Randeep Ramesh, The Guardian, April 30, 2008
Nida, 17 months old Bhopali girl with a congenital birth defect. Photograph: Money Sharma/EPA
· Children of victims suffer but have no health cover
· 23 years after disaster, site has still not been cleaned
Hundreds of children are still being born with birth defects as a result of the world’s worst industrial disaster 23 years ago in the central Indian town of Bhopal, say campaigners. They are demanding that the Indian government provide immediate medical care and research the “hidden” health impacts.
More than two decades ago, white clouds of toxic gas escaped from American multinational Union Carbide’s pesticide plant. The gas killed 5,000 people that night and 15,000 more in the following weeks – and doctors say that a new generation is being affected.
The true legacy of the disaster is only now coming to light. The Indian government stopped all research on the medical effects of the gas cloud 14 years ago, without explanation. Despite the country’s supreme court ordering that the children of victims receive insurance, more than 100,000 remain without cover.
Satinath Sarangi of the Sambhavna Trust, which helps to rehabilitate victims, said that the Bhopal victims’ penury and low social status meant few are prepared to help.
No one, he says, has taken responsibility for cleaning up the site and paying the high cost of medical bills.
“Because these people are poor or from a minority or lower caste no one seems to care. Their lives and their children are being sacrificed for the cause of industrial progress,” Sarangi said.
Medical experts who had studied the effects of the gas on children born in communities affected by the gas cloud said there was now “no doubt of increased chance of the negative effects in children”.
A 2003 study by the American Medical Association found that boys who were either exposed as toddlers to gases from the Bhopal pesticide plant or born to exposed parents were prone to “growth retardation”.
Yesterday campaigners, who marched the 500 miles from Bhopal last month and vow to sit in protest in Delhi until the government acts, held a press conference to highlight a new fight for compensation for families whose children have been born with “congenital birth defects”.
One of the mothers, Kesar Bhai, held her 12-year-old son Suraj in her arms. She had inhaled the noxious fumes in 1984 and was hospitalised but recovered. Her son, Suraj, was born brain damaged and cannot sit or talk.
“My husband is a labourer. We have no money to spend on our son. He cannot even eat on his own. I get free medical care for my breathing difficulties because I am a gas victim. My child does not get any help but he has been affected,” she said.
Other children’s growth had been stunted, said campaigners, because there has been still no clean-up of the Bhopal plant despite a promise from the prime minister in 2006. So far, less than 20% of the funds set aside to dismantle and make safe the plant have been spent.
The disused Union Carbide factory contains about 8,000 tonnes of carcinogenic chemicals which continue to leach out and contaminate water supplies used by 30,000 local people. The clean-up has been stalled by a mixture of bureaucratic indifference, legal actions and rows over corporate responsibility.
Dow Chemicals, which bought Union Carbide in 2001, says it is not responsible, arguing that because the plant is on government land it is up to the state to clean it up. However, the Indian government’s chemicals and fertilisers ministry has said in court that Dow should pay 1 billion rupees, or £13m, to dismantle the factory and restore the fields.
On December 2 1984, the sleeping citizens of Bhopal were enveloped by a lethal fog of poisonous gas spewing from a pesticide plant owned by American multinational Union Carbide. The gas was methyl isocyanate, which when inhaled produces an extremely acidic reaction attacking the internal organs, especially the lungs. This stops oxygen entering the blood, and victims drown in their own body fluids. The Indian government is still pursuing Warren Anderson, the former chief executive of Union Carbide, who keeps a low profile in retirement in New York and Florida. Union Carbide paid a lump sum of $470m in an out-of-court settlement with the Indian government in 1989. When the money was distributed among 570,000 people in 2005, most recipients got little more than £600. Dow, one of the world’s largest chemical companies, purchased Union Carbide in 2001. Campaigners then covered its Mumbai offices with red paint, saying it was the “blood of Bhopal”. Dow says it never owned or operated the Bhopal plant and it has no responsibility for the events in 1984.