Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bhopal's night of terror

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, November 29, 2009


Twenty-five years after the Bhopal Gas Disaster, justice still eludes the victims…

There are many smaller Bhopals that have occurred since 1984 and keep on taking place, often unreported.

Ongoing struggle: Victims of the world's worst industrial disaster still haven't got their due. Photo: S. Subramanium

This past week has been one where one anniversary has dominated the news — that of the terror attack on Mumbai on November 26, 2008. The date is like a permanent scar on the memory of not only Mumbai but also on the collective memory of the rest of India that watched the 60-hour siege and battle as it unfolded on television.

But in the coming week there is another anniversary that unfortunately will not draw the same kind of media attention. Twenty-five years ago, on a winter night of December 2/3 1984, deadly poisonous gas leaked out from the tanks of the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal and killed over 3,000 people. The factory was located in a densely populated area. As the sirens went off in its premises, indicating an emergency, the mostly poor people living around it rushed out to witness a dense cloud of smoke emerging from the factory. In no time, the cloud had spread to the areas close by and beyond. As terrified men, women, children ran in panic, not knowing what this was or where they should run, they inhaled vast quantities of the poisons contained in that cloud. The immediate sensations were burning eyes, breathing difficulties and vomiting. Those who found a quick way to move out of the area survived; the others, including children and the elderly, died on the spot.


As morning broke, the poison had a name. It was methyl isocyanate (MIC), used by Union Carbide to produce a fertilizer. A runaway reaction inside a tank containing 42 tonnes of this deadly chemical resulted in it spewing out of the tank. Local hospitals, inundated with thousands of panicked residents, had no knowledge of what to administer and the company provided no information or antidote. Indeed, for years it argued that MIC would not lead to any long-term effects. The story of Bhopal has conclusively proved this wrong. An estimated 20,000 people have died from complications resulting from inhaling MIC and other chemicals released into the air that night.

On any count, this is one of the worst stories of callousness. The Bhopal Gas Disaster is still known as the world's worst industrial accident. The accident itself, what followed immediately afterwards, the manner in which the case against Union Carbide was hastily settled by the Indian government for an unconscionably low amount of just $470 million, the desperate struggle of survivors for payment of that settlement and for medical treatment, the callous and cavalier manner in which the rotting plant continued to stand as a reminder of that night of horror, the fact that it successfully poisoned all the water sources in its surroundings, thereby punishing the victims yet again — the list of crimes and misdemeanors is long and will leave you breathless. Yet, the indifference continues even today. The pleas, demonstrations, petitions of thousands of women, men and children make little difference.

Twenty-five years is a long time. At the time of the accident, the government accepted that the affected population could be over 500,000. It was also known then, that a large proportion of these would be young. Thousands of pregnant women were amongst those affected. Inevitably, the symptoms would appear over time and would need to be treated. If people were unable to work as a result, they would need to be rehabilitated.

The government at the Centre and in Madhya Pradesh can claim that it has done all this. But the reality on the ground is that the survivors have had to struggle every inch of the way to get their entitlements — compensation, healthcare, work and a clean environment. To compound the tragedy, the rotting plant remained where it was with no one prepared to accept responsibility for the poisons that still continued to leach out from its soil. Over time, these poisons made their way into the wells and water supply in the surrounding area, adding to the burden of illness that the unfortunate people living around the plant have had to live with.

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