India: Bhopal disaster lingers, 25 years later

NEW DELHI — It was the deadliest industrial accident in history. On Dec. 3, 1984, clouds of poisonous gas leaked from a pesticide factory in Bhopal, India, and were carried on the breeze to nearby slums, killing 4,000 people in one day. Over the next few years, countless more died.

Twenty-five years later, the factory, now an abandoned wreck, still leaks toxins into the groundwater and soil.

Activists and residents of Bhopal marked the anniversary today with protests for accountability and justice.

New research by a New Delhi-based think tank, the Centre for Science and the Environment (CSE), shows that less than two miles from the site, the groundwater contains nearly 40 times more pesticides than the level considered safe. Around the factory itself, the pesticide levels are 560 times higher.

The pesticides contain compounds that have been linked to serious illnesses, says CSE. Indeed, campaigners say that a quarter of a century later, Bhopal, a city in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, has an unusually high incidence of children born with birth defects.

Conservative estimates hold that 15,000 people died of illnesses caused by the leak within a few years. Activists say the health of at least 200,000 has been damaged.

“People continue to die,” says Syed Irfan, a resident of Bhopal and convener of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal. His sister, Sirajunissa died in the fumes on Dec. 3. He continues to fight for justice for her and “future victims,” he says.

Calls for accountability
The anger and grief of Bhopal’s activists is compounded by the belief that no person or organization has taken full responsibility for the disaster.

The factory was run by US company Union Carbide in a joint venture with Indian businesses. Union Carbide claimed that a disgruntled employee was responsible for the 40 tons of methyl isocyanate that escaped from one of the factory tanks. Activists have claimed the factory management was at fault for poor maintenance.

Twenty years ago, Union Carbide paid $470 million to the Indian government for the victims. In 1999, the company was acquired by Dow Chemicals, which says this settlement resolved all existing and future claims against the company.

“The enormity of that tragedy of neglect still gnaws at our collective conscience,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in a statement Wednesday.

Government stamp of cleanliness
But though he said his government was committed to clearing up the site and ensuring that the water and the soil in the area was clean, the state government has for years refuted claims that the area remains contaminated.

This week, the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh, told the BBC that water around the factory plant was safe.

Also this week it was revealed that S. Sriramachari – then director of a government pathology laboratory, who discovered the scale of the tragedy after he carried out postmortem examinations on the first victims – is being treated for a diagnosis of a fatal lung condition caused by his exposure to lethal chemical compounds in Bhopal.

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