Night of the Gas:
by Luke David
New Internationalist magazine,
[It's 18 years since the world's worst
industrial accident at a transnational corporation's pesticide
plant in Bhopal, India - but the poor are being poisoned by it
to this day. Meanwhile the Indian Government is sitting on funds
intended for compensation and clean-up. Luke David tells a shameful
Most people were at home sleeping when
the tank burst out of the earth and stood shuddering on its end,
emitting a stream of deadly fumes into the night. The gases came
into their houses without warning. They woke choking, their eyes
and mouths burning. Nobody knew what had happened. Then came shouts
of 'gas!' and 'run away!' People tumbled out of their houses but
the gas was waiting for them. It rolled in thick clouds along
the narrow lanes, which in some places were little more than a
metre wide. The street lamps shed a tobacco-brown light. No insects
circled around them - they were already dead.
As families picked up their toddlers and
fled, the alleys were filled with stampedes. Cows and dogs ran
with their owners. People fell and were trampled. Children were
wrenched from their mothers' arms and lost, never to be found.
It was 2 December 1984 and a pesticide
factory owned by an American multinational - the Union Carbide
Corporation - had leaked 27 tonnes of toxic chemicals into the
slums of Bhopal, central India. Ignoring advice by its own experts,
Union Carbide built the factory in the middle of densely populated
neighbourhoods. In contravention of US safety standards, a huge
quantity of lethal methylisocyanate (MIC) was stored on site.
The tank holding the MIC was not kept, as the safety manual required,
at zero degrees Celsius. The plant's safety systems were dismantled
and not working. Water leaked into the giant MIC tank and set
off a violent chemical reaction.
Nobody knows exactly how many died but
we can form an idea from the 7,000 burial shrouds that were bought
over the next three days. This number does not take into account
the hundreds of people who were unaccounted for, or the families
who had no-one left to bury or cremate them.
The death toll from long-term health problems
now stands at 25,000 - and a further 25,000 people in the slums
around the factory continue to be poisoned by the chemicals that
have been left behind. Women in this community reach their menopause
at 30. Children are born with deformities and girls do not menstruate
until they are 18. Pigeon chests, webbed feet and growth retardation
are frightening realities.
Great piles of chemicals litter the grounds
of the former Union Carbide plant, leaching their deadly toxins
into the water and poisoning people slowly. No birds sing inside
the site, but children play there all the same, among some of
the deadliest poisons in existence. Cows and goats graze on pasture
contaminated by 26 years of chemical dumping.
Here and there lie piles of reddish-brown
rocks, some the size of boulders. These are lumps of Sevin, which
has a low ignition point. If it catches light it releases the
same gas that killed so many in 1984. Over the last two years
there have been several massive fires inside the plant's grounds
and some of the Sevin has caught light. Last year fire swept over
several hectares and damaged 22 houses in the neighbouring slums.
Just as in the 1984 disaster, residents smelt 'burning chillies',
their eyes and noses stung, their lungs burned. Some said they
were unable to scream because they could only choke and cough.
This time nobody died - but the poor are
being poisoned nonetheless. Each rainy season the abandoned chemicals
- among them organophosphates and heavy metals - leach into the
ground and contaminate the water. A report by Greenpeace International
found mercury at between 20,000 and 6,000,000 times the expected
levels all over the factory's grounds.
People who have moved into the surrounding
slums years after the disaster have the same symptoms as the survivors
of the tragedy of 1984. They complain of abdominal pain, skin
lesions, dizziness, vomiting, constipation, indigestion and burning
sensations in the chest and stomach. The majority of children
in the worst-affected areas are born seriously underweight and
weak, with discoloured skin. Women don't lactate properly and
some stop completely within a month of giving birth. The water
they drink is laced with 12 deadly chemicals in concentrations
up to 600 times greater than the US Environmental Protection Agency's
standard for safety.
Reshma Bi has been ill since the day she
was born. Grossly deformed, she cannot walk because her spine
is twisted. Her hunched back sticks out for all to see that she
is a child of the gas. After Reshma, her mother Kamrunnisa gave
birth to another child, who choked on her own vomit and died.
On the night of the gas she lost three of her children, who all
died in the most horrific way.
Mamta Bai lives in one of the hovels next
to the plant. There is a water tank outside her home but it is
contaminated with toxins so she walks for two hours every day
to collect water from another source. 'Every year one person in
my family falls sick,' she says. 'My sister has bad chest pains
and my mother has recently been in hospital because of very bad
aches and pains all over her body. In the summer months we get
a stench that comes from the factory.'
