Marie Claire (UK) September 2000

Fifteen years after the world's worst industrial disaster that till now has claimed over 20,000 innocent lives, Marie Clare goes to India to meet the women of Bhopal as they continue their struggle against crippling diseases, cultural stigma and an inadequate legal system in order to secure justice from an international corporation.
Photographs and interviews by Peter Caton
. Text by Tim Edwards

I arrive as the 15th Anniversary procession gathers momentum. The marchers, predominantly women from both the Hindu and Muslim communities, have joined together in order to remember the dead and remind the living.

Slowly, the determined crowd pushes through the streets of Bhopal. As we make the approach towards the redundant factory site the chanting grows belligerent "We are the women of Bhopal. We are not flowers, we are flames". In a furious climax the giant effigy of Warren Anderson, Union Carbide's Chief Executive Officer in 1984, is lit and topples blazing to the ground. Krishna Bai, a widow of 60, fuelled by 15 years of injustice, kicks angrily at the fire. Quickly, other survivors push forward and, using sticks, beat upon the burning mass, the symbol of their continuing pain.

Krishna Bai, like most of the city, vividly remembers the night of December 2nd-3rd 1984. During routine maintenance work at Union Carbide's Bhopal plant, water entered a storage tank containing Methyl Isocyanate, a highly toxic chemical used in making pesticides. This set off an exothermic chain-reaction to produce a deadly cocktail of chemicals. Over 40 tonnes of lethal gases began to leak silently from the Union Carbide factory. Six safety systems designed to prevent such a leak were either switched off or malfunctioning. The refrigeration unit was turned off to save the company US $40 a day.

Due to it's weight the gas kept at ground level, whilst a gentle northerly breeze sent it straight into the heart of the city. The deadly cloud poisoned over half a million people. Krishna Bai recalls:

"I was sleeping with my entire family of 13 in two rooms. Our house was built with slats of wood nailed together to build walls with a tin roof. We woke up coughing badly and our eyes on fire. Each breath was difficult. Outside our neighbours were screaming 'run, run for your life'. We ran towards the military area. I remember we were all together till the road crossing but after that I can't remember. Somebody threw a shirt at me and told me to cover my face. I must have fallen unconscious and somebody carried me to Hamidia Hospital. There were people dying all around. People were groaning in pain."

The factory's safety siren had been turned off because it used to sound too often. Not until the gas was upon them in their beds, burning and blistering lungs and eyes, did the people of Bhopal know of their danger. Thousands ran choking and screaming into narrow streets. Some, wracked with seizures, fell under trampling feet. Some, urinating and defecating uncontrollably, died agonizing deaths as the poisons seeped into their bloodstreams. Others drowned as their lungs filled with their own bodily fluids.

The hospitals were overwhelmed and completely unequipped to deal with the disaster. The Company's response was to begin a policy of liability evasion. Silence, misinformation and denial obstructed the relief effort. Union Carbide's Medical Chief tried to assure doctors that the gas was harmless and similar to tear gas. His advice was to wash the eyes with water. Meanwhile, residential streets were filled with the bodies of the dead as officials worked around the clock dumping, cremating and burying. In the next few days around 8,000 death shrouds were sold in the city. Union Carbide representatives insisted that the official number of reported dead was exaggerated, but there is evidence that the haste in which the dead were buried greatly reduced the figures.

The horror of the disaster has been succeeded by the longest and largest medical disaster ever. Official statistics show that far more Bhopalis have died from gas-related illnesses in the 15 and a half years since the leak than died in the first week. In 1997 alone 1,185 people died. An estimated 120,000 people continue to suffer huge physical and mental agony from chronic illnesses.

The chemical poisons entered the bloodstream and caused damage to every organ of the body. Additionally, the gases have broken down immune systems in a similar way to AIDS thus creating a greater susceptibility to other illness - in particular cancers, tuberculosis and respiratory problems. Contemporary symptoms of gas exposure include breathlessness, persistent cough, early age cataract, recurrent fever, neurological disorders, fatigue, weakness, anxiety and depression.

The immediate impact upon women's health had its own horror. Some 43% of pregnant women living in the worst affected areas aborted involuntarily. In the following months, other women suffered stillbirths or produced deformed babies. Even today children born to mothers who were exposed to the gases commonly exhibit motor and language development defects. Evidence indicates that malformations will be passed from generation to generation as the gases have broken down links in chromosomes.

The poorer communities (bastis) around the factory are densely populated with gas-affected families. Burning charcoal mingles with the smell of meals being cooked. Houses are constructed with a versatile use of materials: wood, corrugated iron, brick and plastic sheets. Frequently, added to the sounds of domestic labour is the rattling of gas ravaged lungs. In these small homes, at least one person in every family is acutely ill and dying, and two out of three are on long-term medication.

