Bhopal- not forgotten

Accidents happen, people die, the offenders pay and the public forgets. But what if the accident continued to add victims to its list year after year and decade after decade and like the Ghost of Christmas Past, it kept returning in the form of disease and mutilation? Bhopal, a city in central India, may not be the perfect setting for a Dickens novel but it carries the stamp of a haunted past.

The night of Dec 3rd, 1984, a powerful gas leak from the American-run Union Carbide Industries Limited (UCIL) pesticide factory, in Bhopal drowned the city in 27 tonnes of methyl isocyanate (MIC). The pungent odour of the gas drove people out of their homes and into streets filled with even more frenzied people. The result was a bloodbath which statistics quantify as a death toll of 25,000 people at the end of the week which followed. City municipalities struggled to deal with the overwhelming number of bodies which even mass burials and cremations could not address. Half a million people had been exposed.

Established in 1970, the pesticide plant was UCIL’s effort to tap into India’s agricultural market. As farmers were unable to afford the pesticides due to increasing floods and droughts and resulting drop in crop yield, the factory went into slow decline, as did its security systems, finally ceasing production. Three tanks full of methyl isocyanate continued to loom in its dark corners till a corroded pipe allowed water to come in contact with the deadly chemical unleashing a volatile reaction. The concrete tanks exploded and spat plumes of MIC and hydrogen cyanide into the atmosphere, which cleared up after a while, and into the groundwater and soil, which never did. Generations have been poisoned since. Even today in 2010, an abnormally high number of children are diagnosed with birth defects like cerebral palsy, tumours, webbed feet, deformed or twisted limbs and sensory disabilities. Periodic testing over the decades has shown the presence of heavy metals like lead and mercury and organochlorines in the soil and water near the plant. Lactating women living in the vicinity have tested positive for the presence of these pollutants in their breast milk.

The plant lies still like a fossil, untouched, in the middle of the city. Union Carbide never cleaned up after itself. The offenders got away unscathed leaving a trail of stained corporate liability in their lee.

The people of Bhopal have learned to live with a fate which kills fetuses before they are born and maims those which make it, but their quest for justice has not concluded. The Indian Government and Dow have each outwitted the other in the classic blame-game, oblivious to the growing numbers of disabled children in Bhopal. Citizen groups around the country have been lobbying with UCIL, now Dow Chemicals, to clean up the plant. The thirst for justice has become so contagious that now America has stepped in to ensure that justice is served to the Bhopalis. American youth and students have formed support groups under the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB) to raise awareness and rally with the American government. Heading the Boston Coalition for this campaign, Leonid Chindelevitch, a PhD student at MIT says “awareness and strength of the campaign has increased with time though things don’t change quickly.” He adds that media coverage has helped them estimate the growing awareness of this dated incident with “over 500 articles appearing in American and European Press on the 25th Anniversary of the tragedy”. He further adds that the added pressure from the home country has restricted Dow’s ability to carry out business in India.

Leonid is not the only one who feels this way. In the year 2000, passionate youth around the America formed themselves into an organized group called ‘Students for Bhopal’. US Campaigner and representative, Claire Rosenfield says that “the group was formed in response to the fact that an American company was responsible for the disaster.” Working to raise awareness, motivation and funds, the group is present in major cities across the country including New York, Chicago, Boston and Northern California. They work in close conjunction with the local campaign in India to further the demand for justice. Commenting on the progress of the campaign in the past decade, Rosenfield says, “We make it such that Dow has to make notice of us once in a while. Andrew Liveris (present Chairman and CEO, Dow Chemicals) had to address Bhopal when he took office.”

The demands are simple- compensation for victims, cleaning up the site and water sources around it, and Dow admitting to its crime. Global justice is the mantra. “It is important to create international pressure,” says Somnath Mukherji from Associate for India’s Development (AID), “we work to confront Dow in several ways in the US.” Working with Students for Bhopal, AID conducts activities around the US targeting youth in major universities to recognize the true face of Dow and to remember the tragedy that was. Though embedded 26 years ago in time, Mukherji points out that Bhopal is not history, “How can it be dated if babies are still born deformed? Is colonialism a dated issue?” When asked how all this affects Dow, Mukherji’s response is brief “Dow is offended. It’s not as if we can let them forget it.”

Mukherji was right. In 2004, 20 years after the disaster, Congressman Frank Pallone introduced a bill in the House of Representatives marking the 20th anniversary of the tragedy and expressing Congress’s commitment to working with the government of India to ensure that Union Carbide is held responsible. In a prepared statement Pallone expressed solidarity with the movement- “our countries should come together to recognize the gravity of the Bhopal disaster and the ongoing environmental problems in Bhopal caused by Union Carbide’s policies and practices.”

Across the border in Toronto, Ellen Shifrin a volunteer with Amnesty International mentions that Bhopal is an important issue for Amnesty under their larger aegis of corporate liability. “We do not believe in burning effigies,” she said, “ but we want medical clinics, clean water and justice.” She adds that “Bhopal is one the biggest examples of what can go wrong in the world”.

Bhopal is alive. It’s breathing through choked lungs and limping its way into the twenty first century but it’s still alive. 26-year-old Andrew David Simpson left for India on Nov 1, 2010 to walk from the Pakistan border in the West to the Bay of Bengal in the East covering a distance of 2000 miles on foot. His motivation is to raise money for the Bhopal Medical Appeal. While waiting at the airport to board his flight to India, Andrew contemplates the journey ahead, “people hope that it’s going to go away but it obviously hasn’t. As time goes on it has just gotten worse.”