India: After 30 Years, Bhopal is Still Simmering

Trees frame a rusting building at the abandoned former Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal November 11, 2014. On the night of December 2, 1984, the factory owned by the U.S. multinational Union Carbide Corporation accidentally leaked cyanide gas into the air, killing thousands of largely poor Indians in the central city of Bhopal. Danish Siddiqu/Reuters

India's central government and the state government of Madhya Pradesh are in denial over the scale of the tragedy that occurred 30 years ago when at least 5,000 people died Bhopal, in a devastating Union Carbide gas leak that has caused continuing ill health for some 500,000. Neither government has even begun to deal adequately with what needs to be done in terms of compensation, health care and cleaning up the factory's contaminated 70-acre site.

Tomorrow night will be the 30th anniversary of the moment when toxic gases from the pesticide factory swept in a fatal wave through nearby slums and spread across the city.

The situation has not changed since I last reported here on the 25th anniversary, and it seems likely that nothing will change for another five or 10 years or even longer unless Narendra Modi, India's new prime minister, decides that enough is enough and that this blot on India's record of social awareness and government action should be, in all senses of the word, cleaned up.

If Modi does not step in—and there is no sign yet of him doing so—an unsatisfactory equilibrium will continue embracing the refusal of U.S.-based Dow Chemical that now owns Union Carbide to accept any liability, the reluctance of the Indian government that mixes indolence with a fear of upsetting potential American company investors, the inertia of the Madhya Pradesh government, the apparent indifference of the vast majority of the city's 1.8 million population, and the demands of a clutch of nongovernment activists who have built a lifestyle around their worthy campaigns and health care camps and have a virtual stand-off with the state government.

A panel displays pictures of residents who died in the 1984 Bhopal disaster at the forensic department of a hospital in Bhopal—November 14, 2014. Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

The people who suffer are successive generations, almost all poor, whose ill health now affects babies and young children of parents who may not have even been born in 1984. Recently, the Chingari Trust, which deals with handicapped children, staged a play and candlelight vigil in Bhopal's old city. They have 700 children registered with autism, behavioral problems, sensory disorders and developmental delays, some not able to utter any kind of vocal sound.

Suraj Raghuvanshi is 19 years old and cannot sit, walk, talk or eat without help. Others have similar incurable ailments. Everywhere people talk of the effects of the gas. Raja Khan, a hired-car driver born a year after the disaster, says he and his brother have some breathing problