Bhopal - a disaster even 19 years later

05 December 2003

On December 3, 1984 the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal 'blew up'.  This article, by Pierre Prakash, was written nineteen years after this industrial accident, when contamination was still killing people in the area.  Although now 10 years old, the article will still be of interest.

It's a ghost factory where time seems to have been stopped short nineteen years ago. Up to now, nothing has been cleaned up at the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal India where the greatest industrial catastrophe of all time took place. Tank E-610, the source of the gas leak that killed 3,000 people in a single night and has killed another 10,000 victims since then, is still there in the grass, as an additional provocation. Set in the vegetation, the gigantic maze of vats and pipes has never been dismantled. The spun glass and polystyrene that insulated the pipes fall in tatters. The vats, still full of toxic products, leak onto the ground. In some places, the obviously noxious effluents take the visitor by the throat, while no one knows what they are. Cows wander all around, grazing between rusted pieces of debris, while women look for firewood at twilight.

Playground and Ripped Bags

In the control room, hard hats and stationary imprinted "Union Carbide" are still strewn on the floor. On a table, the model of the factory has collapsed, while a poster indicating the procedures to follow in case of an accident has the place of honor on a wall. In hangers dispersed among the four corners of the gigantic site, hundreds of ripped open bags of pesticide spread out on the ground. Some of them warn in big printed letters, "Poison". Abandoned kites and cricket balls indicate that the site serves as a playground for the children in the surrounding slums. "Every day, the first thing that I see when I get up is this deadly factory that took my husband and my two sons," moans Kusum Bai, a resident of Jai Prakash Nagar, one of the neighborhoods most affected by the accident. "It's a shame that no one has come to clean up this horror." All the more so, as the ghost factory continues to kill. The leaks from the rusted vats and, above all, the wastes buried during the time when it was in operation have infiltrated the water table from which the surrounding neighborhoods draw their water. According to Greenpeace estimates, 10 to 15 people a month continue to die to the most complete indifference. Internal Union Carbide documents revealed last year prove that the multinational knew all about this contamination, from at least 1989. It has never said anything. According to the analyses effected by Greenpeace, the ground and the water of surrounding wells contain alarming levels of heavy metals and other toxic products. In some places, mercury levels are six million times greater than normal. This mercury, like the other poisons, is found in the vegetables and even in the breast milk of mothers from the neighboring regions.

Third generation affected

In these neighborhoods, some of which are stuck to the wall enclosing the factory, men, women, and children suffer from illness. Respiratory problems and especially gynecological problems for women, cancers, tuberculosis, vision problems, intestinal difficulties, joint pains, chronic headaches, psychiatric problems. These illnesses affect those who breathed the deadly gas at the time of the accident, but also others through the water. "I can't even cook because I suffocate immediately there is smoke," explains Ram Pyari Suha, 40 years old, who, however, didn't move behind the factory until 1991, seven years after the catastrophe. Her husband and four children, aged 2 to 13, also suffer from health problems.

Two of her neighbors, little girls at the time of the accident, went through menopause at age 25. The men don't have the strength to do the manual labor that is the source of daily bread in poor neighborhoods. According to a recently published study, children of the victims are deformed or weakened, with less than normal height, weight, muscle mass and pulmonary capacity. On his hospital bed, Saeed, 17 years old, looks like a ten-year-old. The doctors think that he won't be able to live without constant respiratory assistance. "The Bhopal scandal goes beyond anything," rages Sathyu Sarangi, an official of the NGO, Sambhavna, which helps victims. "We're now at the second; even the third generation affected by the accident, and no one does anything to help them. It makes you think you have to be raped in the street or struck with a bullet in the head to attract world public opinion's attention."

Gas composition secret

In all, it is estimated that 150,000 people continue to suffer chronic illnesses linked to the 1984 catastrophe. Since then, regional authorities have opened six hospitals to care for the victims. In fact, these establishments treat the general population. No provision has been made for specializing in those who have been touched by the gas. "They give useless, even harmful, treatments," a Sambhavna physician charges, "but that's Union Carbide's fault since they never wanted to furnish the exact composition of MIC gas, so that it has never been possible to establish a medical protocol to treat the victims." All the studies undertaken by the federal sanitation authorities were interrupted in 1994, and have never been published. "The government has condemned its own citizens so as not to scare away foreign investors", accuses Sathyu Sarangi.

As for the Bhopal hospital financed by Union Carbide, a gigantic complex of staggering luxury for India, it treats the victims for free, of course, but has been the object of serious reservations by virtue of the medical mistakes that have been made there and its penchant for state-of-the-art research that bears no relationship to illnesses linked to the accident. The NGOs accuse it of worrying more about private patients who pay for their care. A number of victims claim to have been mistreated there. "When I see how we were treated and when I see how today even my grandchildren are sick, I tell myself it would have been better had we all died the day of the accident," concludes Prem Bai, 50, who lost half her family in 1984.

Translation: Truthout French language correspondent Leslie Thatcher.