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By a twist of fate, Anushka Asthana’s grandparents survived the gas cloud that devastated the Indian city of Bhopal. But, she finds, the city’s tragedy is still unfolding
Twenty years ago my grandparents, Trilok Nath and Kamla Bahel, boarded a night train from the Indian city of Hyderabad to their home in Bhopal. They were lucky. It was delayed. Had the train left on time they would almost certainly have died.
Just after midnight, on 3 December 1984, the world’s worst industrial tragedy hit their home city while they were stuck in their carriage. A cloud of gas surged across the area after a series of safety failures at the local pesticide plant allowed a tank containing methyl isocyanate to spill its deadly contents.
By the most conservative estimates, 3,000 people died that night. Many dropped dead as they fled. Unofficial figures put the death toll at 8,000. Entire families were killed, many people disappeared without record.
Worse, the deaths continued. Some believe numbers of Bhopal’s victims now exceed 20,000, while tens of thousands continue to suffer from chronic illnesses. The city’s miscarriage rate is seven times the national Indian average, and rates of skin, lung and gastro-intestinal cancers have soared. Every day 4,000 people queue at the city’s gas relief hospitals with ailments ranging from damaged lungs and severe heart problems to wrecked immune systems and diseases such as tuberculosis.
This is the real scandal, and tragedy, of Bhopal. Its suffering started dramatically in 1984 but it did not end then. I returned last week and found that the site of the Union Carbide’s pesticide plant – from which that now infamous plume of methyl isocyanate, or MIC, poured that night – is still a toxic time bomb.
I walked through the dusty, abandoned buildings of the former plant. The stink of chemicals filled my nose. I pulled my jumper over my face and looked around at the markings on the wall: DA/1, DA/2, up to DA/24. ‘This stands for dump area, where they left the toxins after testing,’ said T.R. Chouhan, a chemical plant operator when the accident happened, and author of Bhopal: The Inside story .
Chouhan pointed out huge areas of land where toxic waste had been discarded. A young girl had built a swing with a tyre and was giggling as she swayed across it. Chouhan rubbed his finger on a white substance caked into a rusting metal structure: ‘Powdered mercury. During the rainy season it gets mixed in with the water and spreads,’ he said.
When the company’s lease on the plant ran out in 1999, it simply abandoned it, leaving 5,000 tonnes of process and waste materials. The toxins dumped in the ground still contaminate water that is drunk by 20,000 local people. Campaigners called it ‘a victory’ when in May this year, India’s Supreme Court stated that clean water must be provided for these residents. This has not yet happened.
Not surprisingly, the name of Union Carbide generates resentment and hatred here. On Thursday, thousands of people will take to the streets in Bhopal marking the disaster’s anniversary. ‘If this happened in London do you think the site would not have been cleared?’ said Rachna Dhingra, co-ordinator for the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal.
Within three years America has handed out punishment and compensation following the events of 11 September, but Bhopal is still waiting. Dhingra said: ‘People here realise they are the wrong class of people and the wrong race of people.’
You can see the evidence of the wrecked lives of these people at Jai Prakash Nagar, near the pesticide plant. One side of the road is lined with shacks. Along the other side runs a long boundary wall ringing the site. Women sit cross-legged outside homes washing clothes in buckets. Men wearing kurta pyjamas swing themselves up on to the back of trucks to get lifts. A crowd gathered around a dead cow. It had wandered into the factory site and died. This is Bhopal today.
Everywhere I travelled people had their own, terrible memories of that night: the taxi driver, policeman, security guard and the shopkeeper. Shahid Noor lost both his parents. ‘We put my mother on a tanker heading out of town,’ he told me as he sat on his stone floor with his son in his arms. ‘She died before I saw her again.’
Outside Jawahar Lal Nehru hospital, women gathered round holding out their medical notes. Hasina Bano has gone completely blind in one eye. Her friend has TB. They blame the gas. ‘The health problems are chronic. Every day we have more and more people walking through our door,’ said Satinath Sarangi, managing trustee of the Sambhavna Trust, a charitable trust that provides medical care for victims and carries out research.
