Anguish lingers in Bhopal, 25 years after chemical disaster

Bhopal residents are still angry with Union Carbide, owner of the chemical plant that 25 years ago today released a poisonous gas cloud that killed more than 15,000 people and injured hundreds of thousands in what’s been termed the world’s worst industrial accident.

Residents are also angry with Dow Chemical Co., which acquired Union Carbide Corp. in 2001 and washed its hands of any inherited responsibility.

But many are at least as angry with their own government, which settled with the rich foreigners for what they say was a ridiculously low sum and has since failed to care for its people.

“We drink poison every day, even as our government keeps promising us clean water,” said Hazara, 46, who uses one name. “Union Carbide has been sold to Dow, and now the central government is sitting in their laps without concern for us.”

Over the years, “Bhopal” has become shorthand for corporate irresponsibility, fueling debates over multinational morality, the environment and codes of conduct.

In a bid to keep the memory of Bhopal alive, Madhya Pradesh, the state where the rusting factory on 67 acres is located, has suggested turning the site into a museum like those in Hiroshima, Chernobyl or New York’s ground zero.

The idea has drawn protests from residents, however, who say the area should be cleaned up and victims’ needs addressed first.

“Rather than invest in a museum, they should invest in the living,” said D.K. Satpathy, who recently retired as director of Bhopal’s Medico Legal Institute, which chronicled the suffering of victims.

Anger and recriminations have been fueled by victims’ concern that they’re being ignored or shunted aside.

Union Carbide settlement

Union Carbide agreed in 1989 to a $470-million settlement with the Indian government that absolves it of liability. Many victims and survivors got about $500. Tens of thousands, unable to navigate the complex registration process, received nothing, critics said.

“It’s like we are beggars and they are paying us alms,” said Hazara, whose house was next to the plant. Her $500 was depleted within months, leaving her to nurse several family members suffering from chronic fatigue and vision problems. “What do we have to do to get justice?”

Residents have called repeatedly for Michigan-based Dow Chemical to mount a thorough cleanup. They say the toxic waste in and around the plant -- estimated at 350 tons and never properly treated -- continues to kill crops, pollute groundwater and cause cancer, birth defects, neurological damage, chaotic menstrual cycles and mental illness.

A report released this week by Bhopal Medical Appeal, an advocacy group, said groundwater tested in June contained 2,400 times the recommended safe levels of carbon tetrachloride, a known carcinogen banned from U.S. consumer products in the 1970s.

Bhopal, a city of 1.8 million, has been installing pipes to deliver clean water, but an estimated 25,000 residents still rely on wells and other groundwater sources.

Dow says it never operated the Bhopal plant and bears no responsibility; Union Carbide said on its website that the accident was a terrible tragedy but that it met its obligations.

At the time, the company was Indian-managed, Union Carbide said, and India’s Supreme Court approved the final settlement. The chemical giant said an investigation that it funded found that the gas release resulted from sabotage, a claim that area residents strongly dispute.

Economics student Sanjay Verma, 25, said that the finger-pointing is counterproductive.

“If we keep blaming each other, there’s no way out,” said Verma, who lost his parents, three sisters and two brothers when he was 6 months old. “What the people need is clean water, a cure for their illnesses and financial rehabilitation.”

Ray Stokes, professor of business history with Scotland’s University of Glasgow, said the Bhopal disaster made multinational companies focus more on public disclosure, ethics and “being part of the solution, not the problem.”

“It’s not always because they cared, but because they saw a profit,” he said.

Local anger wasn’t helped by a recent site visit by Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, who downplayed their health problems.

“I have held that waste in my hand, I am still alive,” Ramesh said, adding that the trees around the abandoned factory were green so the environment couldn’t be too toxic.

Nightmares continue

In recent days, victims’ groups have organized marches, photo exhibitions, poetry readings, effigy burnings and a “benign buffet” in which government officials were invited to dine on “reactor residue quiche,” “lime sludge mousse,” “tar souffle” and other dishes made from the toxic waste that officials say is harmless. Predictably, none showed up.

The gates are shuttered at the hulking factory, but the nightmares continue. Bano, 45, who uses one name, recalled waking up coughing that night 25 years ago.

“My eyes were burning, and everyone outside was shouting ‘run,’ ” she said. “I woke our children up and ran out, collapsed, then woke up in a hospital.”

Bano’s husband died of cancer a few months later, followed in quick succession by her brother-in-law, mother, brother, sister-in-law and her brother’s two children, all of tuberculosis or cancer.

Some who survived wish they hadn’t, and say that the world seems interested only in major anniversaries.

“I can’t sleep at night, can’t digest food properly, my eyes keep watering, and I want to scratch my infected skin all the time,” Bano said. “It would have been better to die than endure what I’m going through now.”

Satinath Sarangi, 54, a metallurgist and advocate, said the fundamental problem is the nexus between government and corporations.

Union Carbide got off easy in the 1980s because pesticides were a cornerstone of New Delhi’s “green revolution” policy to enhance agricultural productivity, he said. A quarter of a century later, multinationals continue to wield enormous influence over governments that measure progress solely in economic terms.

“If you are an ordinary person, you can’t depend on your government, judiciary or regulatory bodies to protect you from corporate crime,” he said.

Hazara wonders whether the effects of the disaster will ever end. She watched her son waste away over 25 years and thought the problem would stop there. Then her granddaughter was born deformed.

“I am broken, but I will not give up,” she said. “I will fight until my last breath against Dow and will go wherever they set up in India. I will not give up.”

Anshul Rana in The Times’ New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.