Bhopal: A Living
By Justin Huggler
02 December 2004
control room at the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, India, looks like
something from one of those post-apocalyptic science fiction movies.
Cow dung is splattered across the floor. There are rows upon rows of
broken dials, their plastic covers smashed, the needles stuck. The scale
models of the plant are shrouded in thick spiders' webs. A dirty sign
on the wall reads "Safety is everybody's business".
are nesting in the long-defunct flare tower. They swing overhead from
time to time. Fluffy bits of asbestos float on the breeze. They are
strewn across the ground, caught on gorse bushes. The vast metal hulk
of the factory is silent, huge tangles of metal pipes and tubes running
from tank to tank, slowly rusting in the Bhopal sun.
On the night of
2 December 1984, the worst industrial accident in history happened here.
Highly poisonous methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas leaked from the plant,
together with even more toxic reaction compounds. Thousands of people
were gassed to death as they slept in their beds near the factory. Others
died on the road as they tried to flee, water pouring from their burning
eyes, unbearable pain in their lungs, defecating and urinating in their
clothes, unable to help themselves. They found dead mothers with their
dead babies in their arms. In the months and years that followed, thousands
more died from the effects of the gas they inhaled.
You would not think,
to look at Bhopal today, that it happened here. It's a charming city,
built around the edges of a lake. Fountains spume lake water in columns
near the shore, a solitary boatman is slowly working his way out across
a lake that shimmers with the early morning haze.
There was a mayoral
election here a couple of weeks ago. Trucks festooned with brightly
coloured banners made their way through the streets, blaring slogans
from their loudspeakers. There was barely a mention of the Bhopal disaster.
You would think the city had moved on, that it was all in the past.
But that could not
be further from the truth. Round the corner from the rusting metal skeleton
of the Union Carbide factory lies a warehouse. You can wander inside
if you want, but the watchman who guards the site won't come with you.
He is too scared. Step inside and the smell hits you. It is hard to
breathe, almost impossible. It's a terrible smell, something deeply
unhealthy, something chemical and poisonous. Huge mounds of brown toxic
sludge lie in the warehouse, piled 10 feet high.
The Union Carbide
factory has never been cleaned up. It is still poisoning Bhopal. Recent
tests showed the chemicals still at the factory site have contaminated
the ground water, which is used as drinking water by some of the poor
neighbourhoods around the factory. There is mercury lying on the ground
inside the site, according to a former foreman who worked for Union
Dow Chemicals, the
company which took Union Carbide over in a merger, refuses to clean
up the site. It claims it is no longer liable because it sold its shares
in an Indian subsidiary.
It doesn't end there.
"In the past 20 years, I didn't live through a single day without
painkillers, without a tablet," says Rashida Bee, one of the survivors
of the disaster. Today Ms Bee, and thousands like her, are still suffering
the long-term effects of poisoning by the gas that leaked from the Union
Carbide factory that night.
Many of the survivors,
when you speak to them, have to break off from time to time because
of the Bhopal cough. It's a long, agonising rattle that makes you wonder
whether they can draw air back into their lungs. Women have menstrual
irregularities. Others have more severe handicaps. Ms Bee's nephew was
blinded by the gas.
And all of them
have received just £300 in compensation from Union Carbide. This
is as much the fault of the Indian government as of the American company.
In 1986, the Indian government agreed a deal in which Union Carbide
paid just $470m (£245m) in compensation to victims. The government
agreed to drop a legal case in which Union Carbide was expected to end
up having to pay as much as $3bn in compensation. It agreed that the
payment would end all Union Carbide's liability for the disaster. It
never consulted the victims. Today, 15 years later, less than half of
that money has been paid to the victims. The rest is still sitting in
the Indian government's coffers, earning interest for the government,
but not for its rightful owners, the victims of Bhopal. The injured
have received 25,000 rupees each (£300). The relatives of those
who died received 100,000 rupees (£1,200).
One victim, Bhano
Bee, told how in 1986 her six-year-old son developed intestinal problems
because of the gas. "I spent a lot of money on his treatment, more
than 50,000 rupees (£600), and we only got 25,000 rupees (£300)
compensation each from the government," she said.
Today, Rashida Bee
is sitting in the yard where some of the women survivors try to scrape
by a living making basic stationery products. Many have lost their husbands
and are the sole breadwinners for the families. Many are too sick to
hold down any other job.
