‘I Wish We’d Died that Night’

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‘I Wish We’d Died that Night’

Twenty-five years on, campaigners say the world’s worst-ever industrial accident is still claiming victims. Sanjay Kumar visits Bhopal in India and speaks to the locals who say their government has failed them badly.

Bhopal is a beautiful city. Located about 750 kilometres south of Delhi and surrounded by lakes and lush greenery, Old and New Bhopal are a fascinating and thriving combination of Islamic and Hindu architecture vying for space in a city founded about 1000 years ago.

But perched a little away from the old and new cities is a quite different face of Bhopal. Here in Jayaprakash Nagar, or JP ith potholes and the lanes are dusty and unkempt. For this is a place that many want to forget–the location of the Union Carbide Plant, the scene of the world’s worst-ever industrial disaster.

Twenty-five years ago, in the early hours of December 3, deadly methyl isocyanate and other toxins leaked from the plant, exposing hundreds of thousands to the poisonous gas. Although no official total casualty count has been released, estimates based on hospital and rehabilitation records suggest that more than 25,000 people died either as a direct result of the gas leak or from diseases related to it, while tens of thousands more have reported being sick.

‘I think it would have been better if we’d died that night,’ says Leela Bai. ‘At least then I wouldn’t have had to see my children in such a miserable condition.’

Leela’s daughter, Renu, was a year old when the gas leak occurred. She survived the incident, but has suffered the after-effects ever since. Her face became bloated, her hair grew thinner and she developed an abnormal growth near her stomach.

Renu eventually married, but her first husband left her after their first child was born because her poor health prevented her from performing daily chores. Her brother, meanwhile, could not escape the effects of the leak despite being born four years after the disaster. Even at 22 he’s more like a teenager, with both his physical and mental growth having been stunted.

‘Our lives are passing in misery,’ Leela says. ‘There’s nothing to be happy about.’

Most of the victims of the Bhopal disaster are economically deprived, with a survey by a local non-government organization showing the average household income of the colony is 30 to 35 Rupees (less than a dollar) per day.

Leela says that as a victim she received two payouts of 25,000 Rupees from the government, and that she receives some monthly rations. But she says she didn’t receive any money for her children and can’t afford to get them proper medical treatment.

Hospitals are anyway inadequately equipped to handle the numerous diseases and ailments that were caused by the accident. Tota Ram Chauhan, a former plant control room operator for Union Carbide, says there has been no comprehensive, scientific approach undertaken to treat the victims, and has also said he believes there’s enough evidence to prove that the management was responsible for the cost-cutting that led to the lapse behind the leak.

Claims of neglect on the part of the government have been dismissed as propaganda by Babulal Gaur, Minister for Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation in Madhya Pradesh, who says enough has been done for the victims.

But Satinath Sarangi, a key member of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, which has campaigned on behalf of victims, says those responsible for the accident have been allowed to get away with neglect because of the backing of both the Indian and US governments. ‘The people who have suffered in this disaster are poor, while the agency that committed this crime is powerful,’ he says.

In February 1989, the Supreme Court of India approved a settlement for the victims of Bhopal under which Union Carbide agreed to pay about $470 million in compensation to victims. In exchange, the government agreed to drop all criminal cases against the company.

Two instalments of compensation of up to 25,000 Rupees each have so far been given to those affected–one payment in 1994 and the other in 2004.

But the settlement, designed to turn the page on the disaster, was criticized by many as a sell-out, and the failure to hold anyone accountable prompted nationwide protests that pressured the court to reopen the criminal cases in 1991.

Eighteen years on though, and Chauhan says little progress has been made on establishing what exactly happened, and who is responsible.

‘It really pains me that even after 25 years no one can officially say how this tragedy took place,’ he says. ‘Unless we know why this happened, how can we stop something like it happening again?’

I take a walk with Chauhan to the plant, which I received special permission to visit. The frame of the main building is still there, but looks rusty and dilapidated. The tank from which the methyl isocyanate leaked stands isolated in a corner of the main plant, while the door of the main control room is broken and some of the electrical instruments are missing, probably stolen.

Chauhan complains that no attempt has been made by the state government or Dow Chemicals, which took over Union Carbide, to detoxify the plant. He says that as a result, locals are still being exposed to toxins, a view supported by recent findings by the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment that suggest toxins from the plant are contaminating the soil and underground water.

CSE pollution monitoring labs have tested water and soil samples from in and around the Union Carbide factory and found high concentrations of pesticides and heavy metals inside the factory premises as well as the groundwater outside. All 11 groundwater samples collected by CSE found large quantities of mercury, chlorinated benzene compounds and organic chlorine.

But Dow is unwilling to take action on the grounds that all liabilities regarding the disaster were settled when Union Carbide concluded the compensation settlement in 1989.

‘The government is protecting Dow,’ Sarangi says. ‘The first thing the government did after the disaster was to dump dead bodies in the jungle and rivers so that the liabilities of the Union Carbide could be reduced. The present government is playing the same game. They’re trying to say that there is no poison in the ground water.’

In Prem Nagar, about two kilometres from the Union Carbide site, women campaigning under the banner ‘Paani Pidit Mahila Sanghatan’ ( Organization of the Women Affected by Water Borne Disease) hold weekly meetings to give voice to demands for safe water and the removal of toxic waste.

There are more than 25,000 people who are suffering the after effects of the gas leak,’ says Hazira Bi who has been at the forefront of the campaign since 2001. ‘There was a scientific study of mothers’ breast milk and they found chemicals in it.There can’t be anything more dangerous than this.’

Three days spent here talking with victims of the tragedy was a sobering experience. It seems likely the Bhopal gas leak will be claiming victims for many years to come.