Generations of Victims – Bhopal’s Unending Catastrophe

BRICS, 15 Dec 2014

Anne Backhaus and Simone Salden – Der Spiegel

Thirty years after the worst chemical accident in history, the disaster is hitting a new generation. The victims have received little help, professional clean-up has not happened and there are no signs the ongoing environmental catastrophe will end.

When the monsoon washes away the dust of the Indian summer from the landscape, huts and people of Bhopal, the dry basin behind the slum of J.P. Nagar turns into a lake. Laughing children swim in it, fishermen wait for the telltale tug on their lines to signal a catch, and buffalos greedily devour the succulent stems of water lilies.

In Hinduism, water is considered the source of all life. But in Bhopal, a cycle of death begins with each year’s rainy season.

“The people can’t see, smell or taste the poison,” says Rachna Dhingra, “but it’s there.” It’s in the water, in the flesh of fish and in the milk of the water buffalo, and it’s in the dark mud that slum residents scrape from the shores of the lake to fill the cracks in their houses. Dhingra, 37, is standing on a small hill in her blue kurta, a long traditional Indian garment, angrily trying to talk sense into the fishermen. “This is suicide,” she shouts.

Today’s lake was once used as a solar evaporation pond, a dump for the unfiltered waste from the nearby chemical plant. More than 11,000 tons of material was dumped there, and now the soil and groundwater are contaminated with mercury, nickel and other heavy metals. Nevertheless, farmers water their animals at the lake every day, and women fetch water from it to wash their children and their laundry. The contaminated lake affects more than half a million people. For activist Dhingra, what is happening in Bhopal is an “endless catastrophe — and the world simply looks away.”

The murky lake is only about 500 meters (1,640 feet) from the grounds of the former Union Carbide plant. The rusty factory ruins form a backdrop to the corrugated metal roofs of the slum, almost a memorial. They are silent witnesses of the tragedy that began in Bhopal 30 years ago and continues today.

In the late 1970s, the Indian subsidiary of Union Carbide, a US chemical company now owned by Dow Chemical, began producing the pesticide Sevin in Bhopal. The city of 1.8 million is the capital of Madhya Pradesh, a predominantly rural state in the heart of India, slightly larger than Italy. Local officials hoped the plant would provide an economic boost to the city, and tons of toxic chemicals were stored on the factory grounds. But business was slow, and by the winter of 1984 only a skeleton crew was left to run the plant. Union Carbide planned to close the facility and move it to another location. Necessary maintenance work was postponed, and the cooling system for the gas tanks and other safety equipment had already been dismantled.

Horrible Reminders

There was a clear sky on the night of Dec. 2, 1984. Starting at around midnight and for several hours thereafter, 27 tons of the highly toxic chemical methylisocyanate (MIC) escaped through a leak, creating a cloud of toxic gas that settled over the city, killing thousands of people. Even “the birds fell from the sky,” SPIEGEL wrote in its cover story at the time. The images from Bhopal were like horrible reminders of the poison gas attacks of World War I.

The poorest of the poor, those living in the slums next to the factory, were the worst affected. There were bodies everywhere, their limbs twisted in rigor mortis, and their mouths open like fish gasping for air. To this day, more than 200,000 people have fallen ill and up to 30,000 have died from the consequences of the accident. There will never be an exact figure. Many of those who breathed their last breath on that night were not included in any statistics, because the only people who knew their names were also dead.

The Muslim cemeteries were overwhelmed with bodies, with gravediggers working around the clock. The Hindus, who cremate their dead, built funeral pyres of human bodies. After the gas, the stench of death anesthetized the city.

This December marks the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal gas disaster, which is still the biggest chemical accident in history. It was even worse than the uncontrolled dumping of waste containing mercury in the Japanese city of Minamata, and its long-term effects are perhaps comparable only with those of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Some who feel reminded of the scope of the disaster caused by the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima call the Bhopal disaster “Bhoposhima.”

Toxic Ghost Town

But what happened on that December night was only the beginning of an apocalypse of a much greater magnitude. The environmental tragedy, the ongoing poisoning of the environment and people of Bhopal, has unfolded in the three decades since that night and continues to unfold today.

The reasons for the tragedy are known. The main source of the current environmental pollution is the factory site, which was never the subject of any professional cleanup operation. About 350 tons of highly toxic waste, old residues of pesticide production are still stored on the 35-hectare (86-acre) site, packaged in ordinary plastic bags in the middle of the city. The former factory premises, now owned by the state of Madhya Pradesh, resemble a ghost town today. Broken test tubes litter the floors of laboratories, as the old tanks rust away. A plan to dispose of the waste with the help of the German Society for International Cooperation failed in 2012.