Social worker Dr Ghazala Aftab Ahmed miscarried
a few days after the fateful night. The poison remained in her
body and was passed on to her next child. Khushnoor ('Happy Light')
was born in 1990 and developed problems with her kidneys when
she was two years old. In 1993 Dr Ghazala and her husband Aftab
had to borrow $3,000 to pay for Khushnoor to have a life-saving
operation. Compensation didn't even pay for the flight to Bombay.
Nearly all the 550,000 people who claimed
compensation from Union Carbide were given the equivalent of about
$500 - or 7.5 cents a day for the 18 years of their misery. If
someone was killed on the night of the gas their families were
paid on average $1,250 - or 19 cents a day for 18 years.
The Indian Government refused Kaneeza
Bi compensation for her husband's death: She has three sons and
a daughter. 'My son woke me up on the night of the gas,' she recalls.
'We ran towards the park and I lost two
of my children in the rush. We found them two days later, but
my husband was found unconscious on the street. His stomach had
blown up like a balloon and his eyes were red and he couldn't
open them. He suffered severe breathing problems ever since the
gas and died from a heart attack last year, brought on by his
breathing problems.' She only received $4 a month for four years
as compensation for her own health problems. 'There is nobody
to look after me now my husband is dead,' she says.
Mohammed Idris has received no compensation,
though his life has been destroyed. He cannot work or walk for
more than five minutes because he becomes breathless. He was recently
hospitalized for a month and had to wear an oxygen mask day and
night. His wife Aneesa Bi has also been in hospital because of
pains in the chest, headaches, vertigo and swelling of her stomach.
Mohammed weighs just 34 kilos and cannot eat much because of his
sickness - and because he doesn't have enough money for food.
He lives with his wife and six children in a tiny two-room hovel
in a neighbourhood close to the plant.
Zahid Hafing is another of the victims
who has not had any compensation. 'I have never had clear eyesight
since that night,' he says. 'Once a month my hands and feet start
getting stiff. I get a high temperature and throw up and my eyes
hurt. Sometimes I cough so much I feel my life is about to come
to an end. At first the Government agreed to give me 7,000 rupees
($140) over four years but they cancelled it because they said
I wasn't born when the tragedy happened.' Zahid was eight years
old on the night of the gas.
Union Carbide paid $470 million after
settling out of court with the Indian Government. To this day
only $166 million of it has been given to the people of Bhopal.
The rest sits in a bank account in Delhi.
Despite a number of reports and scientific
studies, only $8,300 has been spent on providing a fresh source
of water for the slum dwellers. Water tanks have been provided
for 2,000 people, but these are only ever half-full and the water
inside is far from clean.
The Chief Minister of the local Madhya
Pradesh Government declines to comment on why the factory has
not been cleaned up. He also cannot say when the 25,000 slum dwellers
will get access to clean water.
The man allegedly responsible for the
gas leak, Warren Anderson, former chief executive of Union Carbide,
has never stood trial. He relaxes in his million-dollar house
in New York State, still managing to evade the courts, despite
a request for his extradition from Bhopal-magistrates to the US
Government. He is charged with culpable homicide and, if found
guilty, could serve up to 20 years in prison.
Last July the Indian Government appealed
to the Supreme Court to reduce the charges against him from culpable
homicide to negligence. If you think this seems an odd response
to the contempt he and Union Carbide have shown the Indian justice
system, then you should know the following. The new owner of Union
Carbide is American giant Dow Chemical, which is one of India's
largest foreign investors. Reducing the charges would have effectively
extinguished the case against Warren Anderson and absolved Dow
from the responsibility for cleaning up the factory, thus wooing
Dow's foreign investment.
A further point to consider when judging
the Government's record on Bhopal is its proposal to use $150
million of the original compensation payment. They wanted to spend
this on the richer nongas-affected areas of Bhopal, populated
mainly by wealthy Hindus - presumably to gain votes for the ruling
Hindu nationalist party, the BJP - at the expense of the poor
and disenfranchised gas victims. If it were not for mass demonstrations
by the victims last July, both of these proposals would, no doubt,
have become reality.
Campaigners and volunteers continue to
work tirelessly -18 years after the disaster - to help the gas
victims secure medical treatment and compensation. Yet for all
the campaigning there is little sign of real action in the courts
or, more importantly, on the ground.