BHOPAL: For a study in government and corporate inertia and indifference amid massive human suffering, come to this stylish old central Indian city where, 25 years ago tomorrow (Wed) night, a gas leak at a Union Carbide pesticide factory (left ) led to the death of over 5,000 people and continuing ill health of over 500,000 in one of the world’s worst industrial disasters.
The site remains virtually as it was 25 years ago, with gaunt steel structures and dilapidated factory buildings still standing, as governments and pressure groups argue about what should be done to clean it up along with nearby chemical dumpsites. Court cases continue in India, the US and elsewhere, while Dow of the US, which has taken over Union Carbide, runs for cover.
The state government dreams of turning the site and decaying structures into a 70-acre Rs116cr ($23m) landscaped memorial “like Nagasaki or (New York’s) Ground Zero”, according to Babulal Gaur, an 80-year old Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) minister who is responsible for relief and rehabilitation in the government of Madhya Pradesh, where Bhopal is the capital. The key structures (below) are the Sevin and MIC plants which blew that night.
I interviewed Gaur this morning, and he told me that the factory site’s “soil is very clean and the water is very clean”. Any water problems in the area were caused by nearby Indian Oil petrol tanks (which are to be moved), not the gas plant. Health problems were caused by the poor living, as they usually do, in “unhealthy conditions”, not the by the aftermath of the gas leak. That reversed a statement he made five years ago that the then Congress Party state government was downplaying the effects and that the BJP “would hold Dow responsible”.
This supreme example of a politician in denial was confounded three hours later when a new independent report was published, which alleged that there is far greater contamination from 1984 than had been previously expected on both the site itself, and in nearby residential areas’ groundwater.
Published by the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), an independent organisation that specialises in pollution testing and environmental issues, the report says that pesticides and other dangerous cemicals are present at over 500 times Indian standard levels in some areas (see interactive website map).
The disaster happened on the night of December 2nd 1984, when water accidentally entered a methyl isocyanate (MIC) storage tank (right), triggering an uncontrollable chemical reaction and blasting a cloud of toxic gases across nearby slums. People died instantly, coughing and choking, while the gases burned into the survivors’ eyes and lungs to cause early death and ill health, with weakened immune systems and respiratory problems that now continue into a second generation.
According to official figures, some 5,000 people have died, though some estimates go as high as 30,000, while over 570,000 (and maybe as many as 1m) have suffered health disorders.
I came to Bhopal a couple of days after the disaster in 1984 to report for the Financial Times. There was a continuing acrid tang in the air. Bloated carcasses of dead animals lay in the streets, and funeral pyres were till burning. It rapidly became clear that the accident had happened because Union Carbide had tired of its Indian investment that had not come up to over-egged corporate expectations. Wanting to close it down, it had allowed safety standards and management control to decline disastrously, along with staff morale.
Dow, together with its Union Carbide subsidiary, denies responsibility for victims’ health or the state of the site, following an overall settlement reached in 1989 with the Indian government. The claims totalled $3 billion, but the Indian government settled for $470m (then worth 7.5 billion rupees) plus a further $43m that has still to be fully distributed.
Down the years, there have been many allegations of corruption and of other payments involving the Indian government and its agencies, state level officials and politicians, and Dow. Two years ago, Dow admitted it had been fined $325,000 by America’s Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) because employees in India had bribed officials. “We know that Dow subscribed to the BJP election funds,” Sathyu Sarangi, a leading Bhopal activist who runs a successful ayurvedic-based medical clinic for gas victims.
Today’s CSE report seriously undermines the state government’s apparent attempt to protect Dow by saying that there are no continuing ground and water effects, nor health problems, resulting from the 1984 leakage.
The CSE says that groundwater in areas up to 3kms from the site contains pesticides 40 times India’s acceptable standards. This contradicts reports by three government agencies that say there are no continuing serious effects. The CSE took test samples last month and says various pesticides (some not covered by government standards) are present in health-endangering concentrations.
Sunita Narain, who runs the CSE, differentiated between the government claiming that toxicity on and near the site was not acute, which might be correct, and the CSE’s claims that there is nevertheless chronic toxicity. “Of course, if you go inside the site, you would not die,” said Narain, “but if you live there for ten years, you will suffer effects”. These effects could not be assessed till more long-term studies were carried out.
The CSE’s findings will be partially corroborated and partially questioned in about ten days’ time by the Delhi-based government-controlled Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), which took soil samples at the same time as the CSE on October 28, and also took water samples two weeks earlier. Among its findings are “very high” levels of chloroform in ground water.
Plans by both the state government, and local pressure groups to make the key structures a centrepiece of the memorial are questioned by CPCB officials have told me that they would have to be dismantled in order to clean the site. The officials also query state government plans to open the site to the public, which was planned for this week but has been delayed because (the government claims) of rules restricting its actions during a current Bhopal municipal election campign.
The CPCB officials say the site is still contaminated, including pools of mercury in some areas, despite 400 tonnes of waste lying around the site being moved into a warehouse in 2005, though the government has allowed local people (above, gathering wood) to roam the site for years.
India’s government wants to end the impasse on all fronts, partly for humanitarian reasons and partly so that Dow can rapidly expand investments that are currently curtailed and under attack by activists. However, the Madhya Pradesh state government is resisting Delhi’s attempts to set up an overall “empowered commission” to co-ordinate progress.
Part of the problem is Dow’s refusal formally to accept responsibility for what Union Carbide allowed to happen.
Sathyu Sarangi told me yesterday that a “compromise could be reached” if Dow, maybe without acknowledging legal responsibility, made provision for health damages and monitoring of patients, and agreed to clean up the site and surrounding areas, which it is resisting. “That would be some sort of compromise that we would consider”, he said.
However not all the activists are in a hurry – which is scarcely surprising since they have built a life-style around the disaster. Abdul Jabber, a leading local activist, points out that it took India 90 years from the first mutiny (or war of independence) in 1857 to achieve independence. “We will wait,” he says.