Plans for tours of Bhopal site anger survivors

Plans for tours of Bhopal site anger survivors –AFP

BHOPAL, India — Survivors of the world’s worst industrial disaster in India’s Bhopal city are outraged by plans to throw open the site to visitors 25 years after the tragedy that killed thousands.

Announced this week by state authorities, the sealed pesticide plant that leaked deadly methyl isocyanate gas on December 3, 1984 is to be opened to the public for a week next month to coincide with the 25th anniversary.

Some 3,500 people died immediately when a storage tank of the plant run by US group Union Carbide — bought by Dow Chemicals in 1999 — spewed the poison gas over the populated slums of Bhopal in central India.

The total death toll from pollution and its side effects had climbed to more than 15,000 by 2007, according to government figures, but Indian rights activists say the real figure is double that.

The idea to open the site to the public is to dispel fears about the safety of the blackened factory which still looms over the city’s slums, but locals are not convinced.

“I can prove that toxic wastes are still there,” Tota Ram Chowhan, who worked at the factory as a technician for more than 10 years, told AFP.

“Several government agencies have established that contaminated water and pollutants exist in the plant’s vicinity because of the toxic waste inside,” he told AFP.

“More than two dozen (toxic material) dump sites are still there,” he said.

Babulal Gaur, who heads the state ministry of Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation, defended his plan, saying free-of-charge and supervised access would be granted to visitors who had sought permission to visit.

“This is to help people to get rid of apprehension and misconceptions that chemical waste lying inside the factory is still harmful or that the chemicals are polluting the water in nearby localities,” he said.

But Komal Singh, a 45-year-old survivor, told AFP it would be “ridiculous to expose people to this danger once again,” while campaigners in the Bhopal Group of Information and Action also attacked Gaur.

“Mr. Gaur is neither a scientist nor a man with common sense because there are still 24 deposits of high toxic material inside the plant,” group spokeswoman Rachna Dinghra told AFP.

Amsterdam-based environmental group Greenpeace joined the chorus of condemnation.

Vinuta Gopal, spokeswoman of the Indian chapter of Greenpeace, labelled the programme “foolish.”

“It is the most foolish thing to do and it shows that despite all these years we have not understood the gravity of hazardous waste issues in India that this plant represents,” Gopal said.

She insisted the plant, seen by many as India’s worst toxic hotspot, must remain shut in line with various court rulings.

Only state-approved experts and investigators have access to the plant, which was built in the 1970s by Union Carbide India Ltd. — an Indian firm majority-owned by Union Carbide Corp.

“They (the courts) have ruled against free access only because of the hazardous nature of the waste inside,” Gopal added.

Rasheeda Bi, a survivor activist who leads a campaign for compensation for the survivors, was also angry with Gaur’s project, which also includes a week-long exhibition at the site to highlight government welfare measures.

“Some 340 tonnes of toxic wastes are still out there and if Gaur is so sure that it is not harmful then why is he saying visitors must view the dumping sites from a distance of 20 feet (six metres)?” said the 51-year-old woman who lost her entire family in the tragedy.

Dow is under pressure to clean up but it insists all liabilities regarding the disaster were settled when Union Carbide concluded a 470-million-dollar compensation settlement with New Delhi in 1989.

Several lawmakers of a 27-member US Congress group lobbying for the plant’s clean-up say 15 more people are dying each month from effects of exposure to the gas.

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