Generations of Victims Bhopal's Unending Catrastrophe

Thirty years after the worst chemical accident in history, the disaster is hitting a new generation. The victims have received little help, professional clean-up has not happened and there are no signs the ongoing environmental catastrophe will end.

By Anne Backhaus and in Bhopal, India

When the monsoon washes away the dust of the Indian summer from the landscape, huts and people of Bhopal, the dry basin behind the slum of J.P. Nagar turns into a lake. Laughing children swim in it, fishermen wait for the telltale tug on their lines to signal a catch, and buffalos greedily devour the succulent stems of water lilies.

In Hinduism, water is considered the source of all life. But in Bhopal, a cycle of death begins with each year's rainy season.

"The people can't see, smell or taste the poison," says Rachna Dhingra, "but it's there." It's in the water, in the flesh of fish and in the milk of the water buffalo, and it's in the dark mud that slum residents scrape from the shores of the lake to fill the cracks in their houses. Dhingra, 37, is standing on a small hill in her blue kurta, a long traditional Indian garment, angrily trying to talk sense into the fishermen. "This is suicide," she shouts.

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Today's lake was once used as a solar evaporation pond, a dump for the unfiltered waste from the nearby chemical plant. More than 11,000 tons of material was dumped there, and now the soil and groundwater are contaminated with mercury, nickel and other heavy metals. Nevertheless, farmers water their animals at the lake every day, and women fetch water from it to wash their children and their laundry. The contaminated lake affects more than half a million people. For activist Dhingra, what is happening in Bhopal is an "endless catastrophe -- and the world simply looks away."

The murky lake is only about 500 meters (1,640 feet) from the grounds of the former Union Carbide plant. The rusty factory ruins form a backdrop to the corrugated metal roofs of the slum, almost a memorial. They are silent witnesses of the tragedy that began in Bhopal 30 years ago and continues today.

In the late 1970s, the Indian subsidiary of Union Carbide, a US chemical company now owned by Dow Chemical, began producing the pesticide Sevin in Bhopal. The city of 1.8 million is the capital of Madhya Pradesh, a predominantly rural state in the heart of India, slightly larger than Italy. Local officials hoped the plant would provide an economic boost to the city, and tons of toxic chemicals were stored on the factory grounds. But business was slow, and by the winter of 1984 only a skeleton crew was left to run the plant. Union Carbide planned to close the facility and move it to another location. Necessary maintenance work was postponed, and the cooling system for the gas tanks and other safety equipment had already been dismantled.

Horrible Reminders

There was a clear sky on the night of Dec. 2, 1984. Starting at around midnight and for several hours thereafter, 27 tons of the highly toxic chemical methylisocyanate (MIC) escaped through a leak, creating a cloud of toxic gas that settled over the city, killing thousands of people. Even "the birds fell from the sky," SPIEGEL wrote in its cover story at the time. The images from Bhopal were like horrible reminders of the poison gas attacks of World War I.

The poorest of the poor, those living in the slums next to the factory, were the worst affected. There were bodies everywhere, their limbs twisted in rigor mortis, and their mouths open like fish gasping for air. To this day, more than 200,000 people have fallen ill and up to 30,000 have died from the consequences of the accident. There will never be an exact figure. Many of those who breathed their last breath on that night were not included in any statistics, because the only people who knew their names were also dead.

The Muslim cemeteries were overwhelmed with bodies, with gravediggers working around the clock. The Hindus, who cremate their dead, built funeral pyres of human bodies. After the gas, the stench of death anesthetized the city.

This December marks the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal gas disaster, which is still the biggest chemical accident in history. It was even worse than the uncontrolled dumping of waste containing mercury in the Japanese city of Minamata, and its long-term effects are perhaps comparable only with those of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Some who feel reminded of the scope of the disaster caused by the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima call the Bhopal disaster "Bhoposhima."

Toxic Ghost Town

But what happened on that December night was only the beginning of an apocalypse of a much greater magnitude. The environmental tragedy, the ongoing poisoning of the environment and people of Bhopal, has unfolded in the three decades since that night and continues to unfold today.

The reasons for the tragedy are known. The main source of the current environmental pollution is the factory site, which was never the subject of any professional cleanup operation. About 350 tons of highly toxic waste, old residues of pesticide production, are still stored on the 35-hectare (86-acre) site, packaged in ordinary plastic bags in the middle of the city. The former factory premises, now owned by the state of Madhya Pradesh, resemble a ghost town today. Broken test tubes litter the floors of laboratories, as the old tanks rust away. A plan to dispose of the waste with the help of the German Society for International Cooperation failed in 2012.

There are still no exclusion zones around the site today, and there are holes in the ordinary brick wall surrounding the factory. In the summer, when temperatures can rise above 45 degrees Celsius (112 degrees Fahrenheit), a reddish dust from the factory settles on the nearby huts. When it rains, the contaminated soil is flushed into neighboring slums. The goats of nearby residents graze on the factory grounds.

The old evaporation basins, into which Union Carbide pumped its highly toxic wastewater, are neither marked nor off-limits to the public today. No measures have been taken to stop further groundwater contamination.

'The Unlucky Ones Survived'

"The people who died that night were the lucky ones," says Rashida Bee. "The unlucky ones survived."

