 1,200 women who had been encouraged to sew garments at piece rate. The government said it would sell their products; it hasn't. The women have had no work for months.

Ed Bradley: And now, they've got nothing?

Man: They've got nothing.

S. Satyam: I have a nagging feeling that maybe we have smothered them with over attention to the extent of killing their self-reliance.

Ed Bradley: They have no initiative to work on their own?

S. Satyam: They don't seem to, otherwise they wouldn't be resorting to a sit-in

strike and so on.

Ed Bradley: But one group of women had the initiative to take out loans to buy sewing machines. But now, with no government-promised sales, those women find themselves deeply in debt, worse off than before.

Man: They have been served notices by the bank.

Ed Bradley: If they don't pay the money, do they have to give back the sewing machines?

Man: The bank can seize all their machines.

Ed Bradley: The bank can take all the machines?

Man: All the machines.

Ed Bradley: You're saying then that those women just don't want to work?

S. Satyam: Maybe some of them don't want to work, but I think it's basically a case of very high, unreasonable expectations.

Ed Bradley: But the expectations were set by the government. I mean, if you just look at some of the things- the chief minister, for example, said that rehabilitation schemes in Bhopal, the effort here would be put on a war footing. The state governor said that maximum possible relief will be given to the victims of the tragedy.

S. Satyam: But these promises have been met.

Ed Bradley: That's not exactly true. For instance, the government promised to build 1,500 homes for the disaster victims. Not a one has been built.

And at Bhopal's train station, close to the plant, red-turbaned baggage handlers were among the hardest hit by the gas. Those who survived are able to carry only a fraction of the weight they used to. Their lungs just can't take the strain. A top government official promised them electric trolleys and elevators to make their work easier. That equipment never arrived.

Ed Bradley: Did they get the lifts?

Man: No.

Ed Bradley: Did they get the trolleys?

Man: No.

Ed Bradley: So they got nothing.

Man: Nothing.

Eventually, the dispute between Union Carbide and the government of India will be resolved, more than likely in an out-of-court settlement.

Nazar Parakh: The tragedy is that the people need that money today. They don't need it after, you know, years of litigation. Only the lawyers are making money in the meantime.

When that settlement is reached, and hundreds of millions of dollars are earmarked for the people who suffered here, who will handle the distribution of funds, and the administration of full scale relief programs? Given the history here, the bureaucracy and the inefficiency and the apathy, that may be the next tragedy of Bhopal.