Why Are We Still Talking About It?
The Bhopal Disaster Twenty Years Later
By Alka Roy
"Why can't we leave it alone?" someone asked me. "It's been twenty years. Why are we still talking about Bhopal?" I thought about it. Why?
On December 3rd, 1984, thousands of people were killed after tons of poisonous gas (methyl isocyanate) leaked from the Union Carbide plant in the worst industrial disaster in human history. Families watched in horror as those they knew choked, bulged, cried out in pain, and got trampled in stampedes.
There were no warnings or help. There was no police, ambulance or personnel of Union Carbide who knew what to do in this situation. Such a large chemical plant. So close to communities of over 800,000 people. But there were no plans for evacuation or even warnings of a deadly gas.���
It is estimated that this disaster has killed 8000-14,000 people so far. Close to 150,000, including some who weren't even born twenty years ago, have suffered or are suffering from chronic diseases like wheezing, chest pain, tuberculosis, birth defects and cancer.
And where are the saviors of what is referred to as the "Hiroshima of chemical disasters"?
America pauses when talking about 9/11. A disaster which killed close to 3000 Americans. Wars have been fought and will continue to be fought in the name of it. Memorials are planned. Compensation for the victims was in the range of billions of dollars; $3.1 million per civilian and an average of $4.2 million for emergency personnel.
In stark contrast, victims of the Bhopal disaster will get around $800-$1000. This is after they receive the settlement, promised to them by the Supreme Court, which hasn't been paid out yet. I don't begrudge the 9/11 victims or the survivors their due. They fully deserve it. I don't even know how to turn life and death into dollars. But that is what's done after disasters.���The thing to notice, however, is just how differently!
Imagine if you had to stand one morning with dead bodies stretched all around you ? of your friends and families, and you knew that it could have been avoided. You knew who was responsible. You survived, but barely. And instead of comfort, apology and care, twenty years later, you still live in constant pain and struggle ? dizzy spells, deformed grandchildren and constant visits to the doctor.
Where is the accountability?���
Dow Chemical, the company that acquired Union Carbide, the perpetrator of the Bhopal disaster, is going strong. And where is the global cry for justice? Who is attending to these wounds that continue to fester?
The contaminants that Union Carbine left in Bhopal are still there. Many studies have found mercury, nickel and other toxins in the local groundwater. They have found high and dangerous levels of toxins, including lead in the breast milk of women who lived near the factory zone. But Dow Chemical says it's not their problem. Even though they inherited the liability of the asbestos-related lawsuits in Texas, the people suffering in India are not their problem.
The government of India shrugs. "What can we do?" It has failed its people miserably.
So to ask, "Why can't we leave Bhopal alone?" is to sanction the following: (i) Life of an Indian is not valuable (ii) Americans don't value it (iii) Indians don't value it! (iv) A corporation, if it oils enough hands in local administration, can get away with anything ? even mass murder.
Survivors of this disaster, like Rashida Bee and Champa Devi Shukla, who have lost husbands, grandchildren, and several members of their family to this disaster, visited Atlanta last year in their continuing attempts of bringing Bhopal to the forefront. They didn't once complain about their simple lifestyle or poverty in Bhopal. But they were most indignant about the injustices it brings. And about how they have been ignored; how their health problems, and the health of their future generations, as well as their substandard lifestyle thanks to contaminated water and air ? all have ignored.
And that's why we still need to talk about Bhopal. We need to remember Bhopal because it serves as a symbol for both, the terror of how those with power and money can choose to sacrifice humanity, as well as the determination and perseverance of those who keep standing up to this injustice.
We need to remember Bhopal because, like it or not, it is our legacy. It is also the legacy we will pass on to our future generations.
So, it's our choice. How will Bhopal be remembered? As an acceptance of injustice and defeat of our spirit? or something that, despite its awfulness, inspired us to learn, raise our voice, and ultimately call for change!
Tainted by the cloud
to the sound of bicycle bells
challenging the early bus
a roar of
black fumes for breakfast
Years ago the gas cloud
(atom of the green revolution)
hugged the city
its poisonous affection
a night avatar of annihilation
misery in the morning mist
Women sweep the atom
in the never-ending dust
while children cough-
a cohort of cripples
A street hawker
a traveler for trade
his daily labor interrupted
atomic bouts of breathlessness
The college professor, perplexed
by his new handicap in teaching
an old molecular structure
the class chuckles
Young woman in her prime
the hand of the invisible atom
veil lifted, complaining
?I was touched by the cloud'
?Yes, we are all tainted by the cloud'
By Ramana Dhara.
[Dr. Dhara is a member of the International Medical Commission on Bhopal, a group which conducted the first long-term health effects studies on the disaster. He is also
an adjunct professor at the Rollins School of Public Health of Emory University
and is currently involved in research projects on the disaster.]
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