Former Union Carbide Plant
The site in Bhopal, in Madhya Pradesh, central India, where the worst industrial disaster in history happened in 1984 when a large amount of poisonous gas leaked from a chemical factory engulfing residential areas and killing thousands.
The plant, formerly a Union Carbide pesticides production facility, has been lying abandoned ever since – and it's never been properly cleaned up.
Yet locals go in and out all the time. But for foreigners the site is officially out of bounds. So unless you manage to get a special permit, you can only look in from the outside.
More background info: The background (and aftermath!) of the 1984 Bhopal disaster is an incredibly complicated issue – both chemically and in terms of “forensics”, politics and commemoration. The causes and responsibilities remain contested issues to this day. It's a tragic story not only for what happened in the accident itself, but also for what happened – or for what failed to happen – afterwards.
is/was a chemical manufacturing company/corporation from the USA
founded around the turn of the 19th/20th century, and through its subsidiary Union Carbide India Limited it also operated in the Indian
subcontinent from the 1930s.
The Union Carbide factory in Bhopal
had been set up in 1969 for the production of pesticides, namely the company's own brand of carbaryl, using the chemical methyl isocyanate
(MIC for short) as an intermediate component. And it was this MIC
that was the main agent in the disaster.
There had been smaller-scale accidents before in the 1970s and early 80s, but the big one came on the night of 2-3 December 1984. By that time, the plant had apparently been suffering from increasingly poor maintenance,
The plant had been unprofitable for years so had seen little or no investment. Production more or less halted. Instead the plant had just become an increasingly crumbling holding facility for all those chemicals already produced but that couldn't be sold.
By December 1984 one of the storage tanks for liquid MIC at the site was overfilled and the various safety installations to contain it were either not in operation, broken or at least not working properly.
It's near impossible to untangle exactly what happened then, or why or who's to blame for what and to what degree. This isn't really the place to get too deep into the complex details of all that (there are numerous other sources out there that you can consult), so a brief summary has to suffice here.
What seems clear and uncontested about what happened is this: during the night, water somehow entered one of the MIC tanks of the plant which eventually triggered a runaway chemical reaction through which vast amounts of poisonous gas were released. Alarms were sounded inside the plant, but an alarm for the public outside the perimeter was turned off, only to be sounded again much later that night after the leaking had stopped, i.e. far too late to have any real effect.
Thus most victims, primarily in the poor residential area to the south and south-east of the plant, were caught by surprise in the middle of the night, many were asleep when the leaked gas reached their homes.
The MIC mix (other poisonous substances may have formed in the process too) formed a toxic cloud which, being denser than air, clung low to the ground. It was being blown with the wind south-east and engulfed streets and houses of the adjacent residential areas that had grown around the plant.
Soon people became aware that something was wrong and started panicking and fleeing. Running away, the victims also inhaled even more of the toxic fumes. And children, due to their smaller height, were particularly affected by the low-lying cloud. Many were also trampled to death in the chaotic stampede that developed. It must have been totally apocalyptic.
The effects of the gas were nasty. Burning of the respiratory tract and the eyes and vomiting were initial symptoms, death frequently followed as a result of choking, convulsions, kidney failure, circulatory collapse, and/or a build-up of fluid in the lungs and brain.
The local hospitals quickly became totally overwhelmed by the thousands of patients arriving with such symptoms that the medical staff (too few of them sufficiently trained) could not identify, nor knew the cause of. And even if they had known, they wouldn't really have had the means to cope with such a situation. And so the carnage took its course.
The death toll was massive. Official figures later put it at ca. 3800 who died as a result of the immediate effects of the gas, other estimates range as high as 8000 or even beyond 25,000. In total around half a million people were exposed to the gas. In the chaos immediately after the deadly cloud had dissipated, the streets were full of dead and dying victims. Many were buried in mass graves. There are stories of unconscious/immobilized victims accidentally buried half-alive with the dead too. Absolute horror.
And the mid- to long-term after-effects turned out to be disastrous too. Many victims exposed to the gas were left disabled. People still keep dying of cancers and all manner of other illnesses brought about by the disaster … and then there are the birth defects, often grotesquely extreme.
Not all of this still ongoing disaster is directly linked to the gas leak of 1984, though, but rather to the general chemical pollution left behind at the plant, and especially to contaminated groundwater (which locals depend on for drinking water).
There were some attempts at half-hearted clean-up operations but the facility has never been properly decontaminated, but rather left as it was in late 1984 … simply left to rot and rust away.
