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In solidarity with the struggle for justice for people of Bhopal

The Bhopal Disaster, 25 years on - A Dossier

by sacw.net, 4 December 2009

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Wall graffiti in Bhopal

an sacw.net compilation on the 25th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster

Contents:

  1. Letter to India’s Prime Minister by Bhopal Survivors Organisations (Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udyog Saghathan, Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti) 9 November 2009
  2. Memorandum to the Prime Minister (Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udyog Saghathan, Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti) 16 November 2009
  3. A video by Amnesty International
  4. 25 Years After Bhopal Disaster, Survivors Still Seeking Justice (A Democracy Now Audio)
  5. December 1984 (Sathyu Sarangi)
  6. Bhopal: 25 years of shame (Praful Bidwai)
  7. A quarter century of unnatural gas (Antara Dev Sen)
  8. Poisoned and shut (Indra Sinha)
  9. A Cloud Still Hangs Over Bhopal (Suketu Mehta)
  10. Bhopal: Generations of Poison (Nityanand Jayaraman)
  11. Bhopal Gas Tragedy: All papers in order, but denied their due (Suchandana Gupta)
  12. Bhopal water still toxic 25 years after deadly gas leak, study finds (Randeep Ramesh)

1.

Letter to India’s Prime Minister
by Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udyog Saghathan, Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti (9 November 2009)

2.

Memorandum on The State of Affairs Twenty-Five Years After The Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (16 November 2009)

3.

A video by Amnesty International

4.

25 Years After Bhopal Disaster, Survivors Still Seeking Justice
A Democracy Now Audio Programme, 3 December 2009

5.

Himal, December 2009

December 1984

by Sathyu Sarangi

Many of the battles begun 25 years ago, in the aftermath of catastrophe, continue today.

When I arrived in Bhopal soon after the disaster, I was rather unprepared. Rushing to the city from the small town four hours away where I worked in an NGO, I had very little information (the news on the government-run radio station had drastically downplayed the tragedy), almost no local contacts and only a hundred-odd rupees in my pocket. I had along a few changes of clothes, because I didn’t think I’d be staying in the city for much more than a week, helping out with emergency relief.

The previous day, in the early hours of 3 December 1984, 40 tonnes of toxic methyl isocynate (MIC) and other lethal gases were accidentally released from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal that manufactured the pesticide Sevin. Later investigation pointed to water having entered and raising the temperature inside the storage tanks, thus leading to the deadly gas bursting from tanks that were not designed to manage under such pressure. The magnitude of the disaster was not fully known at the time; indeed, some of the impact is still coming to light 25 years later.

The day after the gas leak, the train to Bhopal was nearly empty, and the few on it seemed to have no knowledge of what had really happened at their destination. Yet as soon as I walked out of the railway station, I could see thousands of people in utter pain – their eyes swollen, tears streaming down their cheeks, huddled together with family and friends. I saw some attempting to walk with unsteady steps, before falling down – whether unconscious or dead, I didn’t try to figure out. The railway station was just 1.5 kilometres from the Union Carbide plant, all of which was surrounded by densely populated communities that were badly affected by the leak.

The enormity of the pain all around, and my helplessness to offer any kind of assistance, was numbing. I just stood at the station exit and stared. My head and hands finally began to work again when I saw hundreds of people helping the victims. Young and old, mostly men, from various social and religious organisations and many more unaffiliated, were busy caring for the survivors. A bus stop just outside the railway station had become a medical relief camp, where survivors could get milk, fruit, water and words of comfort.

Medical supplies were limited to eye drops and antacids to deal with the burning sensation in the eyes and stomach, and tablets for breathlessness. Knowing that these were of little help, however, most of the volunteers in the area were focused on carrying survivors to passing vehicles, to be taken to the nearby Hamidia Hospital. I joined them for a while, and then decided to continue into one of the neighbourhoods near the station. There, I found the situation to be much worse. Open a door at random, and you were apt to see an entire family sprawled on the floor – some unconscious, some groaning, only a few able to talk. I went back to the main street and soon had more than 50 volunteers join me in carrying people from their homes, lifting them into passing vehicles. Not one of the drivers of these cars, trucks or autorickshaws refused to take the victims to the hospital; there was always room for another survivor.

The evening sky on my first day in Bhopal was lit up by the mass cremation pyres that I was told had been burning non-stop since the previous day. I met a man whose hands were covered with blisters. He lived next to a Muslim graveyard. Not knowing what else to do, he didn’t stop digging mass graves for three days and three nights, unmindful of what the work was doing to his unpractised hands. I must have been in a similar state of mind. It was only several days later that I began to make some sense amidst the chaos and uncertainty: Is the water safe to drink? Is the food okay to eat? Many mothers died, many aborted as they ran, but what of the unborn babies who had no place to escape to from the poison clouds, were they okay? And I found things to do amidst the millions that needed to be urgently done.

No faith

In those apocalyptic moments no one knew what was happening. People simply started dying in the most hideous ways. Some vomited uncontrollably, went into convulsions and fell dead. Others choked to death, drowning in their own body fluids. Many died in the stampedes through narrow gullies where street lamps burned a dim brown through clouds of gas. The force of the human torrent wrenched children’s hands from their parents’ grasp. Families were whirled apart. The poison cloud was so dense and searing that people were reduced to near blindness. As they gasped for breath its effects grew ever more suffocating. The gases burned the tissues of their eyes and lungs and attacked their nervous systems. People lost control of their bodies. Urine and faeces ran down their legs. Women lost their unborn children as they ran, their wombs spontaneously opening in bloody abortion.
–-From the “Bhopal Medical Appeal”, 1994

Through chance encounters and word-of-mouth I met with local students, activists and social and political workers, as well as volunteers like myself who had come to Bhopal from elsewhere. Overnight, an organisation committed to the people’s struggle for rehabilitation and justice was formed. Three individuals – an activist scientist, a lawyer and the chief functionary of a left political party – were chosen to lead the new group, which almost automatically began to attract victims into its fold.

