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Victims Still Struggle 20 Years After World's Worst Industrial Disaster

Twenty years ago, the world's worst industrial disaster took place when a Union Carbide pesticide factory in the Indian city of Bhopal emitted a toxic cloud that instantly killed thousands of people and injured tens of thousands more.

Since then, activists charge, no one, including Dow Chemical, the owner of Union Carbide, has cleaned up the poisonous waste that continues to threaten the lives of the city's residents. VOA's Patricia Nunan reports from Bhopal.

Savitri lives in a slum on the edge of the abandoned Union Carbide plant in the Indian city of Bhopal, where collecting water is one of her daily chores. It's a health nightmare. Officials admit that the ground water here is contaminated with toxic waste. The government delivers some fresh water to the slum areas. But most often, residents are left with little choice, but to use the contaminated water to drink, cook and bathe.

And that's just one of the problems facing Savitri and others, who live in Union Carbide's shadow.

She says, when the wind blows, toxic waste is in the air and people can't breathe.

We feel sick, she says, and some people have chest pains.

This is why.

Little has been done to clean up the remains of the Union Carbide plant since December 1984, when a fault in a chemical tank caused a cloud of toxic methyl-isocyanate gas to descend upon the city. It killed 2,000 people almost instantly, another 6,000 that week -- and more than 15,000 in the years to follow.

After years of legal wrangling, Union Carbide paid the Indian government a settlement of $470 million. In 2001 the U.S. company, Dow Chemical, purchased Union Carbide.

Sathinath Sarangi, an activist with the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, says that means Dow took on the burden of cleaning up the site. "The primary responsibility is of Dow Chemical company USA. Dow is the owner of Union Carbide that has caused the disaster, that has caused the ground water contamination in this and other comms, which is directly related the reckless manner in which they disposed of the chemical wastes generated in their factory." Sarangi says.

Dow Chemical disagrees, insisting that the 1989 settlement frees it from any responsibility to the people of Bhopal.

And hundreds of thousands are still suffering.

Doctors at the Jawaharlal Nehru hospital in Bhopal treat more than 1,500 people a day, all of them suffering chronic health problems because of the Union Carbide disaster.

Ailments range from respiratory and gastrointestinal problems to nervous disorders and cancer.

Many have been left in poverty since poor health prevents them from holding jobs – and compensation payments provided by the government ran out long ago.

Forty-eight-year-old Mohammed Amin says he was given the equivalent of about four and a half dollars in compensation a month for three years. Then the money stopped. Now his four children pick through trash for plastic to recycle to support him.

After Dow Chemical, activists direct their anger at the Indian government. It's taken 20 years for the government to push compensation funds for Union Carbide's victims through the courts and bureaucracy; funds that activists say hardly cover medical costs.

What's more, activists charge, the government has chosen not to legally pursue Dow Chemical, because they say, it doesn't want to scare off other foreign investors.

Those charges are dismissed by Uma Shankar Gupta, the head of the government's Bhopal relief office. He says it's just that there's little that can be done to speed up the wheels of justice. Gupta says, "Union Carbide has been shut down completely. There's a case in court that demands the arrest of Union Carbide's chairman. So it's wrong to say that nothing has been done because we are fearful of scaring away foreign investors. It is all in the court. Let us see what the court decides. Even compensation is a matter for the courts."

That's not good enough for activist Sarangi who urges, "If Union Carbide and Dow get away with what they have done... get away with the horror they created here, that would be an unfortunate message for people all over the world whose lives and health would continue to be endangered due to corporate crime. And that is why we cannot afford to lose the battle for justice in Bhopal."

For the people, what happened at the Union Carbide plant one night 20 years ago is a tragedy that has yet to end.