The long-term problem is thus rather the state of the old factory and adjacent premises, especially some former 'evaporation ponds' where liquid toxic waste was stored and now keeps seeping into the groundwater. At the site, various pollutants have been buried in the ground. And above ground more chemicals remain. I've read about barrels and other containers bearing 'toxic' warning signs on them still stacked in the plant's distribution centre. I also read about a wall apparently splattered with mercury. How contaminated the old MIC production facility still is, I cannot say, but it's rusting away. You have to hope that all those tanks and pipes really are empty these days. But who really knows?
Soon after the gas leak disaster the legal battles began. And they're still not settled. After years of resistance Union Carbide paid out some “compensation” in 1989, though the amount was negotiated without the victims being consulted. And what money eventually reached the needy (as you would expect, some of it also “disappeared” into other pockets) was so little as to make as good as no difference.
Union Carbide never really accepted full responsibility – and a report they had produced by a management consulting firm challenged the interpretation that the disaster was mainly due to negligence and lack of maintenance. Instead the alternative theory was floated by Union Carbide that the real cause of the disaster must have been an act of sabotage (by a disgruntled worker, it was suggested). Eyewitnesses were produced who confirmed some evidence for this, but ultimately the whole issue remains murky.
Moreover, whatever the triggering cause of the disaster may have been, it doesn't change the responsibility of the company regarding the state of the factory at the time and, more importantly still, the state it was left in afterwards. Yet, as so often, the big corporations manage to weasel out of most of such responsibility.
The man who was regarded as the one to be held personally responsible was the then CEO of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson
, who was charged by the local Bhopal
government with an allegation amounting practically to manslaughter. But he never stood trial. Initially arrested but released on bail he was then flown out on a government plane (i.e. some Indian
officials must have been in on this) and thus evaded having to appear in court.
An Indian extradition request issued later, and repeated several times, was ignored by the Americans, and so Anderson was allowed to live out his days in comfort. He died in September 2014, shortly before the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster.
The legal issues became more complicated when Union Carbide was purchased by the multinational chemical industry giant Dow Chemical in 2001 (officially it was a “merger”, but effectively Dow took over Union Carbide). Technically Union Carbide continues to exist as a subsidiary of Dow, but neither it nor the new parent company accept any further liability for the accident, which, after all, had happened before the new “merged” entity formed.
Various international initiatives and local victims' associations carry on the fight for proper compensation and for effective measures to be taken to finally clean up the contaminated site and put a stop to the spreading pollution still emanating from the old facility.
Meanwhile charities have been formed to alleviate some of the suffering of the victims in Bhopal
itself. Two hospitals were specifically set up to provide free care for those affected, including especially disabled children (the Sambhavna clinic and the Chingari rehabilitation centre). These are funded by donations – and there are associated charities abroad that you can donate to in order to contribute to those efforts. For instance there is the UK
-based Bhopal Medical Appeal
, which, as its name suggests, concentrates on providing on-the-ground relief in medical terms.
In addition there is the internationally operating ICJB, the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, which aims more at the political and legal fight for compensation, continuing the legal battle against the company (i.e. Dow) and for the clean-up of the old plant.
Locally there is also the Remember Bhopal Trust
– which also runs the Remember Bhopal Museum
, which opened on the 30th anniversary of the disaster in 2014. This museum is now the one place where the disaster is commodified for visitors. An official, state-funded memorial has been discussed but so far never materialized (in fact the idea is opposed by victims' associations as they deem the government complicit in the injustice in the wake of the disaster.)
From a dark-tourism perspective
, the arrival of the museum is of course to be applauded. Yet it is exploring the old site, including the inside of buildings where possible (with due care, of course), that would naturally be the pinnacle of any visit to Bhopal
And it has been done. Photos you can see on Google Maps are evidence of that. I also added three photos to the gallery
below that I was given by somebody I met who had been to the plant (more than once in fact – see below
So when I planned my trip to India
, this was my top priority for the itinerary. The travel company I worked with contacted a local operator who provided a guide for Bhopal and it looked like it was on course.
I was given not exactly promises, but a good deal of hope that I would get official permission to visit the site of the old plant. It was added, though, that it would not be known for definite until on the day, whether permission would indeed be granted. But I was assured that the paperwork was being seen to and it was looking good.
Unfortunately, when I finally got there, I was informed (quite reluctantly) by my local guide that the permit had apparently not been granted. Allegedly this was because the authorities were “worried about” my “health and safety”. But I have some doubts about that “explanation”.
In any case that would be quite an ironic reason, given that the locals are free to walk in and out as they please. There's a wall around the perimeter of the plant, but there are big holes in it that you can theoretically simply walk through, and I also saw people climbing over the wall elsewhere with relative ease (so it's not really an obstacle).
And so it happens that children play on the contaminated ground, adolescents engage in cricket matches, elders sit around and chat. But as a western visitor you are apparently not allowed in.