Several other newly formed organisations were active in distributing relief material, carrying out preliminary medical research and running emergency clinics. Despite this good and crucial work, however, internecine conflicts were already becoming palpable, as ideological differences and personality clashes between the leaders prevented a coordinated response. Our organisation focused on mobilising survivors to demand their rights to health care and rehabilitation, collecting, generating and disseminating medical information, and garnering national and international support.

Soon after, we heard that a German toxicologist had arrived in Bhopal with 10,000 ampoules of sodium thiosulphate, which when administered intravenously assisted in the excretion of toxins ingested during the gas leak and thus provided relief. Yet while the ampoules were quickly distributed among government officials and the people they knew, the director of health services, apparently apprehensive of possible side effects, had passed an edict against administering it to common survivors. Yet our own research, with much help from scientist friends, showed that there were no side effects, and that sodium thiosulphate could indeed be effective in removing poisons circulating in the bloodstream – thus saving lives of thousands, especially unborn babies.

But there was no room for scientific debate in the heated environment, or in the face of vested interests. Union Carbide did not want the sodium thiosulphate to be administered and the after-effects monitored, because that would establish that the gases had injured not just the eyes and lungs (as the corporation wanted people to believe) but almost all the organs, by getting into the bloodstream. Those of us who managed to administer sodium thiosulphate through clinics we set up were arrested. In those first years, medical issues in Bhopal were deeply political.

Meanwhile, the dumping of dead bodies by the local authorities, in their effort to downplay the effects of the disaster, quickly became common knowledge. The combination of factors – inadequate safety systems, poor maintenance of the plant, as well as faulty design and practices – all pointed to criminal negligence on the part of Union Carbide and its management. But the release on bail of Warren Anderson, then the chairman of Union Carbide, who visited Bhopal four days after the disaster, followed by his being escorted out of Bhopal under tight security the same day, was confirmation that the government was colluding with the corporation.

We were also unsuccessful in stopping Operation Faith, the state government’s plan, less than two weeks after the disaster, to allow Union Carbide to manufacture pesticides from the chemicals left behind in the leaking tank. Our attempts along these lines included highlighting the testimony of scientists detailing how methyl isocynate, the raw material used to manufacture the pesticide, could be neutralised safely with caustic soda. However, we were just a few people, and government officials had more faith in Union Carbide’s science. So we helplessly watched thousands and thousands of people leave their homes, fleeing again from the city before the factory was restarted. A number of survivor activists we had befriended stayed behind with us to guard their neighbourhood from thieves, including policemen, who had begun to steal things from abandoned homes. Sitting around log fires through the night, armed with wet rags for possible emergency use, we shared stories and ruminated in clichés about life, death and the meaning of it all.

Operation Faith was started with much fanfare. As pesticide production resumed in the factory, a government helicopter sprayed water from the sky, jute screens were placed above the factory walls and water tankers sprayed water along major streets. Survivors commented that the jute screens would not even stop bidi smoke, let alone any leaking gases, and wondered whether the gases would follow the wet roads. Another drama was also on display at that time. On the road leading to the factory, workers from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and other Hindu fundamentalist organisations marched alongside a truck in which a havan (the burning of wood, incense and ghee) was being performed, claiming that it would purify the poisoned air. We successfully stopped this procession before it could reach anywhere near the factory.

Ironically, the same government that announced Operation Faith by stating there was no cause for panic simultaneously mobilised buses from throughout the state to carry people away. Meanwhile, the government move that had dispersed the people who were beginning to organise was not entirely successful. Our first mass mobilisations began in the relief camps set up in another part of the city for those driven out of their homes. The camps were places where people from different neighbourhoods came together and shared their suffering and anger towards both Union Carbide and the uncaring government of Madhya Pradesh. Here, people talked about the ‘big picture’, the plunder and pillage for profit and the government’s collusion with corporations. They also discussed the many ways that the common people could change this, ranging from exposure of their crimes to linking up with other victimised communities to fight legal and extra-legal battles.

Basti education

It was interesting to see how the disaster and its aftermath quickly became a crash course in politics related to corporations and governments, confirming and elaborating long-held wisdoms and convictions. The role of governments and their attitude towards common citizens, self-serving politicians, factory management that did not care about workers and other people’s lives, the poor being forced to fight for their rights – such issues were suddenly being discussed on every street corner of Bhopal. As such, when supplies to the camps were suddenly cut off and the camps were wound up within a week of the disaster, we marched with several hundred survivors demanding that Governor K M Chandy request urgent help from the central government. Instead of additional help, however, there came orders to close down the relief camps because, ostensibly, Operation Faith was over and the government thought that people should now go back to their own homes.

As the first few weeks went by, there remained little doubt that, left to its own devices, the Madhya Pradesh government would continue to neglect survivors, and also that it would take far more than a few hundred people marching on the Bhopal seat of power to have it respond. Meanwhile, Union Carbide was in full swing with its public-relations campaign. Senior corporate officials were busy telling the world’s media that the leaked gases were similar to a potent tear gas, and thus unlikely to cause lasting damage. Medical professionals were flown in to Bhopal by the corporation – not to help with the treatment of those exposed, but rather to endorse the corporate view in press conferences. It was not just the magnitude and complexity of the unfolding disaster that was overwhelming; dealing with Union Carbide’s deceit and denial was equally challenging.

Then there were the American lawyers who began to descend on Bhopal. Through local agents, they began getting survivors to sign retainer forms – forms that many could hardly see through swollen eyes, let alone read the English-language fine print that promised up to 40 percent of any eventual compensation money to individual lawyers, as fees. As competition grew among these lawyers, they began doling out blankets and then cash to entice their new clients, all promising millions of dollars in eventual compensation.

With so much going on, and so much to be vigilant about, there was little time to ponder my own future plans. Questions as to whether, how and how long to stay on in Bhopal never entered my mind. Thanks to donations from local, national and international supporters, the volunteers had places to sleep and adequate meals; but we spent most of our time in the bastis, in the communities of survivors we had by then befriended. Perhaps this sounds odd, but amidst all the sadness these evenings were quite enjoyable, with people occasionally singing songs, playing music and sharing stories full of rare humour.