There are still no exclusion zones around the site today, and there are holes in the ordinary brick wall surrounding the factory. In the summer, when temperatures can rise above 45 degrees Celsius (112 degrees Fahrenheit), a reddish dust from the factory settles on the nearby huts. When it rains, the contaminated soil is flushed into neighboring slums. The goats of nearby residents graze on the factory grounds.

The old evaporation basins, into which Union Carbide pumped its highly toxic wastewater, are neither marked nor off-limits to the public today. No measures have been taken to stop further groundwater contamination.

‘The Unlucky Ones Survived’

“The people who died that night were the lucky ones,” says Rashida Bee. “The unlucky ones survived.”

Bee, 58, lost six family members to the disaster. The gas turned her into a widow and a fighter. Bee is a Muslim, a woman with a gentle gaze and a strong voice. She wears part of her red sari over her hair like a headscarf. For many years, Bee has been fighting for the rights of the survivors — and for the recognition and care of the next generation of victims.

“First we were exposed to the gas,” says Bee, who still has respiratory problems, “and now they are poisoning us and our children with every sip of groundwater that we drink.” She cites the many scientific studies that prove how contaminated the water is in residential areas around the decaying factory. But the studies have not led to any serious consequences on the part of the government.

Bee, together with Champa Devi Shukla, a Hindu who lost her husband and one son to the gas, formed the Chingari Trust 10 years ago. It operates a rehabilitation center that is funded by donations and dedicated to disabled children from poor families living near the former Union Carbide site. The Chingari Trust currently supports and treats 200 children free of charge. They suffer from autism, and their hands and feet are stunted. Some were born deaf or blind, and many are mentally disabled. “These children will never be able to lead a normal life,” says Bee.

In the poor residential neighborhoods over which the gas cloud descended in 1984 and where the worst of the toxic residues remain today, there is a disabled child living in one in seven huts. The rates of premature births and stillbirths in women who were exposed to the gas are about three times the national average. But there is a lack of long-term scientific studies. No government agencies and no hospitals in the city keep track of the abnormalities. Midwives from the neighborhoods, who practiced before the accident and have observed developments over the years, report gruesome abnormalities, including fetuses with greenish skin and deformed heads. “The birth of a child is normally a reason to celebrate,” explains Parwati, who is from a family of midwives. “But in this area a birth comes as a shock to many parents.”

‘Only the Gods Can Help Us’

Annamika, 27, was one of those parents, when her son Aarav was born three years ago. His head is much too heavy for his delicate body, his mouth is crooked and his eyes stare apathetically into space. At the Chingari Trust, speech therapists try to teach Aarav simple words so that he can communicate when he is thirsty or hungry. Physical therapists try to help him relax the cramped muscles around his thin legs.

Annamika grew up near the railroad tracks, not far from the former Union Carbide plant. Her older brother, who was born on the evening of the accident, died as a baby. Annamika, who stayed in school longer than her friends and completed a degree, worked for an insurance company until recently. Her parents had serious health problems after the gas accident. She cared for her mother for many years, and her father died in 2008 from a pulmonary edema. Annamika was overjoyed when she became pregnant. “But Aarav needed 24-hour care,” she says, “so I had to quit my job.” The child’s condition is a financial disaster for the young family. Her husband would like a second child, “but we can’t afford it. What happens if that child is also unhealthy?” Annamika asks. She prays a lot to Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of health, says the young mother. “Only the gods can help us.”

The suffering of their children constitutes both an emotional and a financial burden for families. Many perceive a disabled child as a double punishment. “The parents are often in poor health themselves, but they have no choice. They have to go to work to be able to buy food and medication for themselves and their children,” says Rashida Bee. As a result, many care-dependent children are left to their own devices in their huts during the day.

There is a long waiting list for treatment at the Chingari Trust. The center is located on one of Bhopal’s busy main streets, just a short walk from the decaying ruins of the Union Carbide plant. In the hallway, which is painted in bright colors, Bee speaks with the parents who are sitting on the floor with their children, waiting for treatment. The air is stuffy and the children are crying, because their splinted legs hurt.

Guinea Pigs

Bee estimates “that close to 3,000 disabled children from the surrounding neighborhoods urgently need help.” But facilities like the Chingari Trust are rare or unaffordable for the poor. And local residents have distrusted the Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Center, established in 1984 for the free treatment of victims of the gas leak, ever since it was revealed in 2011 that Western pharmaceutical companies like AstraZeneca and Pfizer were conducting drug tests on patients. The gas victims were being misused as test subjects for new heart drugs and antibiotics.