Of course, since the plant has never been properly cleaned up, there might in fact still be health and safety concerns in some parts of the plant where toxic substances are still present, either leaked or in old containers that you cannot be too sure about.
It's telling, though, in fact it speaks volumes about how much the Indian authorities care about their own poor lot as opposed to visiting foreigners.
I enquired what would happen if we just walked in through one of the open gates or holes in the wall. Well, I'd get arrested, I was told. There are security guards. In the past it was apparently possible to bribe them to let you in (see below). But that is allegedly no longer the case – if they got caught accepting a bribe and letting foreigners in, they'd get sacked, I was told. Reluctantly I had to take my guide's word for it. And also I didn't want to make the situation even more awkward for him than it already was at that point.
At least I managed to get a few photos from the perimeter and from the bridge that runs just past the plant. And I was given access to the Remember Bhopal Museum, even though it would normally have been closed that day (as it was Christmas Day, which is also a national holiday in India).
What the future holds for the old Union Carbide plant is not so easy to predict. The situation as it is now could continue for many years to come. But maybe one day a proper decontamination will take place – proposals have been drawn up, but not yet accepted by the government. What this will mean for the site as a dark-tourism destination is even harder to predict. It could disappear altogether or maybe at least parts of it will indeed be retained as some kind of memorial. We'll have to wait and see ...
What there is to see: depends. If you can somehow manage to get into the plant itself, a lot. If not, you have to be content with a glimpse of the plant from the outside. Unfortunately I was not granted official permission – the story is explained in detail above – and so the latter applied to me.
Needless to say, I was a bit disappointed that I wasn’t given the chance to enter the plant. However, what I did get was a tour of the residential area directly opposite the plant wall, i.e. the part of the city that was worst affected by the disaster in 1984. My guide was the grandson of one of the doctors who had to receive the sudden flood of those thousands of victims coming for help, and who the doctors, unaware what they were even dealing with, could only do so little for (see above).
I was told several personal stories, of people fleeing the area as soon as the gas came, how many succumbed to the effects, and how some got lost and were missing for days, but luckily were found again … and of others who were less fortunate.
Along the outer wall of the plant there are several murals and protest slogans, calling for justice and compensation (and punishment of those responsible). There is as small memorial statue (made by a Dutch artist) of a woman shielding her burning eyes and carrying a dying child in her arms, while another clings on to the side of her frock. Behind the statue is a large wall mural depicting victims in their agony and with yet more slogans (in both English and Hindi).
While we were there, we quickly attracted a crowd of mostly young children looking on with curiosity but also naivety, just being playful kids, obviously unaware of the depressing seriousness of the disaster that happened decades before they were born … even though they and their families are, at least theoretically, still affected by it (see background).
Afterwards we walked across the bridge to the north-west of the plant, from where you get a better vantage point and can look into the plant – if only from a distance. We also walked along the railway tracks to the north-east of the perimeter, but here you have to try and look over the slum that has grown around the plant.
Unfortunately that was as close as I was allowed to get (but see under access below for others' experiences). At least I managed to get a few zoom shots of the installations, including the semi-open-air former MIC production facility at the centre of the compound as well as of the exteriors of the administrative and distribution buildings – see photos. I also added three photos from inside the plant that I was given (see background).
The sight of the slum directly adjacent to the plant perimeter wall was in itself quite a dark thing to behold too, not just for the visible poverty (I don’t normally do slum tourism, I hasten to add), but more for the evident negligence in terms of health and safety for the local population. They clearly “don't count”. Nominally the slum along the wall is “illegal”, but nobody seems to really care. And so the contamination of the ground and the water continues to do its evil work … In the museum I saw a photo of locals using a water pump that bore a clear warning that the water is polluted and unfit for consumption – and yet they do use it, out of desperation and /or lack of alternatives. It's utterly depressing.
Yet the plant is pointed out even to mainstream tourists. My driver who did the transfer to Bhopal (and was most likely quite unaware of my dark specialism), made a special stop on that bridge across the railway to explain (in broken English) that this was the infamous disaster site of 1984 and gave me a chance to take a few quick shots from the car window (hence the somewhat different light in some of the images in the photo gallery below).
So, all in all, it was still a “worthwhile” visit in a dark kind of way, even though I couldn't get into the actual plant. The main official, and properly commodified dark sight here, however, is the museum. So do check that chapter too.
Location: to the north of Old Bhopal, about 1.5 miles (2.5 km) north-east of the big mosque and the old Taj and about a mile (1.6 km) north of the main train station.
