40 Years Later

'Bhopal': Continuing Health Nightmare

Nicholas Muller

Nearly 40 years after the world’s worst industrial disaster, scores of victims still suffer with little recourse. The victims recently marked the 39th anniversary of the deadly night when methyl isocyanate, better known as MIC, smothered Bhopal in central India.

The contamination area was estimated to affect almost half a million people. The dense, highly toxic chemical used in pesticides burst from a local factory of Union Carbide and went on to swiftly and silently kill thousands of people almost immediately. In the following years, it has directly and indirectly contributed to the deaths of thousands more. Those who survived suffer daily with a wide range of debilitating conditions, cancers, and shortened life expectancies, searching for any relief they can get without a clear medical solution.

RachnaDhingra worked with survivors of the early December 1984 disaster at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal as a campaigner for the Bhopal Group for Information and Action for more than two decades.

During her student years at the University of Michigan, Dhingra first came into contact with the fallout of the disaster after meeting Bhopal survivors and doctors who had come to speak at a shareholder meeting of Dow Chemical, which purchased Union Carbide in 2001. “I was shocked to hear that close to 19 years after the disaster … how dire things were in terms of healthcare, contamination, and justice,” she said.

In 2003, she moved to Bhopal where she has been for the last 20 years, dedicated to helping survivors with legal issues, access to health care, contamination, and striving for victims to “live a life of dignity.”

“Like most people who hear about Bhopal, they associate it with something that happened a long, long time ago, a terrible thing and that was it,” Dhingra said.

But that is far from the reality. Bhopal’s recently dubbed status as India’s third cleanest city doesn’t match with current conditions on the ground for most of its poorest residents.

In a new long-term study conducted using data from the state of Madhya Pradesh, in which Bhopal is the capital, published this year by the University of California San Diego, the aftermath of the disaster is much more wide reaching than was previously understood. The research was done using entirely publicly available survey data from 1999 and 2015.

UCSD economist Gordon McCord, a co-author of the study, explained, “there has been a broader shock beyond the immediate chemical poisoning.” He noted that the shocks radiate “further out than we previously thought.”

Bhopal’s water contamination is widespread throughout the city. The study focused on a specific population of children still in-utero and found three key consequences they later faced as adults. “That cohort of in-utero children compared to the children who were significantly older when the disaster happened had higher cancer rates by 2015. They also had a higher likelihood of having a disability that prevented employment, and lower levels of education compared to their peers who are just one or two years older or younger… who might have been living a little further away from Bhopal,” said McCord.

McCord hopes this research can help affect the situation not only in Bhopal, but anywhere governments seek to make it attractive for foreign companies to invest in similar projects. “In the process of economic development and the process of industrialisation, there is this risk of overlooking regulatory and safety investments because they are deemed to sacrifice or slow down this process or make you uncompetitive relative to some country that is not going to be investing in some kind of regulatory and safety processes,” he said.

“We are not going to understand some of these impacts for a very long time and we won’t really understand the mechanisms,” he continued.

McCord believes that a line can be drawn connecting people who are disabled today and can’t work, and who were in utero at the time of exposure.

McCord added that the Indian government has not responded to this new research.

“Union Carbide never revealed the toxicology of gasses that leaked on that night, keeping it a trade secret until today. Here doctors do not know how to treat people, there is no sustained relief for people,” said Dhingra.

Without such knowledge, treatments are only of symptoms with little long-term relief. Some have breathlessness, and take inhaler after inhaler, painkiller after painkiller. People in Bhopal have consumed medicine by the kilogram, antibiotics, and psychotropic drugs, anything in search of relief.

“There are ten times the rates of cancers, huge kidney problems for patients because they have taken so much medicine, and there is no sustained relief,” she said.

“That is how it has continued. The worst affected people are getting the least compensation. The whole settlement cost Union Carbide not even 50 cents per share. A disaster like this in any other place would have made the company fold,” she argued. Instead, Union Carbide persists, since 2001 under the umbrella of Dow Chemical.