“Bhopal holds up a mirror to India,” says Vinuta Gopal of Greenpeace India. The environmentalist deplores the lack of a sense of responsibility for human beings and nature among large corporations. “Companies have the certainty that not much can happen to them here,” she says, noting that Bhopal is still the blueprint for the way companies handle such disasters in the country.

In 1989, US-based Union Carbide and its Indian subsidiary paid about $470 million to the Indian government, effectively buying their way out of any further criminal prosecution. Only a fraction of the money reached the victims. It was a cheap decision in every respect.

By comparison, in 2011 a US court ordered the giant corporation that now owns Union Carbide to pay $3 million to an asbestos victim with cancer. In Bhopal, the families were paid about $1,600 for each dead relative, while those with injuries were palmed off with $500 — only enough to pay for a few months of their medications, in many cases. Today the widows of gas victims receive a monthly pension of 150 rupees, or about €1.50.

To this day, Union Carbide denies any responsibility for the long-term damage to human beings and the environment in Bhopal. Its representatives claim, for example, that the company “secured” the evaporation basin with a plastic tarp. They insist that the fact that pollutants still entered the groundwater was purely the fault of local residents, who had “damaged” the material. “The question of toxic waste cleanup on the factory grounds should not be taken up with us, but with the local authorities,” says a company spokesman.

‘People Are at the Mercy of these Poisons’

The world’s biggest democracy now has extensive laws to protect the environment, as well as to regulate limits on pollution and industrial waste, “but companies know that the government lags far behind when it comes to monitoring,” says Greenpeace activist Gopal. The companies take advantage of this, she adds. The consequences include illegal mines in the Aravalli region of Rajasthan and in Singur in West Bengal. High pollution levels in Chandrapur, in the state of Maharashtra, led to a moratorium on further expansion of coal mining. But the state’s environment minister promptly lifted the moratorium and permitted the expansion of production licenses — even though the region, according to the national pollution index compiled by the government’s Central Pollution Control Board, ranks fourth among India’s most heavily polluted areas.

“Conditions are shocking in the industrial cluster regions,” says the Greenpeace activist, “but our government is not handling these problems.”

The consequences of environmental sins are far more serious in overpopulated India than in other parts of the world. Polluted air and contaminated water can quickly affect millions of people in India, as Chandra Bhushan, deputy director of the independent Center for Science and Environment in Delhi explains. Each year, the institution publishes a sort of black book of the biggest environmental scandals in the country. Bhushan refers to Bhopal, which still made it into the report 30 years after the disaster, as a “cold case,” for which no official agency is willing to take responsibility anymore today. “India doesn’t lack rules,” he says bitterly, “but rather the resources to monitor compliance.”

For decades, there have been guidelines that require, for example, that new factories where toxic chemicals are used be constructed at least 25 kilometers (15.4 miles) away from residential areas. But the reality is that any new business in India attracts people. As soon as a new facility opens, day laborers begin camping behind the factory fences with their families. The settlements were tolerated at first, and in many cases local politicians eventually legalized them. The result is, once more, a factory surrounded by a slum — just like in Bhopal.

Rachna Dhingra points to the rusty ruins and says: “The people are at the mercy of these poisons, but politicians just aren’t interested. This sort of thing can only happen in India.”

Dhingra lived far away from the suffering here. The daughter of Indian parents, she studied economics in the United States and worked for the management consulting firm Accenture. Her client was the giant multinational Dow Chemical, which acquired Union Carbide in 2001. Dhingra heard about the accident and the ensuing problems in Bhopal when she was still a student. “I realized at some point that I was helping a company make a profit that was responsible for the deaths of thousands of people.”

‘What’s Happening Here Is a Disgrace’

The 37-year-old returned to her native India 12 years ago. Since then, educated, self-confident Dhingra has given her voice to the victims of the Bhopal disaster. She joined survivors twice in a 700-kilometer protest march to the prime minister’s office in New Delhi. Her longest hunger strike lasted 19 days. Dhingra has also spent many sleepless nights in prison. “What’s happening here is a disgrace,” says the activist. “But we will not give up.”

Dhingra is driving her scooter to the “colonies” behind the Union Carbide plant. “First it was 14, then 18, and today there are already 22 settlements affected by the contaminated groundwater,” she says, stopping on a bridge with a view of the huts, “and the number is on the rise.” Thanks to the protests staged by Dhingra and her fellow activists, water pipes have been installed in many streets to provide residents with clean drinking water. But fresh water only flows through the pipes every other day, so that residents are still forced to use the toxic well water. “No official would take a sip of this soup,” says Dhingra. The government has “failed completely,” she adds. To her, it sounds like mockery when the state minister in charge of the issue, Babularl Gaur, states that he can’t simply force the people living on contaminated ground to move. All people are free to live where they choose in a democracy, he explains.

