At five minutes past midnight on the 3rd December it will be the twenty fifth anniversary of the Bhopal disaster when over 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate gas was accidentally released from the Union Carbide pesticide manufacturing facility in the city. Estimates still vary about how many of the residents died or were injured by the release, but over 4,000 people were killed in the first few hours, and the long-term after effects are believed to take the death toll past 15,000. And the number is still rising.
It was hailed as a miracle. A cheap, effective solution to India’s food shortages, the American pesticide, Sevin, promised the world. And Union Carbide’s state-of-the-art factory would provide jobs for the thousands of refugees who came from far and wide to the vibrant, teeming city of Bhopal, dreaming of a better life. But at five past midnight on the night of 3 December 1984, a terrible explosion poured noxious fumes into Bhopal’s crowded slums. The apocalypse had begun. With pace and compassion, Lapierre and Moro bring this disaster and its victims to centre stage: the young Padmini who is to be married that night; the advent of Union Carbide and its mission to rescue the Third World; a Scottish nun who risks her life to save lost children; and a poetry lover who unleashes the tragedy. They weave together these and many other stories to tell this epic of love and heroism, catastrophe and consequence.
Essential reading for anyone interested in the human misery of the disaster. Does try to examine the responsibility of Warren Anderson, CEO of Union Carbide at the time of the disaster, but is hampered, unsurprisingly, by lack of access to Company papers. Also fails to question the weaknesses of the regulatory system at the time but tells the victims’ story with compassion and respect.
A policeman points to the gas tank which vented its contents into the atmosphere in 1984, at the site of the deserted Union Carbide factory on November 28, 2009 in Bhopal, India. Twenty-five years after a massive gas leak at the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal killed thousands, toxic material from the ‘biggest industrial disaster in history’ continues to affect Bhopalis. A new generation is growing up sick, disabled and struggling for justice. The effects of the disaster on the health of generations to come, both through genetics, transferred from gas victims to their children and through the ongoing severe contamination, caused by the Union Carbide factory, has only started to develop visible forms recently.
As you would expect from The Boston Globe’s Big Picture column a superb set of photographs both from the event itself and from Bhopal today.
The leak, which is often described as the world’s worst industrial accident, also knocked the city’s economic development back years, if not decades, causing widespread and long-lasting poverty well beyond the areas affected by the initial gas cloud.
The gas victims, in turn, fall into two categories: Those who inhaled the gas that night 25 years ago and those suffering ailments after drinking water polluted by the accident.
It might seem incredible that not more is done to help them and to prevent their situation from getting worse, but the gas victims’ fight for attention faces stiff competition from millions of equally poor and desperate people across the state.
Groundwater at the site of the world’s worst industrial accident in India’s Bhopal city is still toxic and making residents sick 25 years after a gas leak there killed thousands, a study said on Tuesday.
The analysis conducted by the UK-based Bhopal Medical Appeal (BMA) also cast doubt upon government-sponsored research into the impact of the disaster at the Union Carbide pesticide plant, where methyl isocyanate gas spewed from a storage tank on December 3, 1984.
Activists say more than 350 tonnes of toxic waste strewn around the site still pollute soil and groundwater in the area, leading to cancer, congenital defects, immunity problems and other illnesses.
“We find very high levels of chemicals and pesticides in the UCC factory. These are the same chemicals and pesticides that UCC was manufacturing when it was operating its plant. What is even more worrying is that we found presence of the same chemicals and pesticides in the groundwater that we tasted in the city, clearly showing there is contamination of the site and that contamination is leaching into the ground water and is creating slow poisoning for the people who live in those localities,” said Sunitha Narain, director, CSE.
The Indian government has also drawn fire for trying to pass the disused factory off as a tourist spot – with local politicians last month proposing to build a Hiroshima-like memorial there depicting a detailed account of the disaster. Adding insult to injury, India’s environment minister, Jairam Ramesh mocked activists on a visit to the city by picking up a fistful of waste and saying “see, I am alive”.