Google maps locators:
Access and costs: normally, officially, there's no access to the site itself for foreigners unless you can obtain a permit from the local government; but it's easy to get to the perimeter and some of the surrounding neighbourhoods. Free to do individually, more costly (but also much more informative) as a guided tour.
Details: officially no access, but in reality it's complicated – and a bit cynical. Locals can, and do, waltz in as they please and nobody stops them, despite the toxic contamination. But come as a foreigner, especially as a white westerner, and the guards won't let you in, so I was assured, unless you have a permit.
You can apply for an official permit, and the Indian representatives for the company I worked with allegedly did try that, but it wasn’t granted (see also above!). I was told on the day, that it “takes a lot of paperwork” and “a lot of time”. That remark made me rather suspicious. After all, I had first started enquiring some six months ahead of the time I would be in Bhopal, and I was given all those assurances, and still it didn’t work out … Maybe they didn't actually, genuinely try, maybe they forgot and just wouldn't admit it (you never know these things in India – what they tell you is one thing, what’s really going on, or not, as the case may be, is quite often another story). Yet I was told by a representative on the phone even the day before the tour that they'd “leave no stone unturned” to make the tour maximally successful. Well, I guess there are still plenty of untouched stones lying around in Bhopal … Of course I enquired further after the trip, but I never received any real explanation why the permit hadn't worked out.
So, unless you look and talk like a local, or have special connections, you won't get in without an official permit. And whether you'd get one seems to be an unpredictable gamble.
But access to the perimeter is unrestricted … almost. You can walk across the bridge to the north-west of the site and along the perimeter wall to the south of it, where the memorial monument is. You could also walk along the train tracks to the north-east, but the eastern side, so I was told, is not so easy to get to, as the streets are too narrow for vehicles and walking there “wouldn't be advisable”. Maybe so. I can't say.
When I went to Bhopal it was part of a longer India trip, and a guided tour on the Union Carbide theme was specially arranged for me. I don't know how much exactly this part of the itinerary cost, but I guess it won't have been cheap.
If you travel to Bhopal independently, all you need is a taxi, tuk-tuk or similar to take you to the perimeter, which won't cost much. For my tour we had a private car and driver provided by the hotel I stayed at (the expensive option, imposed on me by the local operator – I had assumed transport would have been included in the arrangements, but maybe they screwed up that bit too). And that cost something like 30 USD for a half day.
But a few more remarks about getting access to the old chemical plant as such. I was told of people who managed to bribe their way in. That was a few years ago, and may no longer be possible, but the manager of a lodge I stayed at the days before coming to Bhopal, told me that when he lived in the city he managed to get a couple of overseas friends from Argentina in, who were happy to hand over 3000 rupees (ca. 50 USD) to bribe the guards. And once inside they just roamed around as they liked for hours. So you may try your luck that way. Though I doubt that without a Hindi-speaking local fixer this approach has any chance of succeeding. Even with one, it didn't work out for me, but you never know. Others may have more luck.
If I hear more about this I will update this section accordingly …
Time required: for just a few glimpses of the plant from different viewpoints and angles and a stroll along the wall, perhaps an hour max, if you have your own transport, that is. More time will be required just for getting there if you're on foot and use tuk-tuks or other local means of transport. And if you do get permission to visit the old plant, then you could probably spend hours poking around the various buildings and structures.
Combinations with other dark destinations: obviously, the main combination is the Remember Bhopal Museum, which is not too far from the site.
For more see also under Bhopal.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: see under Bhopal.
- Union Carbide plant 01 - abandoned
- Union Carbide plant 02 - distribution and administration blocks
- Union Carbide plant 03 - main production part
- Union Carbide plant 04 - residential quarter just outside the plant
- Union Carbide plant 05 - mural and memorial
- Union Carbide plant 06 - memorial monument
- Union Carbide plant 07 - clinging on
- Union Carbide plant 08 - slogan on the plant wall
- Union Carbide plant 09 - another slogan on the wall
- Union Carbide plant 10 - the plant looming just behind the wall
- Union Carbide plant 11 - hole in the wall
- Union Carbide plant 12 - rusting chemical industrial production installations
- Union Carbide plant 13 - slum slowly encroaching on the contaminated plant
- Union Carbide plant 14 - bridge and train line by the plant
- Union Carbide plant 15 - slum along the plant wall
- Union Carbide plant 16 - youths playing cricket inside the contaminated plant premises
- Union Carbide plant 17 - slum directly adjacent to the old ex-factory
- Union Carbide plant 18 - abandoned factory at dusk with smoke from a new one in the distance
- Union Carbide plant 19 - closer up
- Union Carbide plant 20 - inside one of the buildings
- Union Carbide plant 21 - old emergency proceedings sign