Today, there are 23 gas relief hospitals to help victims, though there are few resources to deal with psychological problems. Noor told me of a friend who lost seven family members in the tragedy: ‘He has tried to commit suicide four times.’
Then there is my grandfather, Trilok. He is fixated on how the accident happened. He brought out a notebook where he had jotted down the detailed chemical process. ‘It wasn’t one small mistake,’ he told me. ‘It was negligence.’
In fact, there were a series of shortcomings in the management of the Bhopal plant. The chemical was stored for too long, and its check gauges were monitored manually.
Union Carbide had been warned that an accident was waiting to happen. On the night of 3 December 1984, it happened. Tank 610 disgorged its contents: methyl isocyanate, a derivative of the phosgene gas used as a chemical weapon in the First World War and a key ingredient of the pesticide Sevin that the company was making for the Indian market.
Mixed with water, MIC boils dangerously and will eventually erupt. Such behaviour was well known. Four different safety systems were therefore installed to prevent a leak of water into the plant’s MIC tank. That night, none of them worked. Flares that could have burnt the escaping gas, and caustic washes that could have neutralised it, were not working or had been turned off. A drought had diminished need for Sevin, and Union Carbide was attempting to save money. The result was the release of a thick cloud of the gas which poured over the city’s railway station and into local slums.
When my grandparents arrived the next day in Bhopal, a dreadful pall still hung over the city. ‘My eyes started streaming – they were burning as though someone had thrown chilli powder into them’, said my grandmother, Kamla. Leaves on the trees had turned from green to dirty yellow. Dead animals lay strewn around. ‘In Bhopal the factory was built very near to people’s homes,’ said my grandfather. ‘Do corporations care less when people are poor?’
The company says it accepted moral responsibility for the tragedy immediately after it occurred and that it has nothing but the highest respect and compassion for the people of Bhopal. ‘This commitment was reflected in our relief efforts,’ Tomm F. Sprick, director of the Union Carbide information centre told The Observer.
Sprick said the plant was managed by Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), a company jointly owned by Union Carbide, Indian financial institutions and private investors in India. ‘In 1994 Union Carbide sold its share in UCIL. In 1998, the state government of Madhya Pradesh revoked this company’s lease on the property and publicly assumed control.’
Government officials said they do not have the resources nor technical expertise to deal with the clean-up. Sprick distanced Dow Chemicals, which bought Union Carbide in 1999, from the problem: ‘Though a subsidiary of Dow, Union Carbide is a separate company.’
My grandfather was not convinced: ‘If they accept moral responsibility, why are they so quick to shift the blame?’ It is a view shared by his fellow Bhopal residents. As part of this week’s demonstrations, they will burn an effigy of Warren Anderson, the chairman of the Union Carbide Corporation in 1984. Anderson was arrested in India after the tragedy but was bailed after the America government put pressure on Indian authorities. He fled to America, never to return.
However, there are some signs that the US is beginning to take notice. A resolution introduced in the House of Representatives in recognition of the anniversary states that as many as 30 people are dying every month and 150,000 suffer long-term health consequences at Bhopal.
It points to conclusions made by organisations that Union Carbide had ‘inadequate technology, double standards in safety… compounded by a reckless cost-cutting drive at the plant’ and criticises the company’s refusal to stand trial in the criminal case after being summoned by Bhopal District Court in 1992. It also acknowledges international condemnation of the level of compensation.
After initially seeking $3 billion from Union Carbide, the Indian government eventually settled for $470m in 1989. Union Carbide cite India’s Supreme Court where the settlement was described as ‘just, equitable and reasonable.’ Others say it was a deal struck because the government did not want to deter future investment.
Certainly, compensation in many cases has been derisory. In Jai Prakash Nagar, many victims received the basic level of compensation: 200 rupees (£2.35) a month. Even those who were classed as the most severe victims got shamelessly little.
‘If someone smokes cigarettes in Texas they can get thousands of pounds in compensation,’ said Rashida Bee, a key campaigner and survivor. ‘Here thousands lost lives and others are living corpses. Where is the justice?’