Why Are Bhopal's Victims Still Waiting For Justice?


Aadil Khan doesn’t look like other 18-year-old boys. A delicate moustache is the only indication of his age. Aadil has been crippled by the effects of cerebral palsy. He is just over 90 centimetres tall and his feet bend perpendicular to his ankles, making it impossible to walk. When his mother Raeesaa is not there to carry him, he has to crawl. 

Aadil lives in Bhopal, the capital of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Locals joke that Bhopal is famous for three things: dust, male impotence, and being the home of the world’s worst industrial disaster.

Shortly after midnight on 3 December 1984 toxic gas leaked from the city’s Union Carbide pesticide factory and swept across the capital.

"My family was sleeping when it happened. I wasn’t even aware of what Union Carbide was until that night. One of my sister’s sons came in and said, ‘Get up, let’s run away’," survivor Rashida Bee recalls.

"When we got up our eyes started burning and water came from our nose and mouth. We didn’t know what had happened. We thought it was chili powder that had been burnt. We went outside and everyone was yelling, ‘Run, run, run’. But we didn’t know which direction to run."

While official estimates put that night’s death toll at 3000, Amnesty International reports say between 7000 and 10,000 people died in the immediate aftermath, with a further 15,000 dying from gas related illnesses.

"Six of our family members died from cancer. My brain is not functioning properly and I have respiratory problems," Rashida says.

Rashida and fellow survivor Champadevi Shukla live in one of Bhopal’s many slums which hug the factory’s borders. Houses here are single room shacks with tin roofs, separated by narrow lanes. Kids hold up little chicks and baby goats with pride and residents carry water to their homes in metal tubs.

A host of illnesses continue to plague survivors, including tuberculosis, cancer, blindness, insomnia, depression and migraines. Families have lost sole breadwinners, children have been orphaned and many are unable to work due to ongoing illness.

After witnessing these hardships, Rashida and Champadevi decided to go global. In 1987 they formed the Bhopal Gas-Affected Women’s Stationery Trade Union and began staging overseas protests, writing to US Senators and lobbying the Indian Government. In recognition of these efforts, the pair won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2004. They used the prize money to establish the Chingari Trust, an organisation dedicated to the new generation of Bhopal gas victims.

"We started noticing that there were so many disabled children being born. My own granddaughter was born disabled, so I thought we should do something for these children," Champadevi explains.

Two hundred children now receive free medical treatment at the trust. Many have problems sitting or standing due to cerebral palsy, while others suffer from mental development disorders, respiratory illnesses, blindness and learning difficulties.

"Those who died that day, they were the lucky ones … It is the second and third generations who have been born with so many complications who are really suffering," Rashida says.

Today, one of the main challenges facing survivors and their families is inadequate compensation.

In February 1989, the Supreme Court of India ordered the American based Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) to pay $470 million in compensation to the Bhopal gas victims. Since then more than half a million people have received up to 50,000 rupees in compensation (approximately AU$1160).

However, for Aziza Khan — who suffers from migraines, insomnia and respiratory infections — the 50,000 rupees has already been spent on medical bills. She lives in a shack made from recycled materials, just a kilometre from the old Union Carbide factory. A year after the disaster, her son died of a respiratory infection. "If this happened in the USA would they agree to this much compensation? UCC has valued the Indian person as peanuts. Is this what we are worth?" Rashida asks. "Many children sick from gas related illnesses and drinking contaminated water have been born after the incident but have not received compensation."

Since the Supreme Court ruling, several court cases pushing for further compensation have so far proven fruitless, with UCC distancing itself from the disaster.

In 1994 UCC sold its majority share of Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) and became a subsidiary of Dow Chemicals. Then, in 1998 the Madhya Pradesh Government took control of the factory land. In its official statement, UCC says it now has "no interest in or liability for the Bhopal site" and that all claims were settled 18 years ago.

"This is the case of industrial victims all around the world. The most powerless get the most exposed and then all the systems we have in place in the so-called civilised society, fail. Particularly in Bhopal, we see that they are treated as expendable, as people whose lives don’t matter, and who had to commit this act of sacrifice for industrial progress," Satinath Sarangi, the managing trustee of the Sambhavna Clinic in Bhopal says.

The clinic provides free treatment to up to 170 patients a day, with a focus on yoga and the traditional herbal medical practice, Ayurveda. It also has staff dedicated to researching the ongoing health of gas victims, their families, and the new patients falling ill from contaminated water.

According to Satinath, routine dumping of toxic waste in and around the factory has caused high levels of mercury, lead and the pesticide HCH in groundwater, soil and mothers’ breast milk. And in 2005 the Madhya Pradesh Government’s Centre for Rehabilitation Studies, Bhopal, reported that "water and soil contamination has caused increased morbidity among the population near the UCIL factory," with respiratory disorders four to five times higher in gas affected victims.

In an effort to prevent further illnesses, the State Government installed water tanks in the contaminated regions. But in summer, when the tanks run dry, residents revert to using contaminated groundwater. Goats and cows continue to graze near reported toxic hot spots and children play in the corroded buildings. And although contaminants have been found up to three kilometres from the factory, the full extent of the spread and depth is unknown.

The Central Government has made all the right noises about providing medical and social assistance for the people of Bhopal, but the benefits have yet to be seen.

Meanwhile hundreds of tonnes of toxic waste continue to sit at the factory as the State Government works out disposal plans.

Until the clean up takes place, children like Aadil will continue to be born bearing the scars of 3 December 1984.

"The government and the companies are equally responsible. We just want them to do something about it. We have different political parties and ministers come in, but they still do nothing about it. We have to get together to fight companies like this so the next generation can live happily without being poisoned," Rashida says.

Twenty-five years on, the people of Bhopal are still waiting.

newmatilda.com’s requests for interviews with the Secretary for Health and the Directorate of Gas Relief and Rehabilitation from the Madhya Pradesh Government were refused.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.