Big mosquitoes that
can bite right through your clothes hover as she talks. When they bite,
you feel a sharp pain like a bee sting. Ms Bee is sitting with her friend
and fellow activist Champa Devi Shukla.
"If I had died
at that point it would have been better, because the pain was unbearable,"
Ms Bee says, remembering the night of the accident. "I couldn't
open my eyes. When I finally opened them a little I saw dead people
all over the road, and people were walking over them. There were people
crying out to God to kill them because the pain was so unbearable."
The pain has not gone away. Both Ms Bee's parents died of the long-term
effects of the disaster. So did her sister-in-law. Her nephew, the son
of the sister-in-law who died, went blind. "I saw so many deaths
in my family, that's where I get the source of my energy to fight against
the multinationals like Union Carbide," she says.
She is the more
outwardly aggressive. Ms Shukla, a grey-headed, smiling lady in a yellow
sari, at first seems too mild for a campaigner. But as she speaks you
sense there is more to her.
"In 1992, my
eldest son committed suicide. He was very sick, he got fed up with life.
He took a pesticide called Sulphas. He was 20. He was in a lot of pain.
My daughter is paralysed. She got married but she was not treated well
by her in-laws. Both my daughters got married but both are back living
in my house now.
of my husband and son inspired me to take up activism. I thought nothing
was left in my life, but I realised many others had lost their relatives
and loved ones so I took up activism." Together, Ms Bee and Ms
Shukla have won several awards for their activism. This year, they were
joint winners of the Goldman Environmental Award, and they proudly display
their awards for the camera.
But, for all the
accolades, the world is ignoring these eloquent women. They are the
forgotten. They are celebrated from time to time for their courage and
determination, wheeled out as examples of tough women from the Third
World looking for justice from the multinationals. But their demands
are ignored. Nothing gets done.
Union Carbide has
abandoned the victims of the Bhopal disaster. So has the Indian government.
So have the local politicians of the Madhya Pradesh state government,
busy touring around the city trying to get re-elected.
In 2004, Shahid
Noor, who was orphaned as a child in the disaster, went on a hunger
strike to protest against the state government's failure to live up
to its promise to provide jobs for the orphans. "After four days,
the police came and took away the tent where we were sitting,"
he says. "We sat two more days without a tent. The police took
us to hospital and forcefully administered glucose. The government said
they couldn't give us jobs but they would give us loans. We refused."
The memories of
that night still live with the survivors. "My father got sick and
we took him to the hospital," Mr Noor recounts. "We left him
there. When I got there I heard my mother had died. It was 3 December
1984, the night after the disaster. Around midnight or 1am she died.
The same evening after I got the news of my mother's death I heard my
father had died.
"The most tragic
part of the story is we were in that house for around eight, 10 days.
My brother had also died but my uncle didn't tell us. He told me after
several days and I went and saw the grave. Later, I learnt that he was
the first to die."
Mr Noor is talking
in his tiny first floor apartment just a few streets from the factory.
Here, it is easy to imagine the terror of that night. There is a power
cut and the flat is plunged into darkness. Without light, it is hard
enough to feel your way down the steep narrow staircase to the street.
They had to do it blinded by fumes that burnt their eyes.
As he talks, his
wife burns the chilli powder she has been cooking in the kitchen. All
the time, that has been the recurrent description from the survivors
of the gas. "It was like when some one has burnt chilli powder."
You feel it catching at the back of your throat. The survivors face
this reminder all the time.
Across the city,
among the paper files of the industrial records office, T R Chouhan
makes the case against Union Carbide and, by extension, its new owners,
Dow Chemicals. He should know, he used to work as foreman of the MIC
plant, the one that leaked that night. "I was supposed to get six
months' safety training, but after just 15 days training they told me
to take charge of the MIC sub-system. I refused and they threatened
to fire me. In the end, they agreed to one month's training," he
"The most vital
safety instrument in the plant, the temperature indicator alarm, which
could have warned of the disaster, was not working because of a design
fault. It went wrong after just two weeks and never worked again. In
the original design, there was supposed to be a back-up but it was never
a loud siren installed to warn the public of a leak, but four months
before the disaster they changed it to a muted siren because there were
so many leaks from the plant and they didn't want people to panic."
The US has refused to extradite Warren Anderson, the former chief executive
officer of Union Carbide, to face trial in India. Dow Chemicals claims
it has discharged its liability. It may sleep easy at night. But the
victims of Bhopal do not.