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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

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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, Steven L Herman is the Voice of America Asia correspondent.
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