AFP, Mar 28, 2008
A Bhopal gas tragedy survivor sits under a banner during the protest
NEW DELHI (AFP) — Fifty survivors and victims of the 1984 Bhopal gas leak arrived in New Delhi on Friday after a 37-day march and demanded to meet the premier to seek a clean-up of toxic waste at the site.
It was the second such 800-kilometre (500 mile) trek from Bhopal city in central India to the national capital in two years.
The protesters included three 11-year-old children and a woman in her eighties.
Protesters want the Bhopal site to be cleared of thousands of tonnes of toxic waste embedded in the soil
“I could walk because there was a doctor with us to take care of our problems. This time, we’d rather die rather than go back if our demands aren’t met,” said Munni Bee, a woman in her sixties.
Activists and protesters want the site to be cleared of thousands of tonnes of toxic waste embedded in the soil as well as jobs and compensation for health problems suffered by the victims.
The disaster occurred on December 3, 1984 when a storage tank at the Union Carbide India Ltd. pesticide plant spewed deadly cyanide gas into the air, killing more than 3,500 slum dwellers immediately.
The death toll has since climbed to more than 15,000, the government says.
The survivors want US giant Dow Chemical, which took over Union Carbide in 1999, to pay for the clean-up and health damages. They also want a supply of clean water.
Dow says all liabilities were settled in 1989 when Union Carbide paid 470 million dollars to the Indian government to be allocated to survivors and families of the dead.
But local court cases in India have since challenged Dow’s stand and called for more compensation for victims as well as for the environmental damage.
Activists say the plant site still contains around 5,000 tonnes of toxic chemicals, which have contaminated soil and water up to five kilometres (three miles) away.
“We have been drinking poison. We have nowhere to go as no one will buy our house,” said Bee, one of the marchers. She said her daughter-in-law suffered two miscarriages because of the toxic water.
Many survivors and nearby residents complain of breathlessness, neurological disorders, diminished vision and other ailments. Others suffer from cancers doctors attribute to chemical poisoning. Birth defects have also been reported.
“When the gas leaked, we felt a burning sensation in the eyes and fell unconscious. Our children got left behind as we ran for our lives,” Bee said. “I found my daughter after eight days.”
In 2006, after protestors went on a hunger protest — refusing to eat anything for days as a mark of protest — Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promised to set up a panel to look into their demands.
“The committee has since met three times, held discussions but hasn’t done anything till now,” said Nityanand Jayaraman, spokesman for the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, who had been on the march.
Activists said the protestors will not go back this time unless they are given a timetable for action planned by the government.
“We have been very naive in believing them earlier,” Jayaraman said.