Bhopal: Generations of Poison
Note: with translation assistance from D. Narsimha Reddy.
Babu Lal Gaur is a much-reviled man in the slums that surround the derelict Union Carbide factory in Bhopal. As the Minister of Gas Relief and Rehabilitation in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, he is responsible for the welfare of the more than half a million survivors of the 1984 Bhopal Gas tragedy.
"If betrayal had a human face, it would be Gaur's," says Hazra Bee, a gas victim, and veteran of two 500-mile marches for justice from Bhopal to the Indian capital New Delhi. "As Minister, Gaur has done nothing to help me, my son or others in our situation. But, he is actively working to let Union Carbide and Dow get away without fulfilling their responsibilities."
Now 54, Hazra Bee still finds it difficult to keep from crying when she talks about her son. Twenty-five years ago, Bee had carried her four-year-old son as she fled the poison cloud hissing out from Carbide's death factory. Now 29, Mansoor has severely compromised lungs and cannot do strenuous work. As a child, he was susceptible to frequent coughs and ruptured an eardrum during a coughing fit. The ear was operated on, but pus still flows out from time to time, his mother says. "I pray to Allah that no mother goes through the torture that Bhopali women have experienced," she says.
At midnight of December 2-3, 1984, Union Carbide's pesticide factory leaked poisonous methyl iso cyanate into its densely populated neighborhood. More than 8,000 people were killed in the immediate aftermath, and at least 500,000 exposed to the poisons. In 2001, Union Carbide became a 100 percent subsidiary of Dow Chemical. It was the world's worst industrial accident (and remains one of two along with the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster).
A quarter century since the disaster, a new generation of children is being maimed by the second wave of Bhopal's chemical disaster. Thousands of tons of toxic materials still lie abandoned inside the factory, and in soccer-field sized evaporation ponds outside. The poor design of Union Carbide's waste disposal systems, including containments, is allowing toxins to escape into the surrounding environment. Two explosive reports released on December 1 by the London-based Bhopal Medical Appeal, and the New Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment (CSE) confirm local parents' worst fears: Groundwater and soil inside and outside the factory hold dangerous levels of chlorinated solvents, pesticides and heavy metals. [See box.] Every rain spreads the poison to groundwater that more than 30,000 people rely on as their main source of drinking water.The leaching toxins are linked to congenital disorders including deformities and brain damage. "A preliminary house-to-house study we did found that birth defects in communities affected by water contamination is ten times the national average," says Satinath Sarangi, a long-time Bhopal activist and founder of the free Sambhavna Clinic for gas victims.
Carbide Site Continues to Leak Poisons
Two studies released on December 1, 2009 confirm the presence of toxic chemicals in the soil and groundwater in and around the Union Carbide facility. They add to the more than a dozen reports warning that although the plant is abandoned, it remains a danger to human health. A Bhopal Medical Appeal study of four hand-pump samples revealed that three of four samples have above-safe levels of chlorinated solvents, particularly chloroform and carbon tetrachloride. Chloroform levels were two to three times higher than U.S. EPA drinking water guidelines, while carbon tetrachloride exceeded World Health Organization's drinking water guidelines by 900 to 2,400 times.
"Gaur knew about Union Carbide's toxic contamination even before the disaster," says Sarangi. A lawyer, Gaur had negotiated a 1982 settlement between Carbide and farmers whose buffaloes died after drinking Carbide's effluents. In 2004, months after Gaur's right-wing Hindu party took over the state government, Gaur told the Christian Science Monitor: "Our state pollution control board in December filed a report that confirms that there is contamination of the groundwater." He blamed the Congress Party government, which his BJP had just defeated, for keeping the studies under wraps. The new state government wants Dow to clean up," he said.
Today, as minister of all issues relating to Union Carbide and its victims, Gaur denies the presence of contaminants in soil or groundwater.
But at least 13 governmental and non-governmental studies, including CSE's recent release, confirm the presence of Carbide's poisons in the drinking water used by thousands of people. The only reports that found no groundwater contamination were prepared-for Union Carbide-in 1994 and 1997, by India's National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI).
Guar maintains that any groundwater contamination in the area was caused by "the oil depots of petrol, diesel and kerosene near the area," not Union Carbide.