Bee, 58, lost six family members to the disaster. The gas turned her into a widow and a fighter. Bee is a Muslim, a woman with a gentle gaze and a strong voice. She wears part of her red sari over her hair like a headscarf. For many years, Bee has been fighting for the rights of the survivors -- and for the recognition and care of the next generation of victims.

"First we were exposed to the gas," says Bee, who still has respiratory problems, "and now they are poisoning us and our children with every sip of groundwater that we drink." She cites the many scientific studies that prove how contaminated the water is in residential areas around the decaying factory. But the studies have not led to any serious consequences on the part of the government.

Bee, together with Champa Devi Shukla, a Hindu who lost her husband and one son to the gas, formed the Chingari Trust 10 years ago. It operates a rehabilitation center that is funded by donations and dedicated to disabled children from poor families living near the former Union Carbide site. The Chingari Trust currently supports and treats 200 children free of charge. They suffer from autism, and their hands and feet are stunted. Some were born deaf or blind, and many are mentally disabled. "These children will never be able to lead a normal life," says Bee.

In the poor residential neighborhoods over which the gas cloud descended in 1984 and where the worst of the toxic residues remain today, there is a disabled child living in one in seven huts. The rates of premature births and stillbirths in women who were exposed to the gas are about three times the national average. But there is a lack of long-term scientific studies. No government agencies and no hospitals in the city keep track of the abnormalities. Midwives from the neighborhoods, who practiced before the accident and have observed developments over the years, report gruesome abnormalities, including fetuses with greenish skin and deformed heads. "The birth of a child is normally a reason to celebrate," explains Parwati, who is from a family of midwives. "But in this area a birth comes as a shock to many parents."

'Only the Gods Can Help Us'

Annamika, 27, was one of those parents, when her son Aarav was born three years ago. His head is much too heavy for his delicate body, his mouth is crooked and his eyes stare apathetically into space. At the Chingari Trust, speech therapists try to teach Aarav simple words so that he can communicate when he is thirsty or hungry. Physical therapists try to help him relax the cramped muscles around his thin legs.

Annamika grew up near the railroad tracks, not far from the former Union Carbide plant. Her older brother, who was born on the evening of the accident, died as a baby. Annamika, who stayed in school longer than her friends and completed a degree, worked for an insurance company until recently. Her parents had serious health problems after the gas accident. She cared for her mother for many years, and her father died in 2008 from a pulmonary edema. Annamika was overjoyed when she became pregnant. "But Aarav needed 24-hour care," she says, "so I had to quit my job." The child's condition is a financial disaster for the young family. Her husband would like a second child, "but we can't afford it. What happens if that child is also unhealthy?" Annamika asks. She prays a lot to Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of health, says the young mother. "Only the gods can help us."

The suffering of their children constitutes both an emotional and a financial burden for families. Many perceive a disabled child as a double punishment. "The parents are often in poor health themselves, but they have no choice. They have to go to work to be able to buy food and medication for themselves and their children," says Rashida Bee. As a result, many care-dependent children are left to their own devices in their huts during the day.

There is a long waiting list for treatment at the Chingari Trust. The center is located on one of Bhopal's busy main streets, just a short walk from the decaying ruins of the Union Carbide plant. In the hallway, which is painted in bright colors, Bee speaks with the parents who are sitting on the floor with their children, waiting for treatment. The air is stuffy and the children are crying, because their splinted legs hurt.

Guinea Pigs

Bee estimates "that close to 3,000 disabled children from the surrounding neighborhoods urgently need help." But facilities like the Chingari Trust are rare or unaffordable for the poor. And local residents have distrusted the Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Center, established in 1984 for the free treatment of victims of the gas leak, ever since it was revealed in 2011 that Western pharmaceutical companies like AstraZeneca and Pfizer were conducting drug tests on patients. The gas victims were being misused as test subjects for new heart drugs and antibiotics.

"Bhopal holds up a mirror to India," says Vinuta Gopal of Greenpeace India. The environmentalist deplores the lack of a sense of responsibility for human beings and nature among large corporations. "Companies have the certainty that not much can happen to them here," she says, noting that Bhopal is still the blueprint for the way companies handle such disasters in the country.

In 1989, US-based Union Carbide and its Indian subsidiary paid about $470 million to the Indian government, effectively buying their way out of any further criminal prosecution. Only a fraction of the money reached the victims. It was a cheap decision in every respect.

By comparison, in 2011 a US court ordered the giant corporation that now owns Union Carbide to pay $3 million to an asbestos victim with cancer. In Bhopal, the families were paid about $1,600 for each dead relative, while those with injuries were palmed off with $500 -- only enough to pay for a few months of their medications, in many cases. Today the widows of gas victims receive a monthly pension of 150 rupees, or about €1.50.

To this day, Union Carbide denies any responsibility for the long-term damage to human beings and the environment in Bhopal. Its representatives claim, for example, that the company "secured" the evaporation basin with a plastic tarp. They insist that the fact that pollutants still entered the groundwater was purely the fault of local residents, who had "damaged" the material. "The question of toxic waste cleanup on the factory grounds should not be taken up with us, but with the local authorities," says a company spokesman.


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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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