Kaarbaaid condemnation

During the third week in Bhopal, we began preparations for a march to Chief Minister Arjun Singh’s house. We decided to have it on the 3 January 1985, a month after the disaster, which we would observe as Dhikaar Divas (Condemnation Day). This would be an opportunity to publicly challenge the state government’s criminal neglect of the survivors, and to demand that it make arrangements for immediate health care and relief for survivors suffering from eye problems, respiratory difficulties, immune and neurological disorders, cardiac problems, lung injury and female reproductive difficulties. As we moved from house to house, from one neighbourhood to the next, we found that the local people did not need much convincing – it was only desperate health problems that would stop most of them from joining the rally.

The march began with a few hundred people near the now-closed Union Carbide factory. As we proceeded, more and more groups of people holding hand-scrawled banners and chanting slogans joined the march. By the time we had covered half the distance (four km) in about two hours, the march had swelled to over 10,000 people. Our procession was far from orderly – people were everywhere and traffic stood still. There were so many slogans being chanted by so many groups that it wasn’t possible to hear any one in particular; but what was clear was that these cries came from deep-seated anger and despair. People kept joining in waves, such that by the time we walked up the hill to the chief minister’s palatial, heavily guarded house, there were over 15,000 survivors in attendance – far too many for the police to handle.

Once we arrived, we sought a meeting with the chief minister, which was not granted. So, after consulting the many community leaders who had been active in organising the march, we decided to sit on a dharna outside the chief minister’s residence until he agreed to meet us. People determined enough to face any eventuality cheered the decision, and thousands of voices asserted that we would not move until the chief minister agreed to our demands.

Thus began one of my most memorable weeks in Bhopal. Among the rocks and bushes on the hillside outside of the chief minister’s residence, people found places to sit in small groups. Soon, some began to look for wood and to light small fires, and teams were sent to bring food. In the bastis, women breathless and choking more than usual with the fumes from wood stoves were making chapattis, not just for their own families but for strangers as well. Families with so little to give were caring for orphaned children who had joined the dharna. Truck drivers were helping to transport food, firewood and groups of people from the shanties – slipping away from their delivery runs, unbeknownst to the vehicle owners. Children found new friends to play with, and together they would chant the slogans they had begun to learn: “Dolaar kee chaal ne, zahar gholaa Bhopaal mein” (Greed for dollars spews poison over Bhopal) and “Kaarbaaid ke khunee panje tod do marod do” (Carbide has blood on its hands. Break them! Destroy them!). A few volunteer doctors were tending to the sick, and there was always a team ready to carry people to the hospital.

Before nightfall, electricians from among the marchers had rigged up connections to the streetlights, which would power loudspeakers used for announcements regarding logistics and updates on the ongoing negotiations with the chief minister and bureaucrats working closely with him. Soon, the loudspeakers also became central for people speaking out. Breathless poets recited poems of dignity and courage; women who had rarely left their thresholds or showed their faces to strangers articulated their anger against a foreign company and a complicit state government.

Indeed, the entire area around the chief minister’s house was transformed, and I was happy to find the time to absorb this magic. It became a place of bustling human activity, intense communication and, most of all, a powerful assertion of the collective spirit of survival and cooperation. By the third day of our dharna, the state government began to give way. Arjun Singh initially agreed to a meeting with a delegation of the leaders, but this proved unacceptable to the mass, who insisted that he speak to all of them. Finally he relented and appeared before the survivors, several thousand of whom were invited into his residence. Of course, he did not agree to all of their demands, but survivors were more confident than before that the government could be made to listen to them. After the week-long siege, we had to fight other battles.

Contamination and community

Thus began my long involvement with the survivors of the Bhopal gas leak. In early-1986, I left the Zahreeli Gas Kand Sangharsh Morcha (Poisonous Gas Disaster Struggle Committee) and founded the Bhopal Group for Information and Action. Given the intensely political nature of health issues, it was some time before we could set up the Sambhavna Trust, but this was finally done in 1995 with individual donations, tasked with providing treatment to survivors and also conducting medical research.

Warren Anderson: Wanted in Indian courts

But today the issues still remain; the tragedy is still being played out. Besides respiratory problems, organ failure and major disaster-related injuries, the next and future generations are bearing the brunt of genetic malformations. On a day-to-day basis, contaminated water and toxins are being leached into the soil from the abandoned factory, and thus are a continuing nightmare for survivors. As such, there is no easing off from campaigning for the clean-up of the factory, where sacks of dangerous chemicals continue to be stacked. Yet while the government of Madhya Pradesh and Dow Chemical squabble over who is responsible, the groundwater continues to be poisoned.

There are larger issues in play here, as well. Along with raising issues of the gas leak and specific demands against Dow Chemicals and the Indian government, we have campaigned for corporate accountability, punishing corporate crime, public access to information on industrial activity, inherently unsafe technologies and products, and regulation of corporate activities.

I can’t remember exactly when it was, but some time in that week of dharna I decided to be part of this community of suffering, sharing and hope. Not once in the last 25 years have I ever regretted that decision.

Sathyu Sarangi is a metallurgical engineer who founded the Bhopal Group for Information and Action (BGIA), and is founder trustee of the Sambhavna Trust.

6.

Frontline, December 05-18, 2009

Bhopal: 25 years of shame

by Praful Bidwai

The government’s deplorable response to the Bhopal gas disaster and its attempt to shield the polluter constitute a blot on our democracy.

WHEN the Bhopal gas disaster revealed itself in all its horror, with 3,000 early deaths and grave chemical injuries to tens of thousands of people, it was widely expected that the Government of India would treat it as a national catastrophe and mobilise all its resources to provide emergency relief to the survivors and secure justice for them. The very opposite happened. Instead of launching a national-level medical treatment programme with the best available professional help, which could have saved hundreds of lives and relieved much acute suffering, the Central government left the victims to the mercy of the Madhya Pradesh government’s pitiable health care infrastructure – in effect, handing them over to quacks. In place of putting on trial the directors of Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) of the United States and its Indian subsidiary, the government set free UCC chairman Warren Anderson, who had been arrested in Bhopal.

