Bhopal Still Suffering, 20 Years On
Bhopal: Deepika Thani drew her first breath as the world's worst chemical
accident flushed the air out of the lungs of thousands of people in
Bhopal 20 years ago this week.
Just before midnight on December 2 1984, milky white clouds of toxic
gas settled over the sleeping citizens of Bhopal. A lethal fog of
poisonous gas was spewing from a pesticide plant owned by the American
multinational Union Carbide.
Within hours, thousands died and tens of thousands lined hospital
wards suffering from blindness, skin complaints and breathing difficulties.
Born in a city of funerals, Deepika arrived after her mother had inhaled
the deadly fumes that infiltrated homes during the night.
Approaching her 20th birthday, Deepika weighs just 33kg (73lb) and
is a little more than 1.3 metres (4ft 6in) tall. Her periods, which
started last year, are erratic and she suffers from dizzy spells.
She is unable to concentrate for long and has yet to finish school.
Her family blames the "poison" for stunting her growth. "The gas has
meant she has not developed normally," says her father, Kanhaiyalal
Deepika's story is not atypical in Bhopal, where at least half a million
people were exposed to the toxic fumes and the legacy of the disaster
claims more lives every day. Yet little appears to have been done
to chart the gathering calamity. The Indian government stopped all
research on the medical effects of the disaster a decade ago without
explanation. More than 100,000 children of the victims have no medical
There is a growing body of work to suggest that the ramifications
might be far greater than first thought. Last year a study by the
American Medical Association found 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".
"We are only just beginning to see the results of what the gas did
to the human body," says Satinath Sarangi of the Sambhavana Trust,
which helps to rehabilitate victims. "What we have seen are shorter
children with smaller heads. Unfortunately, there is very little official
reaction to another generation's suffering."
According to the local administration, 3,000 people died on the night
of the gas leak, but this is widely considered to be a gross underestimate.
Hundreds of thousands fled Bhopal and no one knows how many did not
return. Army trucks dumped unclaimed bodies in mass graves outside
the city. Families vanished without a trace. Amnesty International
believes the death toll was at least 7,000 and local doctors estimate
it could be 15,000.
What is not in dispute is that the tragedy is still claiming new victims.
Campaigners say the overall death toll exceeds 20,000, with a further
half a million debilitated by chronic illness. The city's miscarriage
rate is seven times the national average and its hospitals overflow
with patients with respiratory illnesses and cancer.
"What you had was a gas that significantly reduced the body's immune
system and laid it open to disease," says Shyam Agrawal, the director
of the Navodaya oncology centre in Bhopal, who treated the sick and
dying 20 years ago as a medical student. "Within India, Bhopal has
one of the highest lung cancer rates in men, while women show very
high rates of breast and cervical cancer. The cancer rates are significantly
higher in gas-affected populations."
Despite this many survivors await adequate compensation. They say
doctors' bills have long consumed small handouts meant to alleviate
a lifetime's suffering.
Sitting outside her home in the rubbish-strewn alleys of Jai Prakash
Nagar, 70-year-old Alia Bano recounts the night she lost 10 family
members. "I still cannot breathe and stand up properly. My eyesight
has never come back. I lost everything that night. All the government
gave was 25,000 rupees [about £310] but that was used up long ago
on medicines. Tell me, how will I live now?"
When Union Carbide finally left the city in 1999, it left behind thousands
of tonnes of chemicals, toxins that have sunk into the soil and leached
into the water supply.
Storage tank 610 sits near the rusting skeleton of the main complex.
It was from here that the plume of methyl isocyanate, or MIC, shot
into the sky. Four key safety measures failed that night, including
the plant's cooling system and its flare tower, which could have burned
off the gas.
When MIC is inhaled it produces an extremely acidic reaction, which
attacks the internal organs, especially the lungs. This stops oxygen
entering the blood, and victims drown in their own body fluids.
Union Carbide had been slowly running the plant down as the expected
profits from its pesticide Sevin failed to materialise. The company
maintains the disaster was due to sabotage.
Today, children play cricket and cows graze amid the rusting pipes,
mounds of bagged waste and inky black pools of sulphurous smelling
liquid. Tests of the water in nearby slums have found levels of contamination
500 times higher than the maximum recommended by the World Health
Organisation. Greenpeace says decommissioning the plant would cost
There are no signs of decontamination work. Although India's supreme
court ruled in May that clean water must be provided to nearby residents,
a quick trip around the wooden shacks reveals women carrying buckets
of oily black water home to wash with and drink.
Astonishingly, no one has been held to account for the disaster. Many
in Bhopal say they are still fighting for justice.
The Indian government is still pursuing Warren Anderson, the former
chief executive of Union Carbide, who keeps a low profile in retirement
on Long Island and in Florida. He was briefly detained by Indian police
in 1984 before being released on bail, and has never returned to the
subcontinent. In Bhopal, many walls carry the words "Hang Anderson".
Makan Lal Vishwakarma, who still suffers from headaches, says: "I
can remember the dead on the roads, the smell of chillis burning my
breath, people choking on their own vomit. I will never forget that
night. Neither should Union Carbide or Mr Anderson."
Union Carbide says the matter is closed, and it "worked diligently
to provide aid to the victims and set up a process to resolve their
claims". The company, now part of the world biggest chemical firm,
Dow Chemicals, says it bears no liability for the site as it has since
sold up and left India.
Union Carbide used the money to build a hospital in Bhopal and paid
a lump sum of $470m in an out-of-court settlement with the Indian
government in 1989. This saw 99% of victims receive about £300 in
compensation more than decade ago. They should receive the same again
in the coming months.
The legal fight, say campaigners, is not over. This week a Bhopal
court will hear whether Dow, with yearly sales of $32.6bn, can be
held responsible for the Bhopal plant. If the judge rules against
the company, Dow's Indian assets could be seized.
"In New York after 9/11 there was compensation, punishment and clean-up
in a just a few months," says Abdul Jabbar, who runs the Bhopal Women
Gas Victims' Industrial Association. "In Bhopal, after 20 years, we
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