120,000 survivors are in desperate need of medical attention
The Asian Age website

San Francisco, May 29: "Already the victims have learnt that there is no justice in the world. If, after reading their story, we turn the page, we will demonstrate that there is no humanity either," writes director Mahesh Mathai in a diary he kept while on the sets of the feature film Bhopal Express, a human drama set against the gas tragedy in Bhopal.

Mathai's film, starring a cast that includes Naseeruddin Shah and Zeenat Aman, examines the irresponsible methods of large corporations and the effects of their actions on common people. Fifteen years after the Union Carbide plant spewed out tonnes of toxic methyl isocyanate which killed thousands of people in Bhopal, the medical conditions in the city have gone from bad to worse.

Satinath Sarangi, founder of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, told The Asian Age in an interview from Bhopal that today over 120,000 survivors are in desperate need of medical attention.

"In addition to the long-term complications of the diseases caused by exposure in 1984 people today suffer from tuberculosis and other infectious diseases caused to their immune systems. Also lung, oesophagus and other cancers are rising," Mr Sarangi said, adding: "Young women exposed to the toxic gases in infancy on in their mother's womb suffer menstrual irregularities. Parents find it difficult getting their daughters married."

People in the communities living around the factory are exposed to a range of carcinogenic and other toxic chemicals in their drinking water. In a recent study Greenpeace International called the factory site one of the "global toxic hotspots." In a recent report, titled The Bhopal Legacy, Greenpeace points out that toxic chemicals such as mercury and hazardous organochlorines still extensively contaminate the factory site. Some of the organochlorines found in groundwater supplying the neighbouring communities of gas victims are known to have been used at the plant during routine operations.

The levels of toxic mercury found in a sample taken in conjuction with local Bhopal support groups in May 1999 from a location within the factory, were between 20,000 and six million times higher than background levels, which would be expected, in uncontanimated soils.

Greenpeace called for Union Carbide to clean up the toxic legacy and hazardous wastes left at the site when the plant was closed down 15 years ago on December 3, 1984 after a poisonous gas leak from the pesticides factory killed an estimated 16,000 people and injured as many as 500,000.

"Union Carbide must go back to the factory site and clean it up. There are 200 wells in its vicinity in which the water has been contaminated. But families are forced to use these wells due to a shortage of water. Rain also results in contamination of the water table," said Corey Conn, the US-based coordinator of the International Alliance for Justice in Bhopal. Mr Conn said Union Carbide was responsible for not informing the doctors working in Bhopal what line of treatment needed to be followed.

"It is generally assumed that in addition to methyl isocyanate, hydrogen cyanide was also released and the intense heat brought about a synthesis of new harmful products. In short what was formed that night was a witch's brew," he said, adding that Union Carbide kept the contents of this "witch's brew" from health experts.

"If Union Carbide would reveal the nature of the products that were formed on that fateful night doctors may be able to come up with a treatment," he said.

Mr Sarangi agreed. "Protocols for medical treatment of the victims are still not available. A big reason is that Union Carbide continues to withold medical information as trade secrets. Since standardised protocols are not available there is much abuse of medicaton by the doctors," he said.

Steroids, antibiotics and psychotropic drugs are indiscriminately prescribed thus compounding the injuries caused by the disaster. Clinics have been set up in Bhopal, but they have their hands full. They are inundated with patients complaining of congenital health problems. "This is a legacy which continues to inflict harm," said Mr Conn.

Activists are concerned the Indian government, in its enthusiasm to attract foreign investment, may compromise on some vital safety standards.

"Over 50 US corporate executives who accompanied President Clinton during his India visit have put pressure on the Indian government to bring down tariffs on chemicals, loosen regulatory mechanisms and not hold parent companies responsible in the event of a disater," said Mr Sarangi.

"And this is happening openly, it is there on the website of the US-India Business Council - a consortium of US-based corporations (including chemical corporations) keen on setting up factories in India," he added.

In India, in the last several years, the special government committee overseeing hazardous technologies has been wound up, zoning laws for locating hazardous facilities have been drastically relaxed and the chemical industry is growing at five times the world average.

"As part of globalisation more slow and silent Bhopals are in the making and who knows maybe another disaster like Bhopal," cautioned Mr Sarangi.

Public pressure and the continuous agitation of the survivors have played a big role in policing the government. So far the Indian government has not made any declaration about the balance of the compensation fund which is likely to be around Rs 1,000 crores.

"Legally this amount belongs to the claimants and we are demanding that this be used to pay additional sums of compensation to the claimants as well as for their long-term medical care and rehabilitation," said Mr Sarangi.

He observed that the hopes of the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy had been kept alive by the actions of the hundreds of mostly women survivors who still gather every week in two public parks in the city, demanding justice and a better deal for the survivors.

Nishant Jain, a research associate at the University of Michigan and member of the student organisation - Association for India's Development - summed up the situation best when he said: "Everyone has a sense of closure when it comes to Bhopal. No one wants to care anymore."

By Ashish Kumar Sen