Arab News: Death came in clouds — 25 years later, the horrors in Bhopal, India, continue

Death came in clouds — 25 years later, the horrors in Bhopal, India, continue

M. P. Basheer | Arab News – November 22. 2009

ASIYA Bi still remembers the horror. It was just past midnight and she woke up to the sound of her younger daughter Rubeena coughing. In the dim light from the street lamp, she saw the room was filled with white fog. Then her elder daughter Mohsina began coughing. Within five minutes, Asiya Bi’s eight-member family had woken up to cries of people shouting “bhaago, bhaago.” Asiya recalled, “Our eyes were burning. I also felt as if I were inhaling fire. Some of our neighbors who were also coughing came in panic and told us to get out of the house. I went into the street with my children, carrying Rubeena and holding Mohsina’s hand. We joined the running crowd.”

In Hindi, “bhaggo, bhaggo” means “run, run.” During the early hours of Dec. 3, 1984, nearly half a million people like Asiya Bi and her children ran in panic through the gullies and streets of Bhopal in central India. They were desperately trying to escape the deadly gases leaking from the Union Carbide pesticide plant. Just five minutes after midnight, the plant had released an estimated 42 tons of toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas, exposing more than half the city’s population to lethal chemicals. The first official death toll was 2,259. The state government has confirmed a total of 3,787 gas-related deaths. International bodies such as Green Peace and Amnesty International estimate that 8,000-10,000 died within 72 hours. Some employees of Bhopal Municipal Corporation have testified that they buried more than 150,000 dead bodies.

The cloud of gas, composed mainly of material denser than the surrounding air, stayed close to the ground and spread outwards through the community. Owing to their small size, women, children and short people inhaled higher concentrations. Many people were trampled as they tried to escape. Those who ran inhaled more than those who fled by vehicle. A mixture of poisonous gases flooded the city and thousands of people had succumbed by morning. “I lost my mother in the mad stampede, my younger sister by noon, and two cousins the same afternoon,” says Alimuddeen Khan who is now 42, and looks at least 20 years older. Within a few days, even the leaves on trees turned yellow and fell to the ground.

But Union Carbide’s final gift to the city was not only one night. Children, damaged beyond recognition, were born in Bhopal. “In a sample of 865 women who lived within two miles of the plant and who were pregnant at the time of the leak,” according to a survivors’ website, “nearly half the number of pregnancies did not result in live births.” Of the 486 live births, “14 percent died in the first 30 days.”

A researcher at the Jawaharlal Nehru Cancer Hospital and Research Centre says that damaged children are still being born. “They are born with deformities such as cleft palate, three eyes, all fingers joined, one extra finger, one testicle, different skull shapes, and Down’s syndrome. Getting through the first few years is no guarantee of survival.”

Union Carbide left the city without cleaning the site. A quarter century after the disaster, chemicals spill from rotting sacks and drums. Each monsoon washes them deeper into the subsoil. People are still drinking poisoned water. Lethal chemicals lie exposed to wind and rain. Twenty-five monsoons have washed them deep into the groundwater, which flows northeastward, causing severe damage to those living there.

For all these years, the chemicals that Union Carbide used have been ignored, left to leach into the groundwater. That groundwater feeds tube wells and hand pumps from which 25,000 people drink. Most of these people were nowhere near the leak in 1984. They belong to a new category of victims, the “paani peedith” — “the water affected.” And every year their numbers and their symptoms increase. Says Satinath Sarangi, who leads the Bhopal survivors’ movement: “Thousands of tons of highly toxic chemicals remain in the factory. The poisoning has been going on for decades. But the company has continually denied that the factory was contaminated or was responsible for polluting water.”

But it is clear from Union Carbide documents obtained by survivors’ organizations in US courts that the company carried out tests and knew as long ago as 1989 that the soil and water within its boundaries were heavily contaminated. “It chose not to make this knowledge public, instead continuing to deny that any dangers existed. Carbide watched in silence as people were poisoned a second time”, says Indra Sinha, a writer and campaigner for the Bhopal victims.

In 1999 Green Peace tested the soil and water near the factory and found mercury levels 6,000,000 times higher than normal in addition to more than 30 chemicals in the water, many known to cause birth defects and cancers. A 2001 study found lead, mercury and the factory’s poisonous signature in the breast milk of new mothers. In a BBC investigation broadcast on Nov. 14, 2004, it was reported that the site was still contaminated with “thousands of metric tons of toxic chemicals, including benzene hexachloride and mercury, held in open containers or loose on the ground. A sample of drinking water from a well near the site had levels of contamination 500 times higher than the maximum limits recommended by the World Health Organization.” Union Carbide disclaimed all responsibilities for the state of the factory and Carbide’s owner, Dow Chemical, said it was not responsible either. After 1984, Carbide had only one idea: to get out of India before its liability was fully calculated. This required that it restrict proof of the extent of damage and unload assets as fast as possible. They did both ruthlessly. For example, Carbide refused to disclose proprietary research that would have helped doctors understand the physiological effects of gas exposure. In the absence of proper medical information and treatment protocols, drugs for temporary symptomatic relief have been the mainstay of medical care ever since the disaster. The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) began a study on the impact of the gas on the next generation — this was mysteriously cancelled when results began to point to extreme damage. The ICMR has yet to publish the findings of the research studies it carried out involving over 80,000 survivors. Finally, in March 2009, Indian scientists decided to investigate the long-term health effects of the worst industrial disaster in history.

Meanwhile, very little of the money from the settlement with Union Carbide went to the survivors, and people in the area feel betrayed by both the company and their own politicians. Union Carbide sold its Indian subsidiary which had operated the Bhopal plant to Eveready Industries India Limited in 1994. The Dow Chemical Company purchased Union Carbide in 2001 for $10.3 billion in stock and debt. Dow has publicly stated several times that the Union Carbide settlement payments fulfilled Dow’s financial responsibility for the disaster. Dow did not, however, buy Indian Union Carbide. That was split up, renamed, and bought by the Indian government after the tragedy. Under the laws of both India and the US, Union Carbide should pay for after-pollutions as well, but Carbide has spent the last 25 years ignoring an Indian court summons. Warren Anderson, Union Carbide CEO at the time of the disaster, is now living very comfortably in the US.

Having nothing and no one to turn to, Bhopal Gas victims were forced to help themselves; they discovered that the poorest slums were full of talent. They have set up their own innovative medical clinic which has provided free care to almost 35,000 people and won international awards for the quality of its work. Their fight stopped being about personal recompense a long time ago. To a great extent, it is about the lives of their children and their children’s children. As Indra Sinha says, “It’s a struggle of those who have nothing against those who have it all. Great catastrophe, followed by years of sickness, poverty and injustice can overwhelm and crush the extraordinary human spirit, or it can enable ordinary people to discover what they are. Such people find that they have the grit to survive.” And they are still fighting.

M. P. Basheer is a South Asian journalist based in India and can be contacted at mpbasheer@gmail.com)

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