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Twenty-Eight Years On, History's Worst Industrial Disaster Still Kills The Babies Of Bhopal

In December 1984, this Indian city suffered what is considered the world's worst industrial accident ever.

Bhopal water probably won't help swallow the pill for the disaster's victims
Bhopal water probably won't help swallow the pill for the disaster's victims
Jenni Roth

BHOPAL - Abdul Jabbar, 75, sits in his office in the central Indian city of Bhopal. Jabbar is a full-time activist. His life’s work is the fight for the victims of the chemical disaster that took place in this capital city of the state of Madhya Pradesh 28 years ago – the worst industrial disaster in history.

He shows copies of the letters he sent to politicians and government officials – there must be a thousand letters in the thick file. His opponent is powerful – Dow Chemical, the second largest chemical company in the world. The American firm has owned Union Carbide Corporation – the company responsible for the deadly chemical leak in December 1984 – for 11 years, and has inherited its legal responsibility.

Jabbar will never forget that fated day. He wears thick glasses – the disaster robbed him of two-thirds of his eyesight. At Union Carbide’s Bhopal plant, which produced pesticides, water accidentally got into a tank of methyl isocyanate. The chemical reaction produced 25 to 40 tons of highly toxic, corrosive gas that severely injured half a million people. Many were disfigured, while over 15,000 (by some estimates 25,000) died. Jabbar survived and founded Bhopal Gas Pidit Mahila Udyog Sangathan, a victims’ rights organization that now has more than 30,000 members.

Almost 30 years later, one out of four babies born in Bhopal is born dead. Countless people suffer from breathing difficulties, cancer, nerve diseases and infertility. The ground water is still contaminated.

Dow refuses any responsibility, press inquiries about the 1984 disaster and its consequences go unanswered. Dow paid out about 1.6 billion euros in asbestos claims relating to the Union Carbide factory in Texas, but all Bhopal victims have received are the 375 million euros Union Carbide paid out to 100,000 victims in 1991.

"It’s a joke," Jabbar says. With other activists, he has taken the issue all the way to India’s Supreme Court and is now awaiting the verdict. "Even if you only count a few rupees a day for medicine, it’s not enough by a long chalk."

The high price of western medicine

Uniformed men make sure that no unauthorized persons are able to get into Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre (BMHRC). In this five-story, 350-bed facility and its branches, 4,500 victims are treated daily – for free. But many of them have already paid a very high price.

Here, western pharmaceutical companies have been testing new drugs on the victims of the Bhopal disaster. According to the Indian Drug Administration, 14 patients so far have died as a result of the drug trials. Activists like Jabbar put the figure much higher.

Many of the AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline and Theravance test subjects who died were unaware that they were being used as guinea pigs, and to this day their families have not been compensated. "First they killed people with gas, then they killed the survivors with drugs," Jabbar says bitterly. Most of the victims are poor – and illiterate – people.

Ramadhar Shivastar, 65, an electrician, couldn’t read what was written on the paper he signed. We are in the dark one-room home he and his wife share with their son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. "God saved me twice,” he says. He survived the 1984 disaster, although he still has trouble breathing, and then a heart attack in 2007. He heard about the BHMRC and got free treatment there. He also learned a new word: angioplasty.

He was given some pills and a paper to sign. "It was in English, I have no idea what it said." He signed anyway. For two years, the doctor called him every month to remind him to come get his medicine.

He never found out what was in those pills. But he continued to sign for them every month, and the BMHRC also gave him bus money – less than the 100 rupees (1.50 euros) a rickshaw would have cost.

Human guinea pigs

Shivastar might never have found out that he was a guinea pig for a drug that had not yet been approved in Europe if one day in 2010 a journalist hadn’t come to his door and taught him another expression: clinical trial.

Shivastar had unwittingly taken part in the "Plato" trial conducted by the world’s five largest drug companies. According to the Indian Drug Administration, AstraZeneca was testing Ticagrelor, an antiplatelet medication for the treatment of acute coronary syndrome was launched under the name Brilique in Europe and the U.S. in 2010.

Three test subjects died during the study. Which is why Shivastar says God saved him twice. Now "the clinic won’t even let me look at my file” – and he doesn’t have the money for a lawyer.

But if he were to fall sick again, he would go back to the BHMRC, the only place where he can get free treatment.

It is difficult to establish just how many victims of the Bhopal disaster became BHMRC guinea pigs. Rachna Dhingra, 35, the founder of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, shows a document listing ten studies that caused at least 14 deaths and earned the BMHRC over ten million rupees (145,000 euros).

Although India is a signatory of Declaration of Helsinki, an international ethical guideline for drug trials (which specifies that test subjects can only agree to take part after they are fully apprised of risks and possible side effects), a head doctor in India earns on average 75,000 rupees (1,000 euros) a month. Without a lot of extra effort he can earn a few million rupees by participating in drug trials.

The pharmaceutical companies court the doctors, throwing in expensive cars or trips aboard often under the guise of “conferences.” Legally, doctors just need to make sure they’re covered – which they are, by the signed statements from patients, even if one in two Indians can neither read nor write.

“Neocolonialism”

The pharmaceutical industry’s hard cynicism is what turned Dhingra – who until 2003 worked for Dow Chemical in the United States – into an activist.

Together with her husband, Sattinath Sarangi, she built a small hospital for Bhopal disaster victims, the Sambhavana Clinic, that is financed by donations. She actively searches for more information about drug-trial victims but "the swamp of corruption" poses major obstacles, she says.

Nothing would surprise Chandra Gulhati, 71, a retired internist and editor of the Indian Monthly Index of Medical Specialties, a pharmaceutical prescribing reference guide. His office in Delhi is stuffed with papers gathered over the course of his years studying the pharmaceutical industry. He sums it up in a word: "neocolonialism."

According to the World Health Organization, India is becoming a global hub for clinical trials. According to the German Coalition against BAYER Dangers, “western companies are having some 1,900 clinical studies carried out in India with 150,000 test subjects, for which they pay around half a billion euros a year.”

At the same time, says the Coalition “the number of victims is rising from year to year: according to the Indian Health Ministry, more than 1,700 test subjects have died in the last four years.”

Since 2005, the number of tests conducted in India has increased over five-fold.

Gulhati points out that even when drugs tested in India are approved for western markets, "who says it’s not because of bribes? Not ever drug tested in India that them comes on the market in Germany is safe!"

Also, according to him, "The drug companies sell drugs here that are forbidden in Germany – they would lose money if they disposed of them."

If any of the scandals have come to light at all, he says, it is thanks to the work of activists like Dhingra and Jabbar. Thanks to their relentless pressure, the Indian Ministry of Health was forced investigate some of the clinical trials.

In Bhopal, the fight goes on. Every Saturday Abdul Jabbar meets with other activists in a park, where they exchange updates, information. Not far from here, on the grounds of Dow Chemical, about 346 tons of toxic materials are still being stocked. But that problem is soon going to be solved. Locals and environmental groups oppose burning the material in the incineration facility some 200 km from here, but they are not adverse to a little German know-how – and it has been agreed that the toxic waste will be incinerated in Hamburg, Germany.

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