Survivors charge that NEERI's reports and protestations by Gaur and other politicians are part of a sinister campaign to divert attention from the contamination issue, and to deflect corporate liability. "The center and the state government hope to use the 25th anniversary as an occasion to bury the disaster along with all the pending liabilities. This is what Dow wants," said Syed M. Irfan of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Purush Sangarsh Morcha. "Rather than clean-up the site, they are now engaged in cleaning up their image through deceit and denial."
Now It's Toxic; Now It's Not
Last September, India's flashy Environment Minister, Jairam Ramesh, exhibited his flair for publicity stunts. He had himself photographed wearing trendy sunglasses and handling a rock python to dispel fears that snakes are dangerous. That same day, he entered the Union Carbide factory and handled the toxic material onsite. "I am alive," he proclaimed to journalists. "I am not coughing."
The next day, irate Bhopalis burnt effigies of the environment minister, prompting him to issue an unconditional apology.
Following Ramesh's example, Gaur declared that he would throw open the factory for 15 days leading up to the 25th anniversary to let people see for themselves how safe the factory site was. Public protests kept the site closed while Gaur vowed to open it anyway and keep it open forever. His chief minister declared the site "100 percent safe."
"The toxic waste is lying for years, and the toxicity, if there was any, have been washed away during the last so many years," he told Business Standard a few days before the 25th anniversary. In what must have been music to Dow's ears, he added, "We will not allow Dow to even enter the factory premises [for clean-up]."
Science: For Sale
Exactly a week before today's 25th anniversary, Bhopal survivor groups served up a banquet with a difference. On the menu was an assortment of "toxic delicacies" - Semi-processed Pesticide on Watercress; Naphthol Tar Fondue; Sevin Tar Souffle; Reactor Residue Quiche; and Lime Sludge Mousse. All served with a complimentary bottle of B'eau Pal water. "Your appetite will contribute to a cleaner Bhopal," invitees were told. Two prominent scientists - Dr. R. Vijayaraghavan from the Defence Research Development Establishment (DRDE), and Dr. T. Chakrabarti from the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), were named as the chef and sous-chef.
Place settings for the chief minister of the state, senior bureaucrats and Babu Lal Gaur remained predictably vacant.
"The faux banquet is Bhopal's comical, cynical response to scientific skullduggery," says Rachna Dhingra, one of the buffet organizers. "This was our way of taking a dig at the scoundrels that are masquerading as scientists," she adds, referring to the opinions given by the heads of high-profile scientific institutions in support of the State Government's decision to throw the dangerous site open.
"For a 70kg man, there will not be any death even if he takes 200gm [of toxic wastes stored inside Carbide's premises] by oral route," wrote Vijayaraghavan of DRDE. Therefore, he writes in an official opinion given to Madhya Pradesh, the government's plans to open the factory site for public visits would not cause "any untoward, adverse or toxic effect to the public."
Health Effects of Key Chemicals Found
Lead: Exposure increases blood pressure, and risk of kidney damage, miscarriage, nervous system disorders, brain damage, and decreased fertility in men through sperm damage. Children exposed to lead are especially vulnerable to learning disabilities and behavioral disruptions including aggression, impulsive behavior and hyperactivity.
In a November 2009 letter to the Government of Madhya Pradesh, Chakrabarti, acting director of NEERI, concurred. "I along with several government officials, have visited the site umpteen number of times without experiencing any health problem."
The government presented both letters as scientific opinions to the Madhya Pradesh High Court to seek permission to open the site. And the court acquiesced.
"The two letters are totally useless," says Dr. P.M. Bhargava, an internationally respected chemist and molecular biologist. The former vice-chairman of India's prestigious National Knowledge Commission is rueful about the quality of Indian scientists and institutions. "We know how corrupt our institutions can be. Anyone can make any statement. Where are the data? How did they test? What did they test for? All other studies indicate that the site is completely unsafe; I wouldn't put my foot on the ground," he says. Bhargava is also a member of a Technical sub-committee of the High Court's Task Force set up to offer advice on the technicalities of site remediation. He was never consulted on the decision to throw the factory open.
In August 2005, Hazra Bee accompanied several women exposed to the contaminated water to Gaur's office. In a ritual that binds brothers to look out for their sisters, the women tied a Rakhi around the minister's wrist. Each Rakhi bore the message "Brother: Won't You Give Us Water?" A few months later, when the "sisters" visited Guar's home to remind him of his obligation, he had police on the scene who beat the activists. Bee and ten others were charged with armed robbery.
