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Bhopal Gas Tragedy Still Burns 30 Years Later

Considered history's worst industrial accident, having killed thousands in a Dec. 3, 1984 gas leak at a Union Carbide plant in India, the health effects in Bhopal can still be felt today.

Protests have continued for decades
Protests have continued for decades
Aletta Andre

J.P. NAGAR — In the early hours of Dec. 3, 1984, a gas leak from the American-owned Union Carbide factory opposite the slums in India's J.P. Nagar killed thousands of people. The effects of the gas cloud traveled beyond the immediate area, and there are at least 100,000 people living with gas-related illnesses today because of the disaster.

A criminal case against the company has been ongoing for years, but Union Carbide insists the matter was settled years ago. As the 30th anniversary of the gas disaster approaches — Dec. 3 in Bhopal will be commemorated with rallies, music, meetings and silent candlelight marches — people are gearing up for protests.

Here in J.P. Nagar, right next to the old, abandoned Union Carbide factory, several dozen people are getting ready to drive to New Delhi. They will join around 1,000 survivors in the capital to march on the parliament.

Firdouz and her mother Semida are among the group. "We are going for the gas tragedy rally, for compensation," Firdouz says. "We expect to get what we deserve. We are going to claim our rights. It's been more than 30 years, but nothing happened. We are sick and worried. They have not done anything about it. They should give us what we deserve. We're fighting for the rights of the whole of Bhopal."

More than 500,000 victims have received on average around $400 each. But many victims such as Firdouz and Semida claim they were denied the money, because as slum dwellers they couldn't prove their address.

The Indian government says higher amounts were given to severely ill and disabled people, and others are treated for free at specially built government hospitals. But the Delhi-bound protesters are demanding an extra $1,600 for each surviving gas victim, more than 500,000 in total.

Just around the corner from the old Union Carbide factory, in the middle of one of the gas-affected slum areas, is a health clinic run by Sambhavna Trust with nearly 30,000 registered patients. Shahnaz Ansari, who works here, explains the common problems and how they treat them.

"Respiratory problems, ocular problems, diabetes," she says, cataloging the issues. "Cardiac problems are more common, hypertension is more common among the gas exposed population."

Neverending health issues

At the on-site pharmacy, they are growing more than 200 species of plants such as turmeric, ginger, hibiscus, aloe vera and tulsi to help treat the victims. "We are trying to treat them with traditional medical care," Ansari says.

Zubeda Bee is one of the gas victims who lost several family members in the disaster. She and many other relatives continue to have health issues, even the ones born after 1984. "It felt like chilies were burning," she says, describing the event 30 years ago. "Eyes started burning, there was smoke. We started coughing and running."

Among those who died were her husband, brother, daughter, nephew and daughter-in-law. "My heart rate increased, and I have chest pain," she says. "We suffer and keep going to the hospital. And there is one who was born like that, my grandson. He cannot hold anything, he runs away and cannot speak."

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A 2008 image of the toxic remains. Photo: Luca Frediani

In Bhopal there are still higher numbers of children born with birth deficits varying from blindness and growth issues to mental disorders. No research has been conducted to establish whether this is the result of the 1984 accident or the consumption of ground water, which reportedly continues to be contaminated by toxic waste from the old Union Carbide factory.

Union Carbide, on its designated website Bhopal.com, insists that the factory ground is the government's responsibility, and in any case is not as contaminated as victims claim.
The company also claims that the gas disaster was most likely the result of sabotage by an employee.

Back in J.P. Nagar, Navaab Khan calls over a loudspeaker for people to join the Delhi protest. He, like most victims, believes that the disaster was caused by the company's neglect and disregard for safety precautions.

He wants the company and its management to be tried for homicide. Representatives for Union Carbide Corp. never appeared in Indian court, despite being summoned. Its then-CEO in India, Warren Anderson, died last month in the U.S. without having faced trial.

Most importantly, Navaab Khan says he never wants this to happen again. "If Prime Minister Modi wants foreign companies to come, it's good for employment. But they should take responsibility. If some incident happens, it should be clear who is responsible. Not like Union Carbide, which just ran away. If you do business in India, you have to follow the rules."

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