Geopolitics

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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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.

[*Danish]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

98

For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.

🇮🇷🎓  IN OTHER NEWS

Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Thoughts on Facebook's new name? Zuckerverse? Tell us how the news look in your corner of the world: Drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

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