The government pledge to provide clean water is long standing. Nonetheless, a May 2004 Supreme Court order directing the state government to provide clean drinking water to the affected communities lies unimplemented. Eight Prime Ministers, 13 hunger strikes, 1,130 demonstrations, and a 1,500 mile-long march to Delhi later, this essential item has remained as elusive as Union Carbide itself.
"For all of the struggle and the indignities we have suffered at the hands of the government and police, we have succeeded in getting the [Union government] to allocate Rs. 14 crores ($2.8 million) for water," says Bee. "A third of us now get clean piped water from time to time," she adds.
"Caste and religion play a big role in explaining why [most] Bhopalis have not yet got clean water," says Dhingra. More than 80 percent of the residents of the 14 contamination-affected areas are either indigent Muslims or Dalits belonging to the lowest rungs of India's oppressive caste hierarchy. "The state's right-wing pro-Hindu BJP is hell-bent on diverting the [Union government's] allocation to provide water [to our communities] to 22 additional areas which are predominantly upper caste Hindus," explains Dhingra.
Bhopal's activists see deep irony and a not-so-hidden business agenda in Dow's recent choice of water as an area to demonstrate its corporate social responsibility (CSR). "The attention on the water crisis is gradually shifting from a local level to a global level, which means more opportunity for a global business like Dow Water & Process Solutions," Ian Barbour, general manager of Dow's water division, told a trade publication.
In November, Dow announced that it would sponsor the Live Earth Run for Water on April 18, 2010. The worldwide event will consist of four-mile walks and runs, concerts and water education activities "aimed at igniting a tipping point to help solve the water crisis." Proceeds from the events will go to NGOs to fund sustainable, scalable water programs.
If Dow India's water sector interventions are anything to go by, Dow's charity begins and ends at home. Take the case of two water treatment plants launched with much fanfare as part of Dow India's corporate social responsibility in the south Indian state of Andhrapradesh.
In November 2006 Dow India inaugurated a 1,000-litre per hour reverse osmosis plant in Dasaigudem village in collaboration with Byrraju Foundation to provide some 600 villagers with clean drinking water. The desalination plant uses four Dow brand FilmTec membranes, each costing $300 (Rs. 15,000). A narrow plastic pipe carries the highly saline and toxic rejects from the plant to a ditch across the road that eventually empties into Dasa Cheruvu Lake nearby.
Dow's website still mentions "India's first water purification plant in Andhrapradesh" set up by its Indian subsidiary in 2006. But the Dasaigudem effort is seriously flawed. "The membrane has to be changed every year. Now it is three years, and we don't have the money to change it," says plant operator D. Venkannan. "People are opting out because the water is increasingly brackish."
Less than an hour's drive from Dasaigudem is the sleepy village of Solipet. At 2 p.m., most residents are either farming or enjoying a siesta. Those who remain - shopkeepers and housewives - have never heard of Dow or the water plant it claims to have set up in October 2007. The plant, using Dow's "yet-to-be released resin technology," was installed at a cost of $5,000 by Dow India. It hardly worked for five months. Now there is no sign of the plant. "It was only an experimental plant. People gave it up; acceptance level was low," says K.S. Raju, proprietor of Poorvi Enterprises, which supplied plant and machinery.
For Dow, these corporate social responsibility ventures make business sense. "Dow is spending money in the relevant field. When it sets up a reverse osmosis plant, it generates a replacement market for its membranes," Raju clarifies. "Dow's other CSR program is a collaboration with an NGO that donates artificial limbs to handicapped children. Here Dow is promoting its polyurethane as a replacement for the rubber used to make the limbs," he adds, noting that the material is ill suited to local needs.
Hazra Bee is unimpressed with Dow's CSR. "What responsibility? Their only responsibility is to us. We need the water. Our children are being maimed because of Dow's inaction."
Convinced of the government's insincerity, Bhopalis are geared up to fight the long fight. December is also the first anniversary of Children Against Dow-Carbide, an association of about 60 youngsters. Those who are hoping the decades-long struggle for justice will fade away after the 25th anniversary may be disappointed. According to 17-year old Safreen Khan, one of the co-founders of the youth group, "The Bhopal struggle is not 25 years old. With our entry, the struggle has just entered its youthful phase, and we'll keep the fight alive for as long as it takes."
* Nityanand Jayaraman is an independent journalist and researcher investigating and reporting on corporate abuses of environment and human rights. He is a long-time volunteer with the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal.
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