In place of protecting the survivors from ambulance-chasing lawyers who descended upon Bhopal, the government became a mute spectator to the theft of valuable medical evidence from the victims. This was only the prelude to a long, systematic campaign to rob the victims of their right to justice, and impose a terrible settlement upon them, which would compensate most of them with Rs.25,000 for a lifetime of suffering through damage to their lungs, liver, kidneys and the immune system. Even as people were dying in Bhopal in the first week of December 1984, Indian diplomats were at pains to tell the world that the disaster would in no way affect India’s foreign investment policy.

Twenty-five years on, their assurances have been largely fulfilled. Carbide has got off the civil liability hook with a paltry settlement of $470 million, an amount barely double its insurance cover – for what was the world’s most catastrophic industrial accident until Chernobyl happened in April 1986, and which remains the worst chemical industry accident in world history.

Now, the government is keen to lay out the red carpet for UCC’s successor, Dow Chemical Co., and is doing its utmost to let Dow evade its responsibility to clean up the Bhopal plant site, which remains contaminated with hundreds of tonnes of toxic chemicals, which have poisoned water supplies. The captains of Indian industry, in collaboration with U.S. multinationals, are strenuously trying to bury the past and erase Bhopal’s memory – at the expense of the victims, and to attract foreign investment.

Why, Minister of State for Environment Jairam Ramesh even turned up at the plant in September and jeered at the victims. He picked a fistful of waste and declared: “See, I am alive!” There could have been no meaner and more obnoxious way of rubbing salt into the wounds of people who have suffered untold injuries from the gas leak and had to bear the further humiliation of having to drink water contaminated by the plant. Ramesh even insinuated that there was a dirty secret to the accident other than Carbide’s culpability – something he “can’t even talk about”. Like UCC’s servitors in the media, he hinted that the disaster was caused by negligence on the part of its workers, or worse, sabotage by them.

The past 25 years in Bhopal make a story of death, disease and devastation, of injustice piled upon injustice, humiliation compounded by callousness, monumental corruption eating into miserable compensation, and of denial of rehabilitation. Consider the following:

* The Indian Council of Medical Research set up countless research projects on the toxicity of methyl isocyanate (MIC) and its products and the injuries they cause. But it failed to produce a simple treatment protocol that would tell a general medical practitioner what medicines to administer for lung injuries, eye damage, nervous system disorders or the poisoning of the kidneys or liver, and what physiotherapy exercises would help the victims’ recovery. The ICMR wound up all its projects in 1994 – without producing results.

* The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research failed to inform the public of the long-lasting toxic effects of MIC on human health and the environment and to produce an index of severity of injuries correlated to distance, wind direction, and so on. So people living far away from the plant and unaffected by the gas exposure were equated with the grievously injured in deciding compensation.

* The government appropriated the victims’ right to legal defence under the doctrine of “the state as a parent” but failed to gather and analyse clinching evidence to show that UCC, the parent corporation, was responsible for the design and day-to-day operation of the Bhopal plant and that the accident was caused by basic deficiencies in its safety system design. Such a design, wholly inadequate to cope with potential leaks to which every chemical plant is vulnerable, would not have passed muster in any country with a half-way responsible licensing authority.

* The Supreme Court comprehensively failed to engage with the issue of Carbide’s liability after the original suit was sent back from the U.S. on the grounds of forum non conveniens. All it was interested in was an out-of-court settlement, to which it drove an all-too-willing government. Indeed, so anxious was the court to let Carbide off the hook that it even extinguished its criminal liability – which was restored later, albeit in a diluted form.

* The government originally made a demand for over $3 billion in compensation. However, it suddenly lowered the figure to $470 million without any explanation. We will never know what the trade-off was. But high appointments were made abroad and at home presumably to repay the favours delivered in reaching the manifestly unjust and collusive settlement against the will and interests of the victims.

Indian society has learnt almost nothing from Bhopal. Our environmental and occupational safety regulations have not been tightened. In fact, the whole environmental impact assessment process has been reduced to a farce with an unconscionable relaxation of requirements to document possible hazards, rigorously scrutinise proposals and strictly monitor and verify compliance. We are inviting more Bhopals – in Vadodara and Vapi in Gujarat, Tirupur in Tamil Nadu, Lote Parshuram in Maharashtra and Sukinda in Orissa.

Our ability to cope with industrial emergencies and our capacity to rehabilitate their victims has not improved. Our legal system remains abysmally weak and ineffective when it comes to punishing negligence in industry and in bringing corporations to book. There is no law of torts (dealing with civil wrongs or injury) worth the name in India. Above all, we have not learnt to be humane towards victims of disasters who are in no way responsible for them.

All this speaks of a deep social and political pathology – of a governing elite that is simply incapable of defending the right to life and limb of the poor and underprivileged who, unlike, say, the hostages of the Indian Airlines Flight IC 814 that was hijacked to Kandahar in December 1999 – all upper-middle-class people, many returning from a holiday in Kathmandu – who are nobody’s constituency. Involved here is class prejudice and the bloody-minded callousness that is characteristic of a ruling class that has all but psychologically seceded from the Majority India that consists of the deprived and the disinherited.

Our rulers have no mindspace for the suffering of the underprivileged: they might as well belong to another planet. The death toll in Bhopal, now clocking 20,000, does not move them. Hard scientific facts about the persistent and extensive contamination of the Bhopal plant, where toxic chemicals and heavy metals have seeped into underground aquifers, do not jolt them into corrective action – not even to the point of asking Dow to clean up. Their own promises to the victims, delivered only when the latter come to New Delhi to sit on dharnas and hunger strikes, do not mean anything at all.