In Bhopal, the disaster has continued to play out for people in various ways. For the generation of children who were between 8 and 16 at the time of the disaster, many had to quit school because their fathers were no longer able to do heavy manual labor because of exposure. “This meant they became the breadwinners in the family. There is a whole generation in the worst affected communities especially where 70 percent of people were daily wage laborers,” Dhingra says.

Dhingra says a great number of those children, now in their mid 40-50s, are dying untimely deaths due to various illnesses, mental stress, and a high rate of suicide.

“There is a total disconnect between the needs of the survivors and what the government has been doing. Even though there were more than two dozen research projects to look into the problems affecting the gas victims by the Indian Council of Medical Research, all of those projects were stopped, and in 1992, without telling a single person what was wrong with them after all kinds of studies were done,” she said.

“Union Carbide continues to hide that information and continues to hide the recent publications they carried out on long-term impacts on exposure to MIC, even on rats or on humans. We know they have the data,” she added.

There is an entire community adjacent to the factory; it is largely a slum. There, 9 out of every 10 people have received what the authorities dub total compensation. Their injuries are categorised as a minor health incident they have recovered from – that is not the reality.

“UC fully knew that exposure to MIC would result in residual injury. When you have that data and you tell the Indian government on purpose that there will be minor injuries, it is fraudulent,” Dhingra said.

“The power of the perpetrators versus the power [of those] affected is so massively imbalanced. 70 percent are poor, 50 percent are marginalised Muslims largely discriminated against, and 50 percent are Hindus from the lowest caste, and are considered dispensable. They are fighting one of America’s largest corporations,” she continued.

In September 2023, a dozen US lawmakers, led by RashidaTlaib and PramilaJayapal, wrote to the US Department of Justice urging the department to serve “India’s legal summons upon Dow” and thereby ensure the company would finally appear in an Indian court.

“Finally it was served and Dow appeared on October 3 through lawyers as a partial appearance. This is their old argument where they are contesting the jurisdiction of Indian courts. Dow knew they weren’t allowed to carry on their businesses but they did it,” Dhingra said.

This turn of events is significant, because “this is the first time in 36 years that a foreign corporation/individual has actually shown up in a Bhopal court,” Dhingra said.

Nesreen and Sekina are two of the thousands who have endured major trauma in the poisonous landscape of Bhopal. When she moved to the city, Sekina found the cheapest place available, unluckily right behind the factory in a neighborhood full of gas victims and contaminated water.

“I had two daughters when I moved there and gave birth to a son in Bhopal. After a few years, one of my youngest daughters started to lose her voice. We took her to many places to find out what was happening, but no one could tell us why. And after a few years she lost her voice altogether. She thinks she lost her voice because of the contaminated water like many other people in the neighborhood,” Sekina recounted.

Dhingra met Nesreen in 2006 when they walked to Delhi from Bhopal over the course of 37 days, campaigning for clean drinking water for the city. “The prime minister did meet with us and allocated money for clean water, but it did not reach here until 2012,” Dhingra said.

Multiple generations of Nesreen’s family have been affected by the disaster. Her father, once a horse cart puller, could no longer work after his exposure to the disaster and eventually died of tuberculosis in 1994. In Bhopal, the rates of TB are extremely high and the disease affects the immunocompromised even more severely. COVID-19 was five to six times more deadly for gas victims in Bhopal.

“At least six people in my family died of cancer,” Nesreen said.

While there are programmes for adults to access treatment, a new problem has emerged among the younger generation. In 2006, Champa Devi Shukla started Chingari Trust, which works for the rehabilitation of children born to victims suffering from congenital defects. “So many children were being born with serious issues, and then children started being born like this in our own family,” she said. Her nephew was born completely disabled and another was born with a cleft lip.

The question still remains whether Union Carbide and Dow Chemical will ever compensate newer victims of the disaster as demanded by survivors and advocacy groups.

Campaigners and survivors want appropriate compensation for people who have suffered lifelong injuries, for those who have drunk contaminated water, and for the area to be truly cleaned up.

[Source: The Diplomat]

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Vol 56, No. 28, Jan 7 - 13, 2024