India’s plan to open site of Bhopal chemical disaster brings protest
By Rama Lakshmi Friday, November 27, 2009 – Washington Post foreign service
BHOPAL, INDIA — Twenty-five years after poisonous plumes of chemicals leaked from the Union Carbide factory here, survivors are protesting a government plan to open the site to the public.
Officials said this week that visitors would be allowed to tour the plant to commemorate the disaster and help people come to terms with it.
“Just like we go to Hiroshima, Chernobyl and Ground Zero in New York to remember and pray for victims, so many people from around the world want to visit the Bhopal Union Carbide factory to learn about the disaster,” said Babulal Gaur, minister of relief and rehabilitation for the Bhopal victims.
A court in Madhya Pradesh state, of which Bhopal is the capital, on Wednesday ordered that the guarded gates of the factory be opened to let people tour from a barricaded distance of 20 feet. The first tours are planned for next month to coincide with the anniversary of the disaster.
But survivors say the site is still contaminated and are demanding a complete cleanup of one of the world’s worst industrial disasters, which killed more than 15,274 people.
Standing in front of the rusting remains of the abandoned factory, Tota Ram Chauhan pointed to glittering white streaks in the brown soil.
“This is pure mercury, and you will find it all over this contaminated place,” said Chauhan, 55, who worked as the plant operator for 10 years.
He said residue from dozens of deadly chemicals is present at the site. “I know this because I have dumped so many barrels of chemical effluents during those years here,” he said, covering his nose in front of a foul-smelling pit.
Many people living in the shanties hugging the factory have taken their cases to court, saying soil and groundwater contamination are still causing diseases and birth defects. According to Amnesty International, tens of thousands continue to suffer “chronic and debilitating illnesses.”
“It is a factory of death. There is poison inside the factory which continues to enter our wells and bodies,” said Rajbai Moolchand, 70, who lives in the shanties and was exposed to the gas leak. She complains of skin and respiratory problems. “Our government wants to fool the world.”
Gaur has called such claims baseless but said that people have a right to disagree in a democracy. Gaur cited a study by the Defense Research and Development Establishment last year that said samples taken from the site had “very low mammalian toxicity.”
After visiting the site in September, India’s environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, told reporters: “I went inside, touched toxic material and I am still alive. I am not coughing.”
His remarks offended many survivor groups. “It is like saying, ‘I held a cigarette and did not get cancer.’ Many of the chemicals at the site are persistent organic pollutants that remain in the soil for hundreds of years,” said Satinath Sarangi, an activist.
Union Carbide settled out of court in 1989 and paid the Indian government $470 million. But many victims complain that more than 90 percent of victims received only about $500 each.
The site is now the property of the Indian government, but activists want the Michigan-based Dow Chemical, which acquired Union Carbide in 2001, to clean it up. Dow has said it is not its responsibility to clean up the site because it never operated the factory in Bhopal.
Gaur said $25 million has been set aside for a museum inside the plant. Survivors have demanded that they be allowed to determine the content and form of a memorial and museum. Over the years, they have collected countless artifacts and memorabilia of the victims and their struggle.
But first, they want the plant and neighborhood cleaned up.
“Every day we are fighting the battle for the real issues of inadequate compensation, shabby hospital care, pension for gas-affected widows and rehabilitation of people with permanent disabilities,” said Abdul Jabbar, a victim who heads the largest group of female survivors in Bhopal. “But the government wants to enact a grand circus by allowing public tours inside the factory to divert our attention.”