ABC Radio Australia, July 23, 2008
Twenty-four years after a gas leak in the central Indian city of Bhopal killed thousands of people, the clean up of toxic waste has only just begun.
Presenter: Alana Rosenbaum
Speakers: Babulal Gaur is minister for Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief in the state of Madhya Pradesh; Rachna Dhingra is a member of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action; Rana Lodi, Administrator, Sambhavna Clinic; Kamat, slum-dweller
ROSENBAUM: In central Bhopal, the abandoned Union Carbide factory looms as a constantreminder of the world’s worst chemical disaster. The building’s cordoned off behind a tall brick fence, but the old machinery is still visible from the street. Beneath the factory, tonnes of toxic waste has seeped into the earth and contamination the water supply. Only now, almost a quarter of a century after the disaster, has the clean up begun. Late last month, the government movedtrucks full oflime powder to a dumping ground south west of Bhopal. Babulal Gaur is minister for Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief in the state of Madhya Pradesh.
GAUR: I have sent, by order of the High Court, about 40 metric tonne to of lime sledge to Pittambur.
ROSENBAUM: But activists say the waste disposal methods are unsafe. Rachna Dhingra is a member of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action.
DHINGRA: The communities there have no knowledge that this toxic waste has come there and they don’t know that soon their water will be contaminated.
ROSENBAUM: In the early hours of December 3rd, 1984, a cloud of methyl isocyanate escaped from the Union Carbide pesticide factory in central Bhopal. Within minutes, more than 3,000 people were dead. Rana Lodi, who now works with Bhopal victims, was living just over a kilometre away from the Union Carbide factory, when disaster struck.
LODI: We thought someone had done mischief, they have burnt chillies, like that or something because it was burning in our eyes. On the road what I saw was a lot many trucks and so many dead people were lying on the road.
ROSENBAUM: Over the next few years, more than 15,000 people died of cancers, and injuries sustained from inhaling the toxins. Union Carbide paid hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation, before selling up to American company Dow Chemicals in 1991. Now, as the clean up begins, the Madhya Pradesh government says Dow should foot the bill. But the company denies all responsibility.
(Sounds of protestors chanting)
It took these protesters almost two month’s to walk from Bhopal to the capital New Delhi. They’re demanding a full cleanup of toxic waste. The 40 metric tonnes of lime exhumed from the factory site is just a fraction of the total waste. The Madhya Pradesh government estimatesmore than eight times that amount remains buried. It plans to send the refuse to the western state of Gujarat for incineration, but is waiting for approval from Gujarat’s government and the High Court of Madhya Pradesh. But activists say the government grossly underestimate the extent of the contamination.
DHINGRA: Everyone is talking about just this 10 per cent of the toxic waste inside the factory. There are thousands of tonnes lying half buried, semi-buried. There are about 17 different zones where the toxic waste is buried.
ROSENBAUM: Only the poorest of the poor live in Atal Ayub Nagar slum, where a row of shacks lean against the wall of the old Union Carbide factory.
Many slum dwellers believe the local water pumped from the ground is making them sick.
KAMAT: There’s a burning sensation in my chest and I can’t breath properly or digest food properly.
ROSENBAUM: Nearby the slum at the Sambhavna clinic, health workers say the gas tragedy continues to take its toll, and the people hardest hit are slum dwellers.
LODI: Every second person is having some problem related to this water and with the gas. The gas victims are mainly complaining of this high blood pressure, diabetes, severe headache, dizziness. And those drinking contaminated water are coming with skin diseases, because they are taking bath with same water and drinking same water and their stomach is having so many problems.
ROSENBAUM: Even more disturbing, she says, is a disproportionately high rate of birth defects among slum dwellers who live near the factory.
The Madhya Pradesh government, for its part,acknowledges that the slum water contains toxins, but says the pollution is only mild.
The true extent of contamination is unclear as the Indian government stopped research into environmental damage at Bhopal 12 years ago.