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Bhopal’s Healing Wounds

AsiaHuman Rights

As the political and diplomatic fallout from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill continued to worsen and President Barack Obama declared a crusade against negligent corporations, photojournalist Jack Laurenson decided to travel to Bhopal, India–home to the site of the worlds worst industrial catastrophe. Although the American Union Carbide corporation had long since left, he found a toxic and painful legacy left behind and little being done to remedy the ongoing tragedy by those responsible. Twenty six years since the disaster, thousands continue to die from chronic illnesses, the UC factory is still a highly contaminated industrial graveyard and justice continues to evade the people of Bhopal.

“In India today, the poor are constantly left behind, all our government and the corporations do is betray us.” Gayadri is a 50 year old woman living in a heavily gas-affected community just outside the Union Carbide complex in Bhopal. “Our men are too sick to work regularly so we cannot pay taxes. That’s why they don’t help us. Everybody here feels abandoned and neglected, but that’s nothing new.”

Those unfortunate enough to reside in the poorest areas of Bhopal, continue to live a life of pain and neglect in the shadow of Union Carbides poisonous legacy. Almost 26 years on from that tragic night when 27 tonnes of Methyl Isocyanate gas descended on Bhopal’s shanty-towns, the area surrounding the UC compound is still being called a “global toxic hot-spot” and has essentially been declared unfit for any kind of human habitation. Greenpeace and the Indian Centre for Science and Environment have revealed a continuing environmental and humanitarian nightmare that UC and various Indian governments have consistently failed to tackle with terrible consequences for the people of Bhopal.

Union Carbide openly dumped it’s highly lethal waste in the surrounding areas for years, water and soil contaminated with various chemicals and heavy metals continues to claim many lives and entire communities suffer with painful, debilitating illnesses. “We have been asking for safe water for years–when election time comes around and they want votes they turn up and promise such things but they never keep their word. This kind of problem, if it was happening in a rich community, would have been sorted long ago” Gayadri tells me. Dow Chemicals–which acquired UC and all of it’s assets in 2001–constantly refuses to take any responsibility for ongoing social and ecological damage in Bhopal. They argue that taking over UC, should not leave them with inherited responsibilities and liabilities, despite obtaining all their wealth. The corporation–who are also partly to blame for the horrific legacies of Agent Orange in Vietnam–are now facing renewed lawsuits in the Indian and American Courts as the government of India and activists attempt to get them to foot the bill for a final and conclusive cleanup.

A wave of renewed focus on Bhopal and the issue of corporate liability following the BP oil-spill recently caused President Barack Obama’s National Security Advisor Mike Froman to send what was interpreted as a veiled threat to India. He stated, in private correspondence with counterparts in New Delhi; “We are hearing a lot of noise about the Dow Chemicals issue. I trust that you are monitoring it carefully.” In an apparent attack on the momentum-gathering protest movement in India, he went on to say that their government should; “avoid developments which put a chilling effect on our investment relationship.” Survivors in Bhopal were swift to condemn Froman and said it confirmed that the US and Indian governments were; “more concerned about commercial interests than real justice.”

Union Carbides failure to decontaminate what was once it’s “Indian Jewel” and is now a highly toxic industrial graveyard has created a vacuum of responsibility. Despite the evidence, many state hospitals and clinics do not acknowledge ongoing contamination and this leaves at least 40,000 chronically ill water-affected patients without access to any healthcare. The Sambhavna Clinic and Chingari therapy centre for disabled children stand out like shining lights in the wilderness and offer entirely free treatment to the legions of sick and dying in Bhopal who would otherwise be without hope.

