By Palash Kumar
NEW DELHI (Reuters) – More than 20 years after the world’s worst industrial disaster, victims of the Bhopal gas leak have stepped up their campaign for clean drinking water with an indefinite sit-down in the Indian capital.
More than 3,500 people died in the days and weeks after toxic fumes spewed out of a pesticide plant in the central Indian city in December 1984.
Officials say nearly 15,000 people have died since from cancer and other diseases. Activists put the death toll at 33,000 and say toxins from thousands of tonnes of chemicals lying in and around the site have seeped into the groundwater.
Some victims initially survived the disaster after breathing in the gas only to suffer a slow, painful death.
Others died, or are still dying, from polluted drinking water. Activists and survivors say lethal chemicals lying untouched in and around the abandoned pesticide plant are still fouling the groundwater.
Fed up with the failure to clean-up the area, about 50 survivors decided last month to take the matter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
They set off on foot from their modest homes in the bylanes of Bhopal to the corridors of power in New Delhi.
“We have come here to meet the prime minister and until we meet him and our demands are met, we will not go back,” Rashida Bi, a flagbearer of the two-decade-old fight for “life, dignity and water”, told Reuters.
Bi is among the group that walked 800 km (500 miles) cutting through the hot plains of central and north India from Bhopal, the populous capital of central Madhya Pradesh state.
“The water we drink is poison. Six of my family have died of cancer. Children are born with holes in their heart. They become abnormal as they grow. Adults have stomach illnesses,” she said.
There is no piped water in the area where Bi lives, close to the factory compound. At least 20,000 people are forced to use handpumps which draw water from the ground, residents say.
On the night of December 2 1984, clouds of deadly methyl isocyanate gas billowed from the factory, then owned by Union Carbide, now a subsidiary of Dow Chemical Co.
Many survivors remember their eyes stinging as they tried to escape. Others vomited blood.
As the months passed, another disaster began unveiling itself, silently trickling into homes and killing people.
Activists say studies by experts have revealed that thousands of tonnes of toxins, including carcinogens such as trichloral ethylene, benzene hexachloride and mercury, have been found in groundwater near the factory.
WHOSE JOB IS IT ANYWAY?
Toxic waste still litters the complex and a landfill just outside. There is an argument over who should clean up the mess — Dow or the government.
“The polluter should clean,” said Nityanand Jayaraman, one of the many social activists who have campaigned for the victims.
“We want the government of India to play a more proactive role in making the polluter clean the mess.”
Union Carbide paid $470 million in compensation to victims of the disaster and says responsibility for the clean-up lies with the government, which took over the site in 1998.
[Ed, Bhopal.Net: The Indian government and Madhya Pradhesh government have both repeatedly stated that the responsiblity for paying for the clean up rests with Union Carbide/Dow. A letter has even been filed with a US court to this effect. There was never any question of the state “taking over” the site, because the site was always state property to start with, and was merely leased to Union Carbide. It is truer to say that Union Carbide, having made perfunctory attempts to hide the waste, simply abandoned the site.]