Generations of Victims Bhopal's Unending Catrastrophe

By and in Bhopal, India

Part 2: '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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kennethcollins 12/10/2014
1. Ongoing disaster at Bhopal
This whole episode has been nothing short of a total disgrace from the start. The provision by Union Carbide to seal the lake without an alternative to provide for the needs of the people was a further contribution to their suffering. I can't express how sad I feel for these poor people. It is time that this desperate situation was rectified, however much it costs.
brian.elliot.58 12/14/2014
2. Bhopal's Unending Catrastrophe
Nobody will help, it is 10,000 kms from our front door. Ukraine is on fire. Who cares about 1 Billion 200 million Indians. If they all wanted 10 Ltrs of fuel or fresh water, heating, bread and milk we would complain that we were giving them to much aid. Secretly the world is worried if they modernize they will want the same as us and there is not enough to go around. I will remind you that it only took 3 weeks after the wall came down, for the west Berliners to want the wall back up, they had lived of the fated calf for 35 years. I was one off them.
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