Funded by the Brighton based Bhopal Medical Appeal, Dr. Satinath Saringi established The Sambhavna Clinic with a team of survivors in 1995 to tackle Bhopal’s continuing health problems and legacy of illnesses. “Treatment here was a problem, it wasn’t providing any sustained relief and in the big hospitals people were just being pumped full of huge amounts of needless, potentially dangerous drugs without any medical protocol” Saringi tells me. “We were also seeing situations of significant profit arising because of huge contracts with certain pharmaceutical giants. On top of this, various studies concluded that some of the initial healthcare in Bhopal was having a hugely detrimental effect on victims of the disaster and investigations by The International Medical Convention on Bhopal found rampant abuse of steroids and psychotropic drugs. This was, and still is, a recipe for disaster.”

Reshma is around 70, but isn’t exactly sure, she has a beautiful but sorrowful face and long white hair. She survived the initial gas-cloud on that December night in 1984 but has endured agony and sickness ever since. “There had been a few young couples getting married in the neighborhood, there was such jubilation, we were all enjoying ourselves so much! Then there was a slight smell of burning in the air and peoples eyes started to sting. We thought it was chillies or incense, nobody worried initially. Then suddenly a panicked white horse that had escaped from one of the weddings galloped down the street, let out a terrifyingly painful whinny and collapsed, suffocating on the ground. That was when it began.”

After an accident in the Union Carbide factory in which water was mixed with highly reactive and potentially deadly methyl-isocyanate, a devastating chemical reaction spawned a huge toxic gas-cloud which was blown towards Bhopal’s poorest communities by a strong wind. Due to intense cost-cutting measures implemented by the American management of UC, no safety protocols or systems were operational, not even an effective alarm. Forty-two tonnes of MIC was being stored at around thirty degrees higher than it should have been to avoid reaction. That night, the gas, which was heavier than air so it hugged the ground, inflicted agonising deaths on thousands. MIC exposure caused full-scale catastrophic organ failure, complete destruction of the respiratory system, blindness and eventually an incredibly terrifying and painful death. Union Carbide had said that the chemical was simply a “mild irritant.”

In the ensuing panic and frantic fleeing crowds, Reshma was separated from most of her family other than her husband and grand-daughter. After escaping the cloud, she sat with her husband in the street as he eventually went blind, started to choke on his own congealed blood and suffocated–uttering with his last breath that he would always love her. “Ever since that night I have endured such pains in my joints, headaches and chest-pains, not to mention the pain in my soul of having lost my family. I have nobody now. My grand-daughter passed away a few years ago and I just have my agony and loneliness.” She carries on to say that she received years of treatment from the Bhopal Memorial Hospital but that the medicines had bad side-effects and the doctors mistreated her. At Sambhavna, she had finally found treatment that was at-least alleviating some of her pain. “The herbal medicines help with the chest pains and head aches, they also get me to do yoga and massage to help with the joint pains.” With tears beginning to trickle down her cheeks she blesses the people who have helped her. She sits on a bench in the clinic under a sign which reads; “A heart-felt thank you to the ten thousand British people who donated and made this clinic possible.”

Dr. Saringi, who arrived in Bhopal as a volunteer the day after the gas-disaster in 1984 and never left, has implemented unique treatment combinations in his clinic. “By integrating ayurvedic treatment, with yoga, massage and modern medicine we are able to provide more sustained relief. On top of this, we’re not adding to the toxic load in peoples bodies by prescribing copious amounts of drugs unnecessarily.” He is also skeptical of the role The Bhopal Memorial Hospital plays in healing Bhopal’s wounds; “The BMH, despite all of their funds and specialist equipment from Union Carbide, lack essential things like a gynecology unit. Problems with women’s menstrual cycles and other gynecological issues are a huge problem in Bhopal and they just don’t address this issue. They also don’t acknowledge the water contamination and provide any care to those patients. This is a huge problem and the treatment at BMH often does more harm than good.”

Most people are not acutely aware of the dire ecological problems that still persist here–largely thanks to an irresponsible and mostly effective dis-information campaign waged by the state government of Madhya Pradesh. They do not know that the water contains Mercury concentrations seven million times higher than World Health Organisation recommended limits and they don’t know that the factory is still littered with toxic chemicals and hard metals all of which cause dreadful long-term damage. Those who do know about the dangerous areas, have little choice as few suitable alternatives are available.

