Twenty Years Later: Do Not Forget Bhopal
In January of 2004, I flew to Mumbai, India for the World Social Forum (WSF). I had heard about the previous WSFs held in Porto Alegre, Brazil and made up my mind to go and cover it on the Portland Independent Media Center. WSF 2004 was held in India and not Brazil, as the previous three were. I first read the story of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy on the Corporate Watch website (corpwatch.org). Since I was planning on traveling in India for several weeks after the WSF, I made up my mind that I would seek out people working on Bhopal issues at WSF and see Bhopal for myself.
Just after midnight on December 3rd, 1984 Union Carbide's pesticide factory released a dense, white cloud of poison gas into the city of Bhopal and surrounding impoverished neighborhoods. As a cruel result of the gas, people were unable to control their bowels as they ran and choking, pregnant women aborted on the spot. People directly involved in the burial and cremation of the dead estimated that 8,000 died over the course of the first three days following the disaster. Roughly a half a million people were exposed to the gas, who then flooded the hospital. Two decades later, in total, 20,000 people have had their lives transformed into agony and shortened as a direct result of gas poisoning and 120,000 suffer debilitating and chronic ailments to this day. Future generations of Bhopal residents are not free of Carbide's touch either. Cases of birth defects and mental disabilities are widespread among the children of the gas victims.
The American chemical giant Union Carbide first began manufacturing its best-selling pesticide, Sevin, in India's central province, Madhya Pradesh, in 1976. The plant's capacity was built in proportion to India's one billion potential consumers rather that India's erratic monsoon season and other mitigating cultural factors known by Carbide's representatives in the country, but ignored by optimistic executives. The plant was the biggest ever conceived of in such an unindustrialized land. Union Carbide's miscalculation spelled more for the people of Bhopal than just a disappointing profit margin. Declining profits meant that the costs of running the plant, so goes the logic of the bottom line, had to be brought down. This included the plant's safety systems. Among other cuts, $37.68 a day was saved through shrewd management by turning off the freon used to keep the dangerous components of Sevin from reaching unstable temperatures.
On September 11th, 1984, Union Carbide's own inspection crew from their plant in West Virginia found over 30 ?major hazard? areas at the Bhopal factory, 11 of which specifically related to the storage of the highly reactive methyl isocyanate (MIC). By October 5th of 1984, the neglect of basic maintenance by overworked, nonspecialized and understaffed crews allowed a small amount of the volatile MIC gas to escape before being contained. The plant was evacuated and the surrounding area was alerted. This was not so on December 3rd, 1984. In a botched attempt to flush a connecting tube, water was injected into MIC tank E610, causing a powerful heat-producing reaction which then released 27 tons of heavier than air lethal gas into the sleeping city of 800,000. Although 20 years have passed since the disaster, approximately 10-30 people continue to die every month in Bhopal from continued toxic exposure.
By the time the World Social Forum began, I had been in Mumbai for more than a week and spent some time in a very small village in rural Gujarat. I had begun to get an idea of the staggering poverty in both the country and the cities. Once inside the WSF, a week amongst the throng of booths, panel discussions, documentaries, tribal theater, photo exhibitions and local activists demonstrated to me how shallow my understanding of the issues facing the world's poorest really was. It was here that something amazing to witness took place.
On February 6th 2001, Dow Chemical merged with, or rather, bought Union Carbide, taking on all assets and liabilities, creating the largest chemical corporation in the world. Not to be outdone by its junior partner, Dow manufactured poison gas during WWI and WWII (we call them WMDs now), produced napalm to be more incendiary than before by mixing it with white phosphorus and was among the producers of Agent Orange, 549,200 gallons of which were sprayed over Vietnam. Both Dow and Carbide participated in the Manhattan Project. Headquartered for almost a century in Midland, Michigan, Dow stridently denies responsibility for Midland's distinction as one of the most dioxin polluted spots in the USA. Such denials mean little to the people of Midland, who cannot mow their lawns without protective face masks. Dow claims that it was in fact General Motors that polluted the land with dioxin.
At the WSF for the first time, activists from Bhopal, Midland and Vietnam met to join against their common enemy: Dow Chemical. The hard won understanding of these three groups of people exemplified the slogan of the victims of Bhopal on one of their posters, pictured bearing the face of a cloudy-eyed child who succumbed to the gas: ?This is the Face of Globalization.? Dow excuses itself from any obligations to these, the most affected communities, all who have harbored Dow's products inside their very bodies. Through their individual struggles, the people of Midland, Bhopal and Vietnam have fought local corruption, the US government, and complicit state governments afraid of scaring off foreign investment. Their combined efforts will be greater than the sum of their parts.
I first encountered Satinath Sarangi during the WSF at the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal booth. Mr. Sarangi, who prefers to be called Sathyu, abandoned a career as a metallurgical engineer and has been committed to relief work and survivor actions in Bhopal since December of 1984. Sathyu invited me to visit the Sambhavana Trust Clinic in Bhopal, of which he is the managing trustee. The next day, I watched as hundreds of gas survivors demonstrated outside of Dow Chemical's Mumbai headquarters as Sathyu, renowned Bhopal advocate Rashida Bi, and Michelle Hurd Riddick of the Lone Tree Council out of Midland, Michgan entered the corporate park to meet with Dow officials.