Or else, we would have seen Warren Anderson being prosecuted instead of being declared “untraceable” by Indian consular authorities – when his address in a posh New York suburb is public knowledge. We would have seen genuine well-funded relief and rehabilitation programmes in Bhopal. We would have seen the victims being treated with the empathy and care they deserve. This spells the complete collapse of the notion of shared citizenship and responsibility for fellow human beings. It returns us to a state of primitive, uncivilised, barbaric society. That should shame us all.

In this 25-year-long dismal story, it is only the Bhopal victims’ ceaseless, determined and heroic struggle for justice and for recovering their human dignity that stands out as a positive sign of the existence of civic life. They have given up neither hope nor the fight for equal citizenship, so central to democracy. We must respect their struggle and pursue Carbide and its successor in every forum. We have destroyed the possibility of real justice in Bhopal. The least we can do is to prevent future Bhopals – and our own social retrogression.

7.

Daily News and Analysis, December 3, 2009

A quarter century of unnatural gas

by Antara Dev Sen

Exactly 25 years ago today, about 8,000 people died in Bhopal of the immediate effects of the poison gas that had leaked from Union Carbide’s pesticide factory through the night. The Bhopal Gas Tragedy is the world’s biggest industrial disaster and has till now killed 22,000 and injured almost 600,000. Even today, thousands die as the poison contaminates drinking water, creeps into vegetation, food, into the baby in the womb and into mother’s milk.

But not all of it is because of the accidental release of 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate on the night of December 2-3. The locals are also being slowly poisoned to death by toxic waste dumped around the factory that has leached into the soil and groundwater.

Astoundingly, defying all logic and civic sense, even after 25 years of sustained campaigning and international attention, the killer waste has not been cleaned up.

If the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) was responsible for the gas leak, our governments at the Centre and in Madhya Pradesh are responsible for the continuing deaths and the enormity of its aftermath. Complaints about water contamination had started before 1984. These were ignored. But after the gas leak —now called the industrial Hiroshima — the contamination was impossible to ignore. Reams have been written about it, photographs and documentary films have shocked the world with graphic visuals of the maimed, the sick, the dying, environmentalists have been screaming from the rooftops, there have been demonstrations around the world. And yet the locals continue to drink the poisoned water and live off the poisoned land in Bhopal.

According to a new study by the Centre for Science and Environment, the groundwater in areas even 3 km from the factory contains almost 40 times more pesticides than is permissible by Indian standards. So what? These periodic disclosures don’t shock us.

Five years ago, in a report to commemorate 20 years of the tragedy, the BBC showed how they took a sample of drinking water from a well and found its level of contamination to be 500 times higher than World Health Organisation limits. Several public interest groups, including Greenpeace, have collected samples from the soil, groundwater, fruits and vegetables, and found in them unacceptable levels of toxic materials that were used at the factory. Even the government’s public health survey has declared the water there unfit for drinking. But the locals have no choice.

Apparently, the state government plans to build a Rs116 crore memorial at the factory site, like the Hiroshima Memorial. Nice. No need to pay the victims or give them proper healthcare or clean up the toxic waste.

The Hiroshima Memorial has detailed documentation of what led to the bombing and what happened afterwards. Maybe the State would document the whole story at Bhopal too? Would it start from the leak in 1984? Or from UCC’s dumping tonnes of toxic waste around its factory from 1969? And then the thrilling part, where the State played a leading role. How it settled for $470 million in compensation instead of the $3.3 billion claimed, how it failed to disburse that for decades, finally paying a flat Rs25,000 to the affected and Rs1 lakh for those killed, not accounting for medical expenses, how it stashed up the huge interest accrued and tried to divert it elsewhere. And how it has still not cleaned up the toxic waste and is poisoning its own people and future generations. How the State has let Dow Chemicals, who now owns UCC, go free and even tried to woo it back to India, hoping for business investments. How nice to have a memorial to showcase the State’s flagrant failings!

Alarmingly, our ministers don’t realise that they are complicit in an enormous crime. For Union Carbide may have unleashed the industrial Hiroshima, but our government continues the silent genocide.

8.

Hindustan Times, December 01, 2009

Poisoned and shut

by Indra Sinha

Bhopal is not a normal place. It is deeply, intimately, poisoned. Twenty-five years after the catastrophic gas disaster, Union Carbide’s toxins still flow in the soil, in the water, in the wells, in people’s blood, in wombs and breast milk and in the hearts of local politicians. Go and see for yourself. Once you’ve arrived in Bhopal, take an auto-rickshaw to any one of Annu Nagar, Blue Moon Colony, Nawab Colony, Atal-Ayub Nagar, Oriya Basti, Garib Nagar, Kainchi Chola. You’ll soon notice that an awful lot of children seem in some way damaged. It’s about one in 25, ten times the national average. You’ll see a lot of people who are obviously sick. More than you’d normally expect to find, even in slums as desperate as these.

Open your ears and listen to the stories of those who live here. ‘That night’ is still vividly alive in people’s memories, a nightmare that will not fade. Many Bhopalis are seriously, chronically ill from the injuries they sustained as they fled the gas, and unwittingly drew it deep into their lungs. Wherever you go in these areas you get views, sometimes far off, often close, of Union Carbide’s factory. The company abandoned it full of dangerous chemicals, thousands of tonnes of them, and now it is derelict, falling apart.

Winds and storms tear at it. Twenty-four monsoons have rusted and rotted it. The rains have washed the chemicals deep into the soil and groundwater. From there they pass into the wells and bore pipes, gush from taps, enter people’s bodies, flow in their veins. The poisons burn stomachs, corrode skin, damage organs and seep into wombs where they go to work on the unborn. By the time the infants are born, the poisons are waiting in their mothers’ milk.

If you are scientifically-minded, take samples of soil and water inside the factory. Union Carbide was itself the first to do this. In 1989 its samples were so lethal that fish introduced to them died instantly. The findings were kept quiet. Ten years passed before Greenpeace’s survey found mercury in places at six million times background level, and cancer — and birth-defect-causing poisons in the water supply.