The Union Carbide site itself is one of the only places where people can venture to find suitable grazing grounds for their livestock and plentiful ground-water for washing and cooking. People also use the highly toxic soil from dumping grounds to build their houses. Efforts to secure the poisonous site, and stop people from using it, have been entirely useless. The large steel gate is constantly open and the seven foot high walls are full of holes and in some parts entirely demolished. Government ministers and officials have also visited communities and told people–despite the overwhelming scientific evidence and the overflowing clinics–that everything is alright and that a few monsoon rains have washed away decades of dumped contaminants. Such events are frequent and have attracted huge criticism. “Ever since 1984 the state and national governments have attempted to downplay the damage of the disaster to avoid discouraging more foreign investment. The first thing the government did in Bhopal was order the army to come in with trucks and collect corpses, peoples loved ones, then dump them in the rivers and lakes to make it look like there were less casualties. Now many departments are desperately trying to downplay the environmental damage” one survivor–now a doctor–explained.

I was myself hospitalized for five days after uncovering scattered deposits of abandoned waste. Carbon Tetrachloride, Chloroform, Benzene, Acetic Acid, Methanol and other highly toxic substances are piled up merely yards away from where children were gathering water and grazing their goats in the Union Carbide compound. Many of the chemicals still abandoned at the UC complex are potentially lethal even after short-term exposure. Most are highly carcinogenic and destroy the immune and central nervous systems–some even taste and smell sweet. Greenpeace and other organizations have found high concentrations of these chemicals, and metals such as Zinc and Mercury in the local water and soil. A large and expensive cleanup effort has taken place in recent years to secure large amounts of poisonous substances kindly left behind by Union Carbide and despite literally tonnes of the stuff being locked up in warehouses or courteously dumped in other states huge quantities of contaminants remain.

In the worst gas-affected areas, any compensation that was ever received or development that was promised is largely invisible. The slums next to Union Carbide overflow with children who have never been to school or drunk clean water. There is rampant alcoholism and unemployment because adults–who would usually be manual laborers or the like–are too sick to work. The only evidence of any government funded “progress” comes in the form of a giant flyover bridge which is being built directly over the communities and has resulted in dozens of homes being demolished. Then there is the water pipes and trucks delivering “fresh” drinking water to the communities. In 2005 the Supreme Court of India ruled that the State Government of Madhya Pradesh must provide clean water to it’s citizens. It wasn’t until 2008 that they finally started laying pipelines and arranging regular water-truck deliveries–these provisions however, are only reaching around 20% of the affected communities and everybody else continues to drink water from highly poisonous sources. Water shortages in certain parts of India are becoming a huge problem, but in Bhopal–known affectionately as “the city of lakes”–alternative sources could easily be made available with the right investment.

Minister Babular Gaur is the senior minister responsible for a host of important duties in Bhopal but most notably gas-relief, rehabilitation and “development.” He boasted; “I am building beautiful cities! Clean cities! Perfect cities with good roads, wonderful parks and clean water!” Asked if he thought dying of kidney failure or watching your child slowly go blind was beautiful wasn’t a subject he was apparently keen to discuss. “We are providing perfectly clean water to all of the affected communities and there are no complaints, people are not sick, nobody has died, they have the same access to clean water as everybody else in this city!” Sadly, evidence shown to Minister Gaur that up to 80% of the communities still use Union Carbide’s contaminated water pumps were ignored. He insisted they were all closed. When questioned about the scarcity of government water-truck deliveries he explained that dozens of trucks visit the communities every day. Mamta, a woman who was collecting ground water from heavily contaminated sources earlier that day said she hadn’t seen a water truck for days. Her children, with bloated tummies and painful looking skin conditions were obviously thirsty. “What can I do?” she asked. “Sometimes it makes us feverish and it gives me and my children diarrhea and vomiting but we have to drink something. We either definitely die of thirst, or we risk our lives drinking this water. It’s not much of a life, but we have no choice.”

