| Doreen Fiedler |
BHOPAL (dpa) – Near Bhopal, central India, only sparse woodland remains on the site of the factory run by the Union Carbide Corporation that exploded 30 years ago, releasing tonnes of poison gas, but a bleach-like smell still lingers in places.
“The site should actually be screened off like the ruin of a nuclear power plant,” says TR Chouhan, a former plant manager at the pesticide factory.
His employment there came to an abrupt end on the night of December 2-3, 1984, when tonnes of methyl isocyanate, a highly toxic chemical used to make the pesticides, spewed into the air.
Within hours, thousands were dead. The total death toll is put at up to 22,000 by activists, one of the world’s worst industrial accidents.
The toxic dust is still everywhere, Chouhan says. “More of it is washed into the soil with every monsoon.”
As Chouhan speaks, a train can be heard approaching the railway station, less than three kilometres away in the centre of Bhopal, a city of 1.8 million in the state of Madhya Pradesh.
Nu Jaha, 50, lives even closer to the accident site, just across a wide street. “On that night there was smoke everywhere, and our eyes were running with tears, as though someone was burning pepper and Chilli, “We couldn’t breathe, and we just ran away,” she says.
Her son Afroz Khan was a small child at the time. He still suffers headaches, has lost a kidney and is unable to stand for more than a couple of minutes.
“I want to cry all the time and get so angry. If there had been no accident with the gas, our lives would not be so difficult,” she says.
“Life goes on like this all the time. I don’t know when it will end.”
All the residents of the sprawling informal settlement who answer their door speak of pains, heart problems, breathlessness, itching, sore eyes and depression.
Babies are born with deformities, like Hazra Bee’s six-year-old granddaughter. “She can neither walk nor speak,” the 57-year-old grandmother says and starts to cry.
The problems probably started well before the well-documented accident. Aid organisations point to another Bhopal catastrophe – one that began earlier and is continuing today.
From the start of production in 1979, Union Carbide dumped toxic waste into pits on the site, contaminating the groundwater, according to Sathyu Sarangi, founder of the Sambhavna Clinic.
“At least 50,000 people have drunk this water that they draw up with hand pumps, damaging their livers, kidneys, lungs and skin,” Sarangi says.
Piped water was only supplied to the affected areas in August.
“The problem is that the soil contamination affects half the city,” said Pravir Krishna, the town’s principal secretary for gas relief, charged with compensation for the Bhopal munici-pality.
Asked whether the area needs total evacuation or a thorough decontamination, he declines to answer directly, saying only “We’re working on it.”
An attempt by the German international aid organisation GIZ to dispose of at least some of the toxic waste in 2012 came to nothing.
Three decades have passed, says Amnesty International’s Madhu Malhotra, but the suffering continues.
“A never-ending tragedy,” she says, looking at a pool near the factory that covers a toxic waste site. “It looks deceptively beautiful.”
A couple of men are fishing and bathing on the bank. “I sell the fish on the market at the station,” says Vinod Matrubaba, a 30-year-old man in his forties.
“I know the water is contaminated with chemicals, but what should I do? I’m poor and have to survive somehow.”