Bhopal march over, but the battle continues

Clockwise from left: Bhopal survivor Champa Devi Shukla and other marchers take a break near Delhi; the face of a young child killed by the gas leak in 1984 – the photograph won Picture of the Year award; the derelict Union Carbide factory in 2006; a woman, her sight affected by the gas leak, awaits the results of a compensation trial against the Union Carbide Corporation of the US in 1987.
By Rajeshree Sisodia, New Delhi
March 27, 2006
THE JUSTICE MARCH for the survivors of the world’s worst industrial disaster has been an arduous journey.
More than 21 years after a gas leak ravaged the central Indian city of Bhopal, killing thousands, scores of survivors entered Delhi at the weekend, the culmination of a month-long march to galvanise political support for their cause.
In the early hours of December 3, 1984, more than 40 tonnes of gases including methyl isocyanate, hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide leaked from the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant in Old Bhopal.
The lethal cocktail entered the heart of the community, killing more than 8000 people in the immediate aftermath and causing thousands more to endure agonising deaths in the years following.
This weekend, scores of people who live in the worst-affected areas in Old Bhopal drew their 787-kilometre march from Bhopal, through four Indian states and into Delhi, to a close as they snaked their way into the capital’s southern suburbs. Today, the protesters plan to meet senior Government politicians, including Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, to gain political support for the decontamination of the factory site and surrounding areas.
Victims are also pushing for the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), which owned UCIL, and the US-based Dow Chemical Company, which took control of UCC in 2001, to stand trial and accept responsibility for the tragedy and for the decontamination of the area.
More than two decades after the accident, which contaminated the water supply, communities in Old Bhopal still have little access to safe drinking water.
Justice is something that has continued to evade 53-year-old mother of four Champa Devi Shukla. Her son Rajesh committed suicide 16 years ago, at the age of 18, after experiencing years of chronic lung problems.
Her 58-year-old husband Badri Prasad Shukla died from bladder cancer nine years ago and her five-year-old granddaughter Sapna was born without a palate.
The deaths and congenital deformity were a direct result of the gas leak and exposure to contaminated drinking water, she believes.
“Rajesh could not cope with it,” said the slight figure in an orange sari.
“(It was) as a result of the Union Carbide accident. It was heartbreaking for us. The light in our world left (when he died).”
Rasheeda Bee, 50, a mother of one, said six members of her extended family were diagnosed with cancer following the industrial disaster.
“Politicians mainly sit in their seats while people die. When they feel that they will lose their seats, they will do something,” she said.
“That’s what we intend to do, to shake them from their inertia, then they will help us, with the support of the world.
“We are not afraid of politicians. We have got nothing left to lose. It’s time for battle, we have waited so long.”
Collective apathy has characterised the Government’s approach to the Bhopal disaster over the past two decades.
Despite increasing pressure from activists and social groups in and outside the subcontinent, India’s politicians seem unwilling to listen to or help the thousands of victims.
UCC maintains that responsibility for decontamination now lies with the Madhya Pradesh state government, which took control of the pesticide plant in 1998, while Dow has reaffirmed its stance that because it only took control of UCC in 2001, it had no involvement in the leak.
The tragedy left barely a single home in Old Bhopal untouched. About 8000 people died in the hours immediately after the gas leak.
Campaigners claim that more than 7000 funeral shrouds were sold in the 24 hours afterwards and truck drivers spoke of dumping hundreds of victims in unmarked graves.
Mune Khan, now 60, lost his wife Khamida, 35, on the night. Now all that remains of his family are his sons Owais, 23, and 25-year-old Anwar. He said Owais suffered from tuberculosis as a direct result of the disaster.
The day his wife died in their one-room home is one Mr Khan will never forget.
“It was about 2am and I was sleeping. Then I started vomiting, I could not breathe and there were tears coming in my eyes. I could not see out of my eyes,” he said.
“(Then) we realised there was a gas leak, as someone was shouting from outside to us to leave the house. We went outside running and we started panicking. I never saw my wife alive again.”
Victims believe ongoing exposure to contaminated drinking water continues to poison their children.
In 2001, the Indian Council of Medical Research revealed that between 120,000 and 150,000 people in Bhopal still had symptoms related to gas exposure.
Independent research commissioned by environmental group Greenpeace found that ground water around the disused pesticide plant was unsafe. The 1999 findings showed the water contained high levels of the insecticide Sevin and mercury.
Water samples taken from wells near the factory also contained carbon tetrachloride, which the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says can damage the liver, kidneys and nervous system, and the US Environmental Protection Agency claims is a probable human carcinogen.

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