BHOPAL, Madhya Pradesh, India — In the dim light of her two-room shack opposite the site of one of the world's worst industrial disasters, the Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984, Leelabai Ahirwar delivers a quiet account of the event that ruined her life.
“I myself am still affected by the gas,” the 45-year-old mother of four says. “I suffer from chest pains, and I often feel like I'm about to die. But my children are worse off. My daughter is anemic and her body swells up mysteriously, and my son, Jagdish, never grew properly, so he looks like he is only 14 years old, even though he is almost 22.”
A few minutes into our discussion, Ahirwar calls Jagdish, her stunted son, in from the other room. His elfin features and tiny stature make him look more like a nine year old than the 14 or 15 his mother claimed. But he produces a birth certificate that proves he's 21. “We took him to the doctor many times,” says Ahirwar. “But they don't listen.”
That's no surprise. Jagdish isn't the only young person in this Bhopal slum to suffer from an unexplained ailment. Though there has been no official study of the longterm effects of the gas leak and lingering environmental damage, anecdotal evidence suggests that the residents who remain trapped in the disaster zone live in serious peril. A 2002 report revealed poisons such as 1,3,5 trichlorobenzene, dichloromethane, chloroform, lead and mercury in the breast milk of nursing women living near the factory. A 2003 survey by the Sambhavan Clinic found that half of the residents of this neighborhood suffer from respiratory problems, anemia, headaches and nausea. The clinic also found a higher than average number of birth defects.
At five minutes past midnight on Dec. 3, 1984, some 30 tons of toxic chemicals spewed into the air from an insecticide factory — then owned by Union Carbide — not a stone's throw from Ahirwar's home. Within minutes, poison gas billowed over this poverty-stricken slum community while residents slept. Ahirwar, then 20 years old, and her husband hid under a blanket, only finding out what had transpired the next morning. Up to 8,000 people died over the next few weeks, and as many as 20,000 more in the subsequent months. And that was only the beginning. Unable to relocate due to poverty, residents have continued to drink contaminated water and breathe acrid-tasting air for two generations — with horrifying consequences.
Subsequent investigations revealed that Union Carbide had not taken adequate safety precautions, and the company cut corners to reduce operation costs. Eventually, in an out-of-court settlement reached in 1989, Union Carbide agreed to pay $470 million for damages caused in the Bhopal disaster, 15 percent of the original $3 billion claimed in the lawsuit. By the end of October 2003, according to the Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation Department, compensation had been awarded to 554,895 people for injuries received and 15,310 survivors of those killed. The average amount to families of the dead was $2,200 — a piddling amount that echoed an argument made by a Carbide defense lawyer: "How can one determine the damage inflicted on people who live in shacks?"
And after Union Carbide was sold to Dow Chemical in 2001, the new owners denied they were liable for the site, and have refused to clean up the area or pay additional compensation to the new victims — now in the second and even third generation.
“The contaminated water issue was never part of the settlement, even though Union Carbide knew about it in 1984,” says Rachna Dhingra, a 31-year-old Indian-American activist who works with the Sambhavna Trust. “About 30,000 people living behind the factory are still drinking that water.”
As a visitor, you can't deny that living conditions here are miserable. Union Carbide pumped industrial waste into two solar evaporation ponds just across the street from this overcrowded residential area. Though many years have passed, activists say that the ponds still leak contaminants into the drinking water supply.
And as late as 2005 — 20 years too late — some 340 tons of toxic waste was collected from a locked warehouse on the old factory grounds. I tasted the difference in the air immediately when I stepped out of my taxi from the nicer part of town — where Bhopal surrounds a surprisingly large, clean-looking lake.
Twenty-five years after the gas leak, there may be some hope on the horizon. In November, a New York appeals court reinstated plaintiffs’ claims against Union Carbide Corporation for contaminating water around the Bhopal plant, reversing a lower court’s dismissal of the case. And — pending a new financial settlement — local activists' commitment is paying off. After two marches from Bhopal to Delhi, a distance of some 750 kilometers, the victims of the gas tragedy are seeing some action on items they have been demanding since 1987.
“We got an empowered commission on Bhopal to look into the medical, social and environmental rehabilitation of the area,” says Dhingra. “It will have independent powers and representatives from various service organizations as well as the government.” Dhingra hopes that will mean effective programs instead of feel-good boondoggles. It would be a big change. “Till now, more than 80 crores ($16 million) has been spent on creating jobs, but they've not been able to create even 80 jobs,” says Dhingra.
Today, there's one sign of change that's visible to all: Construction is underway on a network of pipes to provide clean water to the area. “Within three months, the pipeline will be laid,” says Dhingra. “For me, that's a big thing.”
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