AFP: Bhopal gas survivors mark 25 years of agony

Bhopal gas survivors mark 25 years of agony

By Yasmeen Mohiuddin (AFP) – November 28, 2009

BHOPAL, India — Livestock outnumber humans at the Arif Nagar slum, a toxic wasteyard next to the site of the world’s worst industrial accident, which occurred 25 years ago this week in the Indian city of Bhopal.

While the animals are blissfully unaware of their poisoned surroundings, residents are bitter whenever they glance behind their homes towards the old Union Carbide factory, where a lethal plume of gas escaped from a storage tank in the early hours of December 3, 1984, killing thousands instantly.

Arif Nagar and other destitute neighbourhoods around the plant became a graveyard as residents choked to death on more than 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate — the raw material used to make the pesticide carbaryl.

“I started frothing from the mouth, my eyes were huge and red. I thought I was going to die,” said Hamid Khan, 70, who watched his two children die in the disaster and whose skin and organs are racked with infections to this day.

Khan was a day labourer at the time, but — like many living in the vicinity — the effects of the gas and years of exposure to contaminated water and soil left him too weak to do regular work.

Government figures put the death toll at 3,500 within the first three days but independent data by the state-run Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) puts the figure at between 8,000 and 10,000 for the same period.

“There were people falling, hundreds of them lying on the street vomiting, unconscious, convulsing,” said N.R. Bhandari, who in 1984 was medical superintendent of one of the main hospitals in Bhopal and also led research for the ICMR.

Survivors say the anniversary marks another year of physical and psychological trauma compounded by government and corporate negligence.

Dow Chemical purchased Union Carbide in 1999, but says all liabilities related to the accident were cleared in a 470 million dollar out of court settlement with the Indian government in 1989.

Calling the event a “terrible tragedy that understandably continues to evoke strong emotions even 25 years later” the company says it “worked diligently to provide aid to the victims and set up a process to resolve their claims.”

It insists the leak was caused by an unidentified act of sabotage and emphasises that the state government, which took control of the site 10 years ago, is now responsible for the tonnes of toxic waste yet to be cleared up.

Activists and victims reacted furiously when Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, visiting the compound earlier this year, held a clump of soil in his hand and declared he was still healthy.

“The government is so insensitive, it has no idea what is happening to our children,” said Mamta Sen, as she held her six-year-old mentally challenged son Sandeep.

The ICMR conducted research on the health effects of the disaster until the central government ordered it to stop in 1994. Most of the research was never published, which Bhandari calls a “criminal scientific waste.”

“Bureaucrats don’t understand medical things and yet they want to dominate everywhere,” he said. “The studies should have been continued to see the long-term effects of the leak.”

Survivors suffer from ailments such as respiratory and kidney problems, hormonal imbalances, mental illness and cancer, and new generations have not been spared from the polluted groundwater and poisonous breastmilk fed to them from birth.

To this day, children are born grotesquely disfigured, with webbed hands and feet, weak immune systems, stunted growth, and congenital disorders, like 10-year-old Vikas who cannot stand or walk due to his spindly legs.

He beams and opens his mouth wide eager to speak, but the only sound that comes out is a high-pitched gurgle.

Twenty-seven-year-old Raj Kumari’s height is also stunted. Her belly juts out as though she is pregnant, but her mother tells AFP she gave birth recently.

“She is sick from the gas and the water. The bump has been growing for months but the doctors say it will go away,” said her mother Leela Bai.

The compensation doled out to survivors by the government — between 1,000 to 2,000 dollars each — has dried up after years of paying for the long-term health impact of the disaster.

ICMR research showed that 25,000 people have died from the consequences of exposure since 1984. After that research concluded, government statistics said 100,000 people were chronically sick, with more than 30,000 people living in water-contaminated areas.

Instead of the slums around the plant becoming a ghost town, victims — mostly day labourers and migrants from outside Bhopal — flocked to squat on the swampy land surrounding the factory, sometimes even buying it at cheap prices.

Although the government has set up new pipelines to connect residents to clean drinking water, the supply is infrequent and they often rely on archaic handpumps that spout dirty water.

“If the government supply doesn’t fill up the tank we have no choice but to drink the groundwater, even though we know it makes us sick,” said Sisupal Yadav as he lifted up his shirt to display a rash.

Survivors were furious when the government of Madhya Pradesh state, of which Bhopal is capital, announced plans to open the old factory to curious visitors keen to witness the scene of such tragedy. Last week it reversed its decision.

Inside the building, dozens of bottles of chemicals are still stocked in the factory’s lab, covered in dust and cobwebs and surrounded by broken glass.

Emergency instructions and a sticker reading “safety is everybody’s business” still hang on the wall, and families and cattle wander by.

Criminal cases against former Union Carbide executives are pending in various Indian courts to force them and Dow to take more responsibility for the catastrophe.

But with the Indian government keen to attract foreign investment, the chances of a groundbreaking ruling look slim.

“Dow and Union Carbide are American companies,” said Afroze Bi, a survivor whose son died while clinging to his father as they tried to flee the cloud of fumes. “Poor people like us don’t have a chance against them.”

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