Draw water in Atal-Ayub Nagar from handpump AA2 — people drink this, wash their clothes and bathe in it — have the sample analysed at the best lab you can find. You’ll discover carbon-tetrachloride at 4,880 times the EPA safety limit. Ten years ago Greenpeace tested this same well and carbon-tetrachloride was then at 682 times higher than EPA limits. In the last decade, the water has got seven times more poisonous. Thirty-five thousand people living near the factory have to use contaminated water. No wonder so many are sick, so many children born deformed and brain-damaged. What is surprising is the attitude of the politicians, both at the state and Centre.

The factory has been poisoning its surroundings for a very long time. Well, before the gas accident, a Bhopal lawyer called Babulal Gaur was involved in a dispute between Union Carbide and local farmers who claimed their cattle were being poisoned by the factory. Later Gaur became a minister in the local BJP government and to him fell the duty of caring for the city’s gas survivors. In 2004, he told the Christian Science Monitor that the groundwater was contaminated and complained that the previous Congress state government had tried to hush the matter up. In May of that year India’s Supreme Court ordered the state to supply clean water to the poisoned communities. Gaur’s government ignored this order. A year passed and a group of women and children went to government offices to ask why nothing had been done. They were savagely beaten, punched and kicked by the police. A month later Gaur, by now the Chief Minister, announced an ambitious Rs 600 crore plan to beautify the city with ornamental fountains and badminton courts.

To mark the 25th anniversary of the gas disaster, Gaur, now demoted to Gas Relief Minister, announced that he would open the derelict factory site to the public. There was no water contamination, he said. Also, displaying a curious naiveté, he told journalists that he had handled some waste and not become ill. A cynic remarked that this was like touching a cigarette and saying, ‘Look, I haven’t got lung cancer.’ Denying that contamination exists clearly serves the company’s interests. No doubt it is mere coincidence that Dow Chemical, owner of Union Carbide, has been making donations to Gaur’s party, the BJP.

This sordid little tale is itself an echo of the bigger machinations going on at the Centre, where Dow has been trying to twist the arm of the Manmohan Singh Congress government into letting it off the Bhopal hook. When people ask, why is the disaster continuing? why have Union Carbide and Dow Chemical not been brought to account? the answer is this: Union Carbide’s victims are still dying in Bhopal because India itself is dying under the corrupt and self-serving rule of
rotten leaders. Bhopal will not be healed, cured or cleaned, as long as the power-brokers and the money-brokers are allowed to get away with it. India is a democracy. This agony will end only when people like you demand that justice long overdue must finally be done.

Indra Sinha is the author of Animal’s People, the Booker-shortlisted fictionalised account of a Bhopal gas survivor. He is also an active campaigner for Bhopal gas victims

9.

The New York Times, December 2, 2009

A Cloud Still Hangs Over Bhopal

by Suketu Mehta

IN the Mumbai kindergarten my son went to, the children never had to clean up after themselves; that was the servants’ job. So I really liked the school my son attended when we moved back to Brooklyn, where the teachers made the children tidy up at the end of the day. “Cleanup time, cleanup time!” my 6-year-old sang, joyfully gathering his scraps. It’s a wonderful American tradition: you always clean up the mess you made.

This is the 25th anniversary of the Bhopal gas disaster, an epic mess that started one night when a pesticide plant owned by the American chemical giant Union Carbide leaked a cloud of poisonous gas. Before the sun rose, almost 4,000 human beings capable of love and anguish sank to their knees and did not get up. Half a million more fell ill, many with severely damaged lungs and eyes.

An additional 15,000 people have since died from the aftereffects, and 10 to 30 people are said to die every month from exposure to the hundreds of tons of toxic waste left over in the former factory. But amazingly, the site still has not been cleaned up, because Dow Chemical, which since acquired Union Carbide, refuses to accept any responsibility. The groundwater is contaminated; children of the survivors suffer from genetic abnormalities; and the victims have long since run out of their measly compensation and are begging on the streets.

I have traveled to Bhopal and seen the post-apocalyptic devastation, seen the sick, seen the factory. Methyl isocyanate is a deadly chemical used to kill insects. The night that 40 tons of it wafted out of the factory is, for the survivors, a fulcrum in time, marking the before and after in their lives. They still talk about “the gas” as if it were an organism they know well — how it killed buffalo and pigs, but spared chickens; how it traveled toward Jahangirabad and Hamidia Road, while ignoring other parts of the city; how it clung to the wet earth in some places but hovered at waist level in others; how it blackened all the leaves of a peepul tree; how they could watch it move down the other side of the road, like a rain cloud seen from a sunny spot.

All over India, when misfortune strikes — when a child is ill, for example — people burn chilies to drive away the evil eye. The gas smelled like chilies burning, and people said to one another, it must be a powerfully evil eye that’s being driven away, the stench is so strong.

Fleeing the gas, the Bhopalis clutched their children. Some babies fell, gasping, and their parents had to choose which ones to carry on their shoulders. One image still comes up over and over in their dreams: in the stampede, a thousand people are stepping on their child’s body.

In 2001, the maker of napalm married the bane of Bhopal: Dow Chemical bought Union Carbide for $11.6 billion and promptly distanced itself from the disaster. If Union Carbide was at fault, that was too bad; it had just ceased to exist. In 2002, Dow set aside $2.2 billion to cover potential liabilities arising from Union Carbide’s American asbestos production. By comparison, the total settlement for Bhopal was $470 million. The families of the dead got an average of $2,200; the wounded got $550; a Dow spokeswoman explained, that amount “is plenty good for an Indian.” As Representative Frank Pallone of New Jersey observed in 2006, “In Bhopal, some of the world’s poorest people are being mistreated by one of the world’s richest corporations.”

Union Carbide and Dow were allowed to get away with it because of the international legal structures that protect multinationals from liability. Union Carbide sold its Indian subsidiary and pulled out of India. Warren Anderson, the Union Carbide chief executive at the time of the gas leak, lives in luxurious exile in the Hamptons, even though there’s an international arrest warrant out for him for culpable homicide. The Indian government has yet to pursue an extradition request. Imagine if an Indian chief executive had jumped bail for causing an industrial disaster that killed tens of thousands of Americans. What are the chances he’d be sunning himself in Goa?