Dhingra’s new weapon in the fight against the ongoing disaster costs only a rupee, or about one euro cent. It’s the price of a test to measure the level of pesticides containing chlorine in drinking water. “Volunteers train people to use and understand these tests.” If the water contains detectable levels of the substances, which are harmful to the central nervous system, the test strips change color. “This makes the problem visible and understandable.” Most slum resident are illiterate. They know nothing about limits for chlorine and heavy metals. All they know is that every day is a struggle for rice and rupees.

Time Fails to Heal Bhopal’s Wounds

The saying that time heals all wounds also exists in India. “But the opposite is the case here in Bhopal,” says Dhingra.

In its Manual for the Public Health Management of Chemical Incidents, the World Health Organization (WHO) notes that about 100,000 people died in industrial accidents worldwide between 1998 and 2007. According to the manual, production sites in the chemical industry are particularly hazardous.

But the chemical business has been booming for decades. In 2013, pesticide sales in the global market amounted to about €40 billion, and market researchers predict that annual sales will increase to more than €60 billion by 2019. Most of the growth can be attributed to emerging economies.

About 70 percent of the population in India lives on agriculture, and farming is responsible for 18 percent of GDP. This explains why pesticides are still seen as a panacea in the fight against hunger in India. With an annual production volume of more than 80,000 tons, India is the world’s third-largest pesticide producer, after China and Japan.

India is also the last country in the world where dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, better known as DDT, is still produced. DDT disturbs the hormonal balance of human beings and animals, which led Western industrialized nations to move to ban the insecticide in the 1970s. The Indian government still promotes the controversial broadband insecticide monocrotophos, which the EU banned long ago and WHO blames for thousands of deaths among Indian farmers. Vast quantities of the agent are sprayed onto cotton fields.

Escaping Responsibility

Indian politicians continue to pursue the path of industrial enlightenment. As one of his first official acts, Prime Minister Narendra Modi initiated the “Make in India” campaign and rolled out the red carpet for foreign investors. He aims to create 10 million jobs a year and “put India prominently on the global manufacturing map.” It’s a noble goal, but one for which human beings and nature pay the price all too often in India.

“Production in India is worthwhile for many companies, mainly because of low wages,” says Hans-Hermann Dube of the German Society for International Cooperation in New Delhi. But, he adds, cheap, poorly trained workers are often an underestimated safety risk. “People are trained only to have their work area under control. This can become a problem, especially when dealing with highly toxic materials.”

The German expert has monitored developments in India’s chemical-processing industry for years. “European companies, in particular, work with high environmental, health and safety standards,” says Dube. But, he adds, they are all forced to work with Indian partners or subcontractors sooner or later, be it in transporting the materials or the disposal of toxic waste. “It’s difficult to monitor who is responsible for toxic freight and whether these employees are aware of the potential hazards,” Dube warns.

When push comes to shove, this circumstance even helps companies to escape responsibility, as in Bhopal. Lawyers with the organization EarthRights International spent 15 years trying to make Dow Chemical pay to clean up the contamination of the soil and groundwater around the old factory site. In the summer of 2014, a US district court in New York ruled that the company did not have to pay for cleanup work — on grounds that the project manager who was in charge of plant construction and waste disposal had only been employed by the Indian subsidiary.

Slap in the Face

“That ruling was another slap in the face of the victims,” says activist Dhingra. “If these people were not poor and uneducated, this sort of thing would be unthinkable.” In late September, former Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson died in Florida, at the age of 92. There was still a warrant for his arrest in India.

But Dhingra refuses to give up. Court rulings, laboratory reports and patient records that document the long-term damage to Bhopal victims are piled up on her desk. She has established an archive of all studies, eyewitness reports and books about the accident and current contamination. It’s a documentation of horror.

Dhingra is in the process of organizing a vigil and memorial concert on the anniversary of the disaster. She pushes aside a pile of papers and opens her laptop. “I want justice for these people,” she says. “I wake up with that thought in my head, and I go to sleep with that thought in my head.”

She no longer has any great expectations of Indian politicians. “It’s like a reflex. Every year, on Dec. 2, the politicians come here to give big speeches and make promises,” says Dhingra. “None of them has ever come true.”

The veil of oblivion descends on the city once again after each anniversary. The victims of Bhopal are increasing in number every day, says Dhingra, but they lead their lives “in the world’s shadow.” And people are invisible in the dark.


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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