Twenty-six years after the tragic night when tonnes of methyl isocyanate gas descended from Union Carbide (UCC)’s pesticide factory onto Bhopal’s slums, the poisonous legacy continues. More than 25,000 people have died and at least 500,000 are believed to be chronically ill due to the gas disaster and subsequent water contamination.
Vast areas surrounding the UCC compound have been labelled a ‘global toxic hot-spot’ and declared unfit for any kind of use. Now, numerous groundwater sources have been found to contain mercury concentrations millions of times higher than World Health Organization recommended limits, as well as large amounts of other poisonous chemicals and metals.
Decades of water and soil contamination from the factory are feeding a brand new public health tragedy. Despite an Indian Supreme Court ruling in 2005 that the state government of Madhya Pradesh must provide clean alternatives to UCC-polluted groundwater, an estimated 87 per cent of people in affected communities still have to use water heavily contaminated with toxic chemicals and heavy metals. Events recently took another turn for the worse when large amounts of government-supplied water tested positive for e-coli. According to Dr Saringi, founder of The Sambhavna Clinic in Bhopal, ‘the government is being criminally negligent and mixing safe water with water sourced near an open sewer channel to save money’.
Babular Gaur, the state minister for gas-rehabilitation, industry and development, prefers to blame the people for the ongoing health problems: ‘These slums are filthy and their sanitation is bad. They throw their waste everywhere and wonder why they get sick.’
The Sambhavna Clinic remains the only facility providing entirely free care to the many sick and dying. In June, the Indian government approved plans for renewed financial aid to Bhopal, but survivors are fearful that the money – which is estimated to be hundreds of millions of US dollars – will simply evaporate after trickling down through the same old corrupt bureaucracy in state government.
‘The people of Bhopal still await justice for our dead children, and for Union Carbide to be held accountable in a criminal court,’ says Leela, whose daughter recently died from water contamination.
Dow Chemicals (USA) – which acquired UCC and all its assets in 2001 – refuses to take any responsibility for ongoing social and ecological damage in Bhopal, arguing that taking over UCC should not leave them with their inherited liabilities. However, the corporation faces renewed litigation in both the Indian and US courts as the government of India and activists attempt to get them to foot the bill for a final and conclusive clean-up under the ‘polluter pays’ policy.