The Indian government, fearful of scaring away foreign investors, has not pushed the issue with American authorities. Dow has used a kind of blackmail with the Indians; a 2006 letter from Andrew Liveris, the chief executive, to India’s ambassador to the United States asked for guarantees that Dow would not be held liable for the cleanup, and thanked him for his “efforts to ensure that we have the appropriate investment climate.”

What’s missing in the whole sad story is any sense of a human connection between the faceless people who run the corporation and the victims. In 1995, a Bhopali woman named Sajida Bano sent a handwritten letter to Union Carbide. The factory had killed her husband in 1981 in an accident, and then, on the night of the disaster, her 4-year-old son. “You put your hand on your heart and think,” she wrote, “if you are a human being: if this happened to you, how would your wife and children feel?” She never received a response.

The survivors of Bhopal want only to be treated as human beings — not victims, not greedy money-grabbers, just human beings who’ve gone through hell and are entitled to a measure of dignity. That includes concrete things like cleaning up the mess and providing health care for the sick, and also something more abstract but equally important — an acknowledgment that a wrong was done to them, and an apology, which Bhopalis have yet to receive.

That was another fine thing my son learned in the Brooklyn school: when you’ve done something bad, you should say you’re sorry. After a quarter of a century, Dow should acknowledge that it is responsible for a very big mess. And now, it’s cleanup time.

Suketu Mehta, a journalism professor at New York University, is the author of “Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found.”

10.

Bhopal: Generations of Poison

by Nityanand Jayaraman, Special to CorpWatch
December 2nd, 2009

Note: with translation assistance from D. Narsimha Reddy.

Babu Lal Gaur is a much-reviled man in the slums that surround the derelict Union Carbide factory in Bhopal. As the Minister of Gas Relief and Rehabilitation in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, he is responsible for the welfare of the more than half a million survivors of the 1984 Bhopal Gas tragedy.

“If betrayal had a human face, it would be Gaur’s,” says Hazra Bee, a gas victim, and veteran of two 500-mile marches for justice from Bhopal to the Indian capital New Delhi. “As Minister, Gaur has done nothing to help me, my son or others in our situation. But, he is actively working to let Union Carbide and Dow get away without fulfilling their responsibilities.”

Now 54, Hazra Bee still finds it difficult to keep from crying when she talks about her son. Twenty-five years ago, Bee had carried her four-year-old son as she fled the poison cloud hissing out from Carbide’s death factory. Now 29, Mansoor has severely compromised lungs and cannot do strenuous work. As a child, he was susceptible to frequent coughs and ruptured an eardrum during a coughing fit. The ear was operated on, but pus still flows out from time to time, his mother says. “I pray to Allah that no mother goes through the torture that Bhopali women have experienced,” she says.

At midnight of December 2-3, 1984, Union Carbide’s pesticide factory leaked poisonous methyl iso cyanate into its densely populated neighborhood. More than 8,000 people were killed in the immediate aftermath, and at least 500,000 exposed to the poisons. In 2001, Union Carbide became a 100 percent subsidiary of Dow Chemical. It was the world’s worst industrial accident.

A quarter century since the disaster, a new generation of children is being maimed by the second wave of Bhopal’s chemical disaster. Thousands of tons of toxic materials still lie abandoned inside the factory, and in soccer-field sized evaporation ponds outside. The poor design of Union Carbide’s waste disposal systems, including containments, is allowing toxins to escape into the surrounding environment. Two explosive reports released on December 1 by the London-based Bhopal Medical Appeal, and the New Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment (CSE) confirm local parents’ worst fears: Groundwater and soil inside and outside the factory hold dangerous levels of chlorinated solvents, pesticides and heavy metals. [See box.] Every rain spreads the poison to groundwater that more than 30,000 people rely on as their main source of drinking water. The leaching toxins are linked to congenital disorders including deformities and brain damage. “A preliminary house-to-house study we did found that birth defects in communities affected by water contamination is ten times the national average,” says Satinath Sarangi, a long-time Bhopal activist and founder of the free Sambhavna Clinic for gas victims.

[ . . . ]
- Full text at: CorpWatch,
December 2nd, 2009

11.

The Times of India, 1 December 2009

Bhopal Gas Tragedy: All papers in order, but denied their due

by Suchandana Gupta, TNN

BHOPAL: Eighty-year-old Maqsuda Bi still comes and stands outside the welfare commissioner’s office, asking to be compensated like other victims

of the deadly methylisocynate gas that swirled through this erstwhile city of nawabs 25 years ago, killing an estimated 20,000 people and maiming 5,69,160.

‘‘I have all the relevant papers including my ration card and doctors’ prescriptions. Everyone in my family, including my grandchildren, have got compensation. Why have I been ignored?’’ she asks. The ‘‘compensation’’, of course, was so paltry that it had led to a fresh round of litigations.

‘‘I was with my family that night in our house in Ashoka Garden. My husband’s lungs were badly damaged and he was bed-ridden for 10 years coughing blood. He died in 1995. I am still fighting for my due,’’ she told TOI. Badli Bai (50) of Rajendra Nagar has a similar story. Her file was lost from the settlement court. She has the documents to prove herself a victim. The doctors certified that her lungs were damaged. She received interim relief of Rs 200 per month after the gas leak, but not a paisa after that.

‘‘I am diseased. No gas victim stays healthy. We all suffer from numerous ailments. I need the money to buy medicines. Hospitals won’t treat me for free unless I am a confirmed gas victim. The only proof of this is if one gets compensation. But the court says my file is lost,’’ Badli Bai says. While there are more than 40 cases regarding non-payment of compensation to victims before the high court since 2004, victims’ NGOs are still filing petitions arguing that the recompense was insufficient and delayed.
‘‘The Centre got into a settlement with the Union Carbide Corporation, USA, without the victims’ consent,’’ said Hamida Bi, a gas victim and activist. ‘‘Carbide paid Rs 713 crore (at 1989 prices) on the assumption that only 3,000 persons had died and 1,05,000 were injured. The actual figure is five times more. The government admitted that 4,69,367 victims were kept out of the settlement.

