True legacy of Bhopal disaster comes to light

Hundreds of children are still being born with birth defects as a result of the world’s worst industrial disaster 23 years ago in the central Indian town of Bhopal, say campaigners. They are demanding that the Indian government provide immediate medical care and conduct research into the “hidden” health impacts.

More than two decades ago, white clouds of toxic gas escaped from American multinational Union Carbide’s pesticide plant. The gas killed 5 000 people that night and 15 000 more in the following weeks—and doctors say a new generation is being affected.

The true legacy of the disaster is only now coming to light. The Indian government stopped all research on the medical effects of the gas cloud 14 years ago, without explanation. Despite the country’s Supreme Court ordering that the children of victims receive insurance, more than 100 000 remain without cover.

Satinath Sarangi of the Sambhav-na Trust, which helps rehabilitate victims, said the Bhopal victims’ penury and low social status meant few are prepared to help.

No one, he says, has taken responsibility for cleaning up the site and paying the high cost of medical bills.

“Because these people are poor or from a minority or lower caste, no one seems to care. Their lives and their children are being sacrificed for the cause of industrial progress,” Sarangi said.

Medical experts who studied the effects of the gas on children born in affected communities said there was now “no doubt of increased chances of negative effects on children”.

A 2003 study by the American Medical Association found that boys who were either exposed as toddlers to gases from the Bhopal pesticide plant or born to exposed parents were prone to “growth retardation”.

On Tuesday campaigners, who marched the 800km from Bhopal last month and vowed to sit in protest in Delhi until the government acts, held a press conference to highlight a new fight for compensation for families whose children have been born with “congenital birth defects”.

One of the mothers, Kesar Bhai, held her 12-year-old son Suraj in her arms. She had inhaled the noxious fumes in 1984 and was hospitalised but recovered. Her son was born brain-damaged and cannot sit or talk.

“My husband is a labourer. We have no money to spend on our son. He cannot even eat on his own. I get free medical care for my breathing difficulties because I am a gas victim. My child does not get any help but he has been affected,” she said.

The growth of other children has been stunted, said campaigners, because there has still been no clean-up of the Bhopal plant despite a promise from the prime minister in 2006. So far, less than 20% of the funds set aside to dismantle the plant and make the site safe have been spent.

The disused Union Carbide factory contains 8 000 tonnes of carcinogenic chemicals which continue to leak out and contaminate water supplies used by local people. The clean-up has been stalled by a mixture of bureaucratic indifference, legal actions and rows over corporate responsibility.

Dow Chemicals, which bought Union Carbide in 2001, says it is not responsible, arguing that because the plant is on government land it is up to the state to clean it up. However, the Indian government’s chemicals and fertilisers ministry has said in court that Dow should pay $25-million to dismantle the factory and restore the fields.—Â

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