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Toxic legacy

Twenty-five years ago, Bhopal, in Madhya Pradesh, India, earned the unenviable distinction of experiencing the world’s worst ever industrial accident. On 2 December 1984, milky white clouds of poisonous gas escaped from leaking tanks at the Union Carbide pesticide plant, releasing 30 tons of deadly methal isocyanate, which floated over the city’s 1.5 million inhabitants as they slept. Some 3,000 died that night or soon after, with the death toll eventually reaching at least 30,000. Today, 60,000 sufferers are still being treated for eye defects, respiratory ailments and birth deformities.

A tour of the grubby, narrow alleyways around the now-defunct Union Carbide plant site reveals harrowing scenes of hardship. Brothers Vikas, 10, and Aman, 8, sit playing on the step outside their single-roomed home. Neither can walk unaided: their legs are twisted and cannot support them. Their 30-year-old mother says they were born with their deformities because of the effect of the gas attack on her when she was five. She receives no financial benefit for them.

Nearby lives a blind woman who is shunned by neighbours because she is so sick – they believe she is cursed, so they never go near her. Lechobhai is now 55, but was an active 30-year-old when the Bhopal disaster took place. Woken by the choking fumes, her eyes stinging painfully, she was immediately blinded. Her husband occasionally visits her tumbledown shack with food; she has no amenities to cook and doesn’t even possess a blanket for warmth. Ten years ago she was given a single $1,300 compensation award – money long since spent.

Close to the Union Carbide site sits the impressive Sambhavna Trust Clinic, which treats up to 30,000 patients. Its director, Satinath Sarangi, claims there is serious toxin contamination of the city’s water system and that, as a result, Union Carbide poisons continue to create a cycle of illnesses today. Data gathered by campaigning groups, indicating high levels of toxic chemicals and other elements, have been verified by independent European laboratories.

New Delhi human rights barrister Karuna Nundy recently presented a petition to the courts claiming that waste toxins were being dumped at the pesticide factory from 1977, seven years before the accident. This, she says, was Union Carbide’s normal practice; her claim is supported by company memos proving they knew the toxins were entering the water system, yet did nothing to prevent it.

Union Carbide (now Dow Chemicals) have ducked and dodged the many legal actions against them. Their station president at the time of the leak, Warren Anderson, fled back to the US, escaping every attempt to extradite him to face accusations of wilful neglect and culpable homicide. In 1989 Union Carbide did face a damage claim – laid by the Indian Government in a US court – but were ordered to pay just $470 million in compensation. The money went, not to the victims, but to the Indian Government, and the sharing out of the funds has remained a highly suspect and contentious issue.

But the New Delhi and Madhya Pradesh governments counter all claims of neglect and incompetence. Some work has been done.

An autonomous trust was set up by the Madhya Pradesh government, and in 1998 eight outreach units were developed. Thousands of registered gas patients receive continuous treatment in cardiology, neuro-surgery, ophthalmology, pulmonary medicine and other areas.

Satinath Sarangi remains unconvinced. He is highly critical of politicians who have, he states, ‘failed in numerous areas’. He claims medical care for the victims is lacking and that there is no co-ordination between research and treatment. So the Sambhavna Trust has taken the Government to task in New Delhi courts many times. As Sarangi defiantly explains: ‘Someone has to stand up for these people. It’s a fact of life that the poor always suffer. The poor do not count for anything.’

Rajwinder Sahota

New Internationalist issue 428 magazine cover This article is from the December 2009 issue of New Internationalist.
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