The frantic scramble for water suggested that this government pipe had been inactive for a while. Despite looking refreshing and pure, an old woman washing her clothes discreetly pointed out: “This water is no good, it makes us sick, it gives us ulcers and rashes on our skin, if we leave it in bottles for more than a day it’s full of bugs.” Dr. Saringi at The Sambhavna Clinic confirmed that the water supplied by the state government has tested positive for E-Coli and other harmful bacterias. He said: “The government, as usual, is being criminally negligent and mixing safe water with water sourced near an open sewer channel to save money, but these communities are full of expendable people who are too sick to work and don’t pay taxes, what do they matter?” Minister Babular prefers to blame the people for the E-Coli. “These slums are so filthy and their sanitation is so bad, they throw their waste everywhere and wonder why they get sick.” Indeed, India is not generally the cleanest of places. But when reminded that he is the minister responsible for development and sanitation–both of which are practically non-existent outside of his small constituency of affluent New Bhopal–his argument did not explain why the water was contaminated as it left his pipeline directly from the source. He continued to alternate between denying and downplaying the problem and eventually grew tired of the conversation and ended the interview.

The International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal blame the persistent problems here on institutionalized government corruption and Dow Chemicals constant refusal to accept any responsibility. “Since 1984, the state government–irrespective of the political party in charge–has constantly misused and misappropriated funds meant for medical care and rehabilitation. In 26 years our government has received hundreds of millions of US dollars in aid from the central government and it just evaporates.” Says Saringi, echoing similar sentiments across the city. “And as far as the people of Bhopal are concerned, Dow Chemicals has acquired all of Union Carbides equity and all of its liabilities. Union Carbide designed, supervised, and operated the waste disposal process in Bhopal but has never paid out for subsequent environmental damage. We continue to demand that Dow Chemicals accept responsibility.”

In June, The Indian Government approved plans for renewed financial and logistical aid to Bhopal, but activists are fearful that this money–which is estimated to be hundreds of millions of US dollars–will simply evaporate after trickling down through the same old corrupt bureaucracy in the state government. The Supreme Court of India continues to seek $US 75,000,000 in compensation from Dow Chemicals to aid a conclusive cleanup of the UC area.

Those who continue to evade the Indian Courts and Interpol arrest warrants have not however been forgotten. Leela Bi, 52, a survivor and activist who’s daughter recently died from water-contamination exclaimed, “The people of Bhopal, still await justice for our dead children and for Union Carbide to be held accountable in a criminal court. There have been no steps in the last 18 years to bring the American management to justice and we still demand Warren Anderson and his colleagues be extradited to India for death by negligence.”

The Bhopal gas-disaster of 1984 is the world’s worst industrial catastrophe to date, and although it has always been difficult to determine conclusive figures, at least 25,000 people are now believed to have died and 500,000 or more are still affected. Perhaps the greatest betrayal of the Indian people by the Union Carbide corporation was not the initial disaster that brought so much anarchy and suffering to the streets of this vibrant city, but the utter failure of so many to heal the toxic and painful legacy left behind. Despite the healing wounds, and despite the defiance and bravery of ordinary people here trying to rebuild their lives, the tragedy of Bhopal continues.

For more information on the work being done to heal Bhopal, and to offer your help, please visit the Bhopal Medical Appeal’s website.

Jack Laurenson is a photojournalist and founding member of Lacuna Media, he is based out of London and works regularly in India. Jack received extensive medical treatment at the Sambhavna Clinic in Bhopal for his exposure in Union Carbide, but he is recovering well. To see his whole photo-essay from Bhopal, please visit Lacuna Media.

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