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25 years on

January 13, 2009

A quarter of a century has passed since Bhopal suffered the world’s worst industrial disaster, when 40 tonnes of lethal methyl isocyanate gas exploded from the US-owned Union Carbide pesticides manufacturing plant. More than 2000 people in the densely populated city died from the gas in the first 72 hours – more than 20,000 since. The highly reactive chemical attacks every organ in the body after its absorption via the eyes and lungs – victims are blinded and suffocate. Chronic conditions suffered by the survivors include kidney, fertility, joint, mental health problems – you name it, they have it.

We went to visit the Sambhavna Trust, a research centre and clinic located in the heart of the worst affected area, mere metres from the now-defunct pesticides plant. It is an oasis in the heart of filthy, shanty-town misery. We talked to a team of dedicated doctors, activists, gardeners who tend the beautiful Ayurvedic plantings – each had the same calm, kind expression.

The gas leak is more than a tragedy, it’s a bloody disgrace – and it’s ongoing. The leak itself occurred because of cost-cutting at the plant, which was insufficiently pressurising and cooling the chemical, in violation of regulations. There were no warning systems in place. Nobody has been punished. Dow chemicals, the huge US firm that bought the Union Carbide plant refuses to allow medics access to research data from studies carried out (at Carnegie-Mellon University)) into the effects of MIC gas on living tissue. The government hospital set up to provide free treatment to victims of the gas, in fact prioritises its fee-paying private patients so that gas victims get inferior care, drugs and wait for tests – many dying while waiting for dialysis, for example.

Perhaps the most upsetting thing I heard, though, was the ongoing poisoning issue: while in operation, the plant dumped tonnes and tonnes of pesticide waste, untreated, into 3 lakes on site. These have been leaking toxic chemicals into the groundwater that 30,000 people in the area drink, bathe and wash with. The results are visible in the patients I met and talked to, and include skin disorders, cancers, digestive problems and joint pain. Dow refuses to clean the site, saying that it is not its responsibility. The Indian government says it is unable to clean the site because it lacks the know-how and finances. Meanwhile, people are being poisoned – incredible. The activists from the Sambhavna Trust and others went on protest marches last year and this, demanding that clean water be supplied. It is slowly happening. One-third now receive sporadic piped water from a clean source. Court cases rumble on in the US federal court and in India. Every year more die from their conditions or by suicide from the mental anguish.

It feels like a sad city, Bhopal. The clinic was surprisingly uplifting because of the beautiful people working there. But I was glad to leave for Agra.

It is strange to think that in the neighbouring state of Rajasthan, drought-stricken farmers driven to desperation from water and agriculture mismanagement, exacerbated by climate change are ending their lives by drinking pesticides.

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