After I enter the basti I am mobbed by a crowd of excitable children, who pull at my sleeves and ask my name. They demand that I take their photographs. Moving among the people living here it is clear that neither their chronic health problems nor the ever-present poverty can dim the warm community spirit, with resident families thinking nothing of helping a neighbour's family. It is dusk when I meet Kamnoornsa, 31, in the basti streets. A shy, nervous woman with amazing dignity. "My eldest daughter was 2 years old when she died shortly after the gases leaked. It took me many years to become pregnant again. Eventually I gave birth to my son. He is now three years old but he is very weak and is not developing well."

Kamnoomsa's tragic story is by no means unique. Wandering through the smoke filled bastis around the factory perimeter I meet many others eager to share with me their own horrific tales.

Dr Smt. Surange, an eminent gynaecologist who came to Bhopal in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, explains that female infertility is at very high levels. "An unusually high proportion of vaginal smears are inflammatory and there is a likelihood of development of malignancy in these cases. Cervical erosions are also seen in a large number of women." She asserts that pre-pubescent women exposed to the gasses are 50% more likely to develop menstrual difficulties. "Almost all the women who were pregnant at the time suffered from spontaneous abortions. Subsequently, gas-affected women commonly present complaints such as an inability to conceive"

Working with the community of survivors is the Sambhavna Clinic, located near to the factory site. Established in 1996 through money raised from individual donations, the clinic is able to provide free medical care for victims. The two-story building of the Sambhavna Clinic stands out proud as the only hospital building in the area to be free from paan (betel leaf) stains. Satinath Sarangi (Sathyu), managing the trust suggests that this is a strong indication of the community sense of ownership for the clinic. He bemoans the poor medical care the victims have received so far from government hospitals and unscrupulous private doctors: "many of the medicines they have taken, almost without interruption, have either been useless or harmful. Therefore, chronically ill survivors very often have drug and doctor induced damages compounding the injuries caused by Carbide's gases".

Women's problems are a special focus of the clinic's all round work. Data collected at the clinic shows that of 190 females, aged between 13 and 19, who came to the clinic between 1st June 1999 and 31st March 2000, 113 reported menstrual problems, including painful and irregular menses, heavy bleeding and excessive vaginal secretions. In response to the situation Sambhavna has initiated a cervical screening project, the only one in the whole city.

The secretions, locally as 'safed pani' (literally white water), are not often openly discussed because of social taboos. Women have been abandoned by their husbands and left to struggle alone if they are unable to conceive, and they find it hard to marry if stigmatised with the label 'gas victim'. In a culture were female fertility is so crucial to the role of womanhood, and the average age for marriage is 16, difficulties associated with reproduction have left women gas survivors with a double burden.

Anneesa-Bee, 53, lost her husband and a daughter through the disaster. She now brings up her grandson alone. The child's father left to find work outside Bhopal.
'My daughter died five years ago from tuberculosis' she recalls sadly. 'Her husband left her when she started to feel ill. He was angry that she could only bare him one child. All the money we had was spent on medication. We went to a number of doctors but there was nothing they could do. Now my grandson has tuberculosis also, but I have no money left to provide him with medicines." Caring for the child to the best of her abilities, she struggles to provide even the basic necessities for survival.

With so many of his patients reduced to abject poverty after years of expensive and inappropriate medicines, Sathyu concludes, "it is the pharmaceutical corporations which are benefiting most from the continuing disaster…

Krishna Bai, whose entire family had been caught up in the disaster, recalls the death of her husband.

'My husband Pyareial died on September 24th, I997. The doctors said that his heart was very badly damaged because his lungs were damaged by the gas exposure. He was very ill for the first 15 days after the disaster so we took him to a private doctor who had him admitted to hospital. Over the following months and years we took him to different doctors as he had chest pains and breathlessness almost without respite. But nowhere did he find any relief. I spent much money on his treatment. All the money we got as compensation was spent on my husband's treatment. I still owe money to the doctors.'

The Indian Government, fearful of upsetting the delicate climate of international investment, failed to secure adequate compensation for the victims. In 1989 they reached a collusive out of court settlement with Union Carbide for US $470. Individuals who make claims for compensation have had to undergo a painstaking process that has taken years in order to secure around $350 per person; and even now the money has not been fully dispensed. When finally received the meagre compensation does not cover half the medical expenses borne by the claimants in the last several years, let alone provide for future treatment.