It was mid-March by the time I made it to Bhopal. I took an autorickshaw to the Clinic and as sometimes occurs, a friend of the driver tagged along for the ride. He sat next to me and inquired about where I was headed. I told him and since he looked about 40 or so I asked him if he was around when the gas leak happened. The man replied that he was exposed and that because of his injuries he had to go to Chennai for 2-valve heart surgery at his own expense. He then opened his shirt and traced a scar bisecting his chest. He had not yet heard of the clinic dedicated solely to gas victims that he had accompanied me to. His name was Munaae. I gave him the brochure.
With only a brief invite and no subsequent response to my emails, I ended up using the address on Sambhavana's brochure to find the Clinic and showed up unannounced in the late afternoon. Sathyu received me with grace and kindness, interrupting the work he was doing to talk with me and help me learn about Sambhavana's work and what happened in Bhopal.
Sambhavana is Sanskri for similar (sam) feelings (bhavana) and taken together, it means hope or possibility. Since 1995, Sambhavana has seen about 12,500 gas victims for consultations and has had great success with its style of treatment. Blending Western medicine, traditional Ayurvedic (herb-based) medicine and Yoga, Sambhavana has helped alleviate the chronic symptoms of gas poisoning while avoiding the pharmaceuticals that often complicate the conditions of people already saturated with chemicals. Sambhavana has been part of the struggle to win relief for the gas victims. This year there have been two key victories for the gas victims: the dispersal of the $470 million Union Carbide settlement held by the Indian government since 1989 and the securing of plans for uncontaminated water to be piped in from the Kolar Reservoir. The latter of these two battles was won just this May through the peaceful occupation of the Director's office at the state government Department of Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation. In the years after the accident, over 5,000 families continued to consume poison from contaminated wells.
After visiting Sambhavana's organic Ayurvedic herb farm, I set about gaining permission to visit and photograph the derelict Union Carbide factory. Not exactly a tourist destination, it is closed to the public and under guard. One can only see it with written permission from the Collector. The building which contained the Collector's office was filled with smoking bureaucrats who looked extremely bored and yet were unwilling to grant my request until I had won a war of attrition lasting five hours. I was kept company by a little boy who scooted on his wet bottom because his legs were so deformed he could not stand on them. He laughed when I crab-walked to keep up with him.
My traveling partner and I went down to the Kali Grounds where the Union Carbide site is located with duplicate copies of our passports and permission papers in hand. Beyond the gates, we passed a grazing cow and some scattered goats. Tall grass and purple-maroon flowers seemed to be the only thing being produced on the Kali Grounds these days. The disused factory was simply abandoned, with bottles of hydrochloric acid still in the cupboard of the old laboratory and huge industrial tanks wetly shinning in the morning heat. One of these tanks in particular visually demonstrated the toxicity of the land upon which we stood. Whatever was contained within it was so corrosive that the tank's bowels appeared to have spilled out onto the ground before it in a dried, tarred, mess. Touring the grounds, we noticed the most appalling aspect of the facility was actually located just on the other side of the outer wall. Families going about their business in houses made of brick and corrugated tin built clear up to the wall on all sides of the forgotten Union Carbide factory.
It was fitting that the outrage and emotion that seemed oddly absent from the mute, crumbling structures could be found just outside the gate to the west. A large, black and white mural in block letters, bordered with skulls shouted ?HANG ANDERSON!?, referring to the former Union Carbide CEO. Before the angry mural, stood a statue of a woman wailing skyward, a limp infant in her arms while a dying child trailed behind her. The inscription read: ?NO HIROSHIMA, NO BHOPAL, WE WANT TO LIVE. Dedicated to the victims of the gas disaster caused by the multinational killer Union Carbide on 2 & 3 December 1984.?
On August 29th, 2002, a Greenpeace activist discovered Warren Anderson living in a luxurious home in the Hamptons on Long Island, New York and confronted him with a copy of the original 1991 Indian arrest warrant for the international fugitive. Anderson had been underground for 10 years. The US State Department has not responded to India's request to extradite Warren Anderson for prosecution on culpable homicide charges. The request itself was much delayed and mightily resisted by the Indian government. It was issued in May of 2003, 11 years after it was first sought by the Chief Judicial Magistrate of Bhopal. However, the more progressive members of the US Congress have not been silent. In September of this year Frank Pallone (D-NJ) introduced H. Con. Res. 503 recognizing the 20th anniversary of Bhopal and calling on Dow to take responsibility for the victims still living with chemical contamination.
An International Day of Action is planned for December 3rd at Dow facilities worldwide to support the struggle of people who have stood up to the world's largest chemical corporations with only a few rupees jingling in their pockets them. Over Fifty college campuses worldwide have student chapters of the Campaign for Justice in Bhopal. That number is up from just a handful a few years ago. It is international efforts such as these that will ultimately move Bhopal towards justice.
Bhopal serves as a case in point for how hard it is to hold corporations accountable for their actions. Twenty years have now passed and though Union Carbide facility corrodes, its legacy endures. I visited Bhopal with the intention of writing about what is easily the worst industrial accident ever and to help make sure in my small way that we do not forget Bhopal. Absolutely nothing has been done to rehabilitate the blighted land or even dismantle the looming, rusted, Union Carbide factory. Despite this, the time may not be far off when Dow Chemical may be forced to own up to the murderous, criminal negligence of its acquisition, Union Carbide.
For more information, visit: www.bhopal.net
For more information regarding the Sambhavana Trust Clinic, visit: www.bhopal.org
For Union Carbide's spin on Bhopal, visit: www.bhopal.com
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