“The compensation amount that was to be distributed among 1,08,000 persons has now been disbursed among 15,200 dead and 5,69,160 injured. The average compensation works out to Rs 12,410 per victim at the 1989 value of the rupee. Compared to this, the US government paid an average of $1.8 million per victim of 9/11,’’ she adds.

‘‘Those who died that night were fortunate,’’ said Husna Bano of Aish Bagh, adding, ‘‘The gas leak left us like walking corpses. I had a seven kg fibroid in my stomach which left the doctors researching on the after-effects of MIC. I do some stitching work to run the family. If I earn Rs 50, I spend Rs 35 on treatment. We spend more money on medicine than on food.’’

‘Doctors treat us like untouchables’

BHOPAL: Rafiq Khan (52) endured the lethal billow of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas that leaked out of the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal on December 3, 1984. Twenty-five years later, Khan, who is now also a diabetic, continues to suffer from severe pulmonary ailment as, ironically, a hospital meant for thousands left critically ill by MIC exposure, has shut its door on him.

‘‘Doctors don’t even talk to us. My father has the documents including the victim ID, but the hospital — Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre — treats us like untouchables and refuses to admit him,’’ alleged Khan’s son, Faizan. ‘‘We can’t even sit near the doctor; the hospital staff is so highhanded,’’ alleged Faizan. Faizan said Khan also suffers from kidney dysfunction and needs dialysis twice a week. ‘‘I work as a van driver and need Rs 2,000 weekly for dialysis to keep my father alive. We’ve sold our valuables and borrowed Rs 60,000. People have stopped giving credit because they know we can’t pay back,’’ he said.

He said Khan was diagnosed with kidney dysfunction last year and put on dialysis just twice and then discharged. ‘‘Since then, they have refused to put him on dialysis despite the fact that the hospital is meant for the gas victims,’’ he said. ‘‘The victims are entitled for a lifetime of medical treatment at the hospital, but we were refused a third dialysis.’’

He said far from curing him, the hospital’s faulty laser operation left him blind and the family had to get his eyes operated at a private hospital.

12.

The Guardian, 1 December 2009

Bhopal water still toxic 25 years after deadly gas leak, study finds

Two reports say scene of 1984 disaster still has alarming levels of poisons, with one 2,400 times the WHO guideline

by Randeep Ramesh in Delhi

Bhopal teenager Sachin Kumar, whose legs were affected by a birth defect, plays cricket

Bhopal teenager Sachin Kumar, whose legs were rendered practically useless by a birth defect, plays cricket with his friends near the deserted Union Carbide factory Photograph: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

Groundwater found near the site of the world’s worst chemical industrial accident in Bhopal is still toxic and poisoning residents a quarter of a century after a gas leak there killed thousands, two studies have revealed.

Delhi’s Centre for Science and the Environment said that water found two miles from the factory contained pesticides at levels 40 times higher than the Indian safety standard.

In a second study, the UK-based Bhopal Medical Appeal (BMA) found a chemical cocktail in the local drinking water – with one carcinogen, carbon tetrafluoride, present at 2,400 times the World Health Organisation’s guidelines.

Around 5,000 people were killed when clouds of toxic gas escaped from Union Carbide’s pesticide plant at midnight on 3 December 1984. 15,000 more died in the following weeks, and activists say that the disaster is still poisoning a new generation of victims.

The Sambhavna clinic, a charity campaigning in Bhopal, has conducted a survey of 20,000 people and says it has found alarmingly high rates of birth defects. A preliminary study suggests as many as one child in 25 is born with a congenital defect.

"We are seeing birth defects at 10 times the incidence at national levels," said Satinath Sarangi, of the Sambhavna clinic.

"The government have been trying to say that the factory is safe and open for the public to tour it. But these results show how polluted the site has become."

Earlier studies have also pointed out that boys who were either exposed as toddlers to gases from the Bhopal pesticide plant or born to exposed parents were prone to "growth retardation".

Survivors in Bhopal have received meagre compensation: most of them got a Rs 25,000 cheque (£310) for a lifetime of suffering caused by damage to their lungs, liver, kidneys and the immune system.

Mohini Devi, 52, spent three months in hospital after inhaling the gas. For 25 years she has had difficulty breathing and suffered shooting pain through her abdomen. Her children have all been affected – one died from "gas complications" 15 years ago.

"My real worry is my grandchildren. Already some have been born without eyes. Why is nobody doing anything for us?" she said.

In Bhopal the legacy of the city’s night of death is there for all to see. The disused Union Carbide factory remains a rusty symbol of bureaucratic indifference, legal actions and rows over corporate responsibility. Not only did the government wind up research into the after effects of the poison gas in 1994, it failed to gather evidence of culpability in the case against the US company.

Campaigners say the site now contains about 8,000 tonnes of carcinogenic chemicals that continue to leach out and contaminate water supplies used by 30,000 local people. Union Carbide says it is no longer responsible for the factory and pointed out it has already made a settlement of $470m (£284m).

The company’s chief executive at the time, Warren Anderson, was briefly arrested after the leak 25 years ago but was released and fled India. He has been declared "untraceable" by Indian consular authorities although his address in a New York suburb is publicly listed.

The Indian government has also drawn fire for trying to pass the disused factory off as a tourist spot – with local politicians last month proposing to build a Hiroshima-like memorial there depicting a detailed account of the disaster. Adding insult to injury, India’s environment minister, Jairam Ramesh mocked activists on a visit to the city by picking up a fistful of waste and saying "see, I am alive".

Sarangi says the government has been trying to tempt Union Carbide’s successor, Dow Chemical, back to India and to secure $1bn of investment.

In return, say campaigners, the government plans to let Dow evade its responsibility to clean up the Bhopal plant site. "This is all about the money. Politicians in India would rather do this than fight for people who suffered," Sarangi said.

P.S.

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