Indra Sinha, Indian Express editorial, May 9, 2008
Damaged children are still being born in Bhopal. So who’s responsible?
Recently, the UK’s Guardian newspaper published a shot of what looked like a golf bag containing a pair of clubs. These were in fact the shrivelled, twisted legs of 14-year-old Adil, one of hundreds of children born malformed or brain-damaged to families living near the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal.
The same factory in December 1984 leaked poison gas, killing thousands in the most hideous and disgusting ways. Adil’s mother was caught in the gas but survived. I am lucky, she’d say, but a new terror was already on the way.
People didn’t know that their drinking wells were being poisoned by chemicals leaking from the factory. The water began to smell and taste foul. Held up to the light it appeared full of oily globules which sank to form a tawny layer. The goo was a cocktail of lethal poisons, but at the time no one knew this. Except Union Carbide.
A 1989 secret Carbide memo records proof that it knew soil and water in its factory were badly poisoned by chemicals whose effects included skin and eye damage, cataracts, diarrhoea, vomiting, abdominal pain, liver and kidney damage, convulsions, brain damage, anaemia, birth defects and cancers.
Despite the obvious danger to nearby communities, Carbide’s bosses issued no warning. Many families were already ill from its poison gas leak. Carbide watched in silence, and allowed them to be poisoned a second time. In the debate about who is responsible for clean-up we should never forget this inhuman and criminal act of negligence.
By 1993, Adil’s mother was married, pregnant with Adil, and Carbide’s silence had lasted four years. When environmentalists, alarmed by soaring rates of cancer, birth-defects and early deaths near the plant, expressed fears that chemicals might be poisoning the water supply, Carbide denounced them as mischief-makers.
In 1999 Greenpeace tested soil and water in 14 areas near the factory. They found mercury levels 6,000,000 times higher than normal and more than 30 chemicals in the water — many proven to cause birth defects and cancers. A 2001 study found lead, mercury and the factory’s signature poisons in the breast milk of nursing mothers. In some communities 95 per cent of women are anaemic. During Carbide’s ten years of silence, hundreds of children were born with terrible injuries. If you are willing to risk being seriously upset, you can see their pictures on www.bhopal.org.
Union Carbide’s final act of contempt was to leave Bhopal without cleaning its factory. Twenty-four years after the gas disaster, chemicals spill from rotting sacks and drums. People still have to drink poisoned water. Damaged children are still being born.
Union Carbide (US), majority shareholder in the factory, disclaims responsibility for the ongoing poisoning. For 16 years it has also refused to appear in the Bhopal court where it is faces serious criminal charges relating to the gas disaster. Carbide is now 100 per cent owned by Dow Chemical, which set aside $2.3 billion to meet Carbide’s US asbestos liabilities, but refuses to accept Carbide’s Indian liabilities. Dow’s managers sit on Carbide’s board, but Dow pretends it has no power to produce its wholly-owned subsidiary in court.
Dow spokesmen disingenuously add that all Carbide’s liabilities in India were covered by the 1989 settlement. Untrue. The water poisoning was never part of that settlement.
Now Dow would like to expand its business in India. It has found allies in heartless and irresponsible politicians who have done nothing to clean the factory or provide clean water but who seek ways to free Dow of its Bhopal liabilities.
Promises made to the Bhopali survivors two years ago by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have been dishonoured. A Supreme Court order dated 2004 to provide clean water has been ignored. The Bhopalis recently walked 800 kilometres to meet Manmohan Singh. For more than a month he and his law minister have not found time to meet them.
Those poisoned in Bhopal continue to sicken and die, without help, without compassion, without justice.
Sinha is author of ‘Animal’s People’