The disabling effect of the gas leak left thousands of breadwinners unable to continue in their previous forms of employment. Yet the Government's programmes for social, economic and environmental rehabilitation have been so poorly designed that less than 100 gas victims have found regular work, of which around 2/3rds are women. Many who do work are paid less than other workers because the perception is that they can do less. There are at least another 50,000 in need of alternate jobs. Families pushed to starvation level borrow money at inflated rates from local moneylenders, only to find themselves deeper in debt and with even more problems.

A number of women survivors are employed to produce stationery for the government, ranging from envelopes to court certificates. Within their work-shed, Hindu and Muslim women work side by side, and have found strength enough to form one of the three largest survivors groups, the Gas Peedit Mahila Stationary Karamchari Sangathan. As I walk inside the dusty warehouse, shafts of sunlight from two small windows illuminate the friendly faces. Sheila, 32, eagerly explains the bond and support system that operates between the women who are working cross legged on the floor: "I find comfort here. Our children play together. We can talk whilst we work, sharing the things that make us unhappy." As she speaks, young children laugh and skip behind her. Her expression becomes determined, "I am so lucky here, there are many less fortunate and desperate for work". Behind the appreciative smiles, I can clearly see the pain and frustration they share.

By building 2500 houses, the Government has deemed its social rehabilitation work complete. The settlement is named the Widows Colony. Krishna Bai invites me to her house. The room is immaculately clean, despite a family of seven living in the cramped conditions, and has an array of steel cooking utensils hanging proudly from the walls. I am made welcome and offered a traditional cup of sweet tea. However, just providing a cup of tea is no easy matter because of polluted water. Krishna Bai explains " I do not drink water from the Widows Colony for the last 6 months. I carry the water for the entire family from Jain Colony about half a kilometre from my home. The drinking water in the Widows Colony has worsened. Some days we even see worms in it and its smells awful. "

The problems are not just with the Widows Colony. Routine dumping of toxic sludge within the grounds of the Union Carbide factory has left Bhopal with a legacy of contamination. On 2nd December last year Greenpeace International declared the factory site a "global toxic hotspot". They found heavy concentrations of cancer-inducing chemicals and heavy metals like mercury, which was discovered at between 20,000 to 6 million times the expected levels. Twelve volatile organic compounds were found to be seeping into the water supplies of 20,000 people in the local communities.

Water from 200 wells around the now closed factory site has been declared unfit for human consumption. As I pass by these wells I see children playing in and around the contaminated water. Despite complaints of skin rashes and abdominal pain, the communities have no choice but to continue washing, drinking and cooking with this water everyday.

In response to the ongoing crises, it is women like Anneesa and Shelia who have cast off their veils and customary ties in order to gather at the weekly protests in Yaadgar-e-Shahjani Park. Here, the Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan (Gas Affected Women's Organisation) passionately discuss ongoing issues beneath anti-Carbide murals. Struggling against grief, poverty and illness, they have joined together across the city to create a collective voice. In this longest battle of industrial victims, the simple women of Bhopal have held hundreds of demonstrations, sat on hunger strikes, faced police brutalities, suffered jail terms, relentlessly calling for justice and the right to a dignified disease free life.

Most importantly, they are making a difference. In November last year the organisations of women survivors and others filed a class action suit charging Union Carbide, USA and its former Chairman, Warren Anderson with grave violations of international law through their "reckless and depraved indifference to human life". As a result of this suit, the corporation and Anderson, who have been absconding from the criminal cased in India for the last eight years, have finally been forced to submit themselves to the US Courts. Included in their ongoing legal battle are efforts to stop the merger of Union Carbide with Dow Chemical to become the second largest chemical corporation in the world.

The interrelating problems faced by the gas survivors are indeed overwhelming. But as I speak to the women around the communities of Bhopal, I am continually amazed by their determination and strength in their fight to obtain justice from Union Carbide. In 1989, 100 women and children of the Stationery women's group walked the 750km to Delhi in order to highlight their plight. Their remarkable leader, Rashida Bi, told me "we crossed many forests, we went hungry and thirsty many times on the way… a few of our members had to sell off all their jewellery to buy food." But they reached Delhi and made their voices heard, chanting courageously "We are the women of Bhopal. We are not flowers, we are flames!"

For more information see www.bhopal.net

The Bhopal Medical Appeal, a project of the Pesticides Action Network - UK, administrates funds for the Sambhavna Clinic.

To make a donation call Freefone 0800 316 5577
Or send a cheque to:
The Pesticides Action Network - UK / Bhopal Account
Eurolink Centre
49 Effra Road
London SW2 1BZ