News

Bhopal Continues to Suffer Quarter Century after World's Worst Industrial Disaster

The world's worst industrial disaster took place 25 years ago, in central India. A chemical leak at the plant of the Indian subsidiary of an American corporation, Union Carbide, poisoned an estimated half million residents of the city of Bhopal. The death toll remains disputed, but certainly thousands died in the ensuing days and thousands more are believed to have succumbed to gas-related diseases since then.

Rashida Bee
Rashida Bee

Multimedia

Audio

The world's worst industrial disaster took place 25 years ago, in central India.  A chemical leak at the plant of the Indian subsidiary of an American corporation, Union Carbide, poisoned an estimated half million residents of the city of Bhopal. The death toll remains disputed, but certainly thousands died in the ensuing days and thousands more are believed to have succumbed to gas-related diseases since then. 

For a quarter of a century, the scenic and historic city of Bhopal has been synonymous with disaster - the tragic leak of methyl isocyanate (MIC), a pesticide ingredient, along with other toxins.

On the evening of December 2nd, 1984, workers were cleaning choked pipes and water somehow entered the MIC tank.   Was it an accident, negligence, incompetence or sabotage?   The debate on that continues.  What is certain is that it triggered a runaway reaction that spewed a toxic gas cocktail that enveloped Bhopal. 

Rashida Bee, who earned a few rupees a day hand-rolling cigarettes, lost seven family members that fateful night.

She recalls her eyes burning, as if someone was poking them with needles," said Rashida Bee. "She says her lungs felt as if they would explode.  She pleaded for God to give her death. She opened her eyes to see a panicking crowd trampling over her body.

Bee joined other female survivors to form a union demanding employment, medical treatment and compensation. They have been holding demonstrations and hunger strikes ever since, sometimes going to jail for their activism. 

During a tour of Shiv Nagar, a mixed low-income Hindu-Muslim neighborhood, children with birth defects and mental retardation are brought outside.

Government-sanctioned medical research and monitoring of the health effects of the gas leak stopped in 1994. But Nafeeza Bee Khan is certain that chemicals still in the area's soil or that seeped into the drinking water continue to cause health problems. 

Khan says a generation which inhaled the gas had children who were born sick.  And, that  they are giving birth to another generation of handicapped babies.  Khan says no one seems to understand that the contaminated land still needs to be cleaned.

Three evaporation ponds for the defunct plant remain and are used by some people as a communal bath and toilet.  Right next to these toxic bodies of water, slum-dwellers displaced by highway construction are building homes.

Officials from the city to the federal level privately tell victims and reporters it is time for Bhopal to get on with life and put the tragedy behind it.

In light of scant public support, 100,000 survivors turn to the Sambhavna Trust Clinic for their medical care.  It offers modern and traditional therapies for free and relies on individual donations.

It is run by Sathyu Sarangi, a metallurgist who rushed to Bhopal to volunteer immediately after the gas leak and never left.

Sathyu Sarangi
Sathyu Sarangi

 

"From the kinds of communications that we have had with the officials of the government, including the prime minister, what it appears to us is that investment by foreign corporations is way higher priority for the government than looking after the needs of its own people," said Sathyu Sarangi.

Gas survivor Rashida Bee has won international acclaim for her activism.  She shares that assessment.

She says she is ashamed to say that the Indian government and American officials heed the wishes of the big corporations, dancing to their tune, because they need the money.

But Sathyu Sarangi, of the Sambhavana Clinic, is optimistic that big money means the victims will one day prevail.  He points out that Dow Chemical - which bought Union Carbide - has not been able to resume manufacturing in India because of the unresolved Bhopal legacy.

"For the last eight years, it has not been able to make any serious investment in India," he said. "And, the one thing that is stopping them is the struggle of the people of Bhopal, of the have-nots in Bhopal and the support they have got from all over the country."

Dow declined repeated requests for comment, referring media to statements on its corporate web site. Union Carbide paid nearly half a billion dollars to India, a decade before Dow bought the company in 2001.  Thus Dow says, it "has no responsibility for Bhopal" and has tried to do all it can "to assure that similar incidents never happen again."

Some scientists say the decaying plant, still containing hundreds of tons of waste, remains so toxic no one should step inside.

However, the government of the state of Madhya Pradesh wants to open it up to the public for the 25th anniversary, with the country's environment minister contending the chemical residue is no longer harmful. 

In the gas-affected slums, such government assurances have little credence.  Many Bhopalis believe they have been repeatedly lied to since that fateful night, 25 years ago, exemplified by un-kept promises of adequate compensation and health care.
 


Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Communityi
X
Sharon Behn
August 03, 2015 2:23 PM
A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Community

A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Bangkok Warned It Soon Could Be Submerged

Italy's Venice and America's New Orleans are not the only cities gradually submerging. The nearly ten million residents of the Bangkok urban area now must confront warnings the city could become uninhabitable in a few decades. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Thai capital.
Video

Video Inclusive Gym Gets People With Disabilities in Fitness Spirit

Individuals with special needs are 58 percent more likely to be obese than the general population. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, they also have an increased likelihood of anxiety, depression and social isolation. But a sports club outside Washington wants to make a difference in these people's lives. With Carol Pearson narrating, VOA's June Soh reports.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Special Olympics Show Competitors' Skill, Determination

Special Olympics competitions will wrap up Saturday in Los Angeles, and the closing ceremony for athletes with intellectual disabilities will be held Sunday night. In a week of competition, athletes have shown what they can do through skill and determination. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Shooter’s Grill: Serving Food with a Touch of the Second Amendment

Shooter's Grill, a restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, attracts visitors from all over the world as well as local patrons. The reason? Waitresses openly carry loaded firearms as they serve food, and customers are welcome to carry them, too. VOA's Enming Liu and Lin Yang paid a visit to Shooter's Grill, and heard different opinions about this unique establishment.
Video

Video Despite Controversy, Business Owner Continues Sale of Confederate Flags

At Cooter’s, a store in rural Sperryville, Virginia, about 120 kilometers west of Washington, D.C., Confederate flags are flying off the shelves. The red, white and blue battle flag, with 13 white stars representing the Confederate states, was carried by southern forces during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. The South had seceded from the Union over several key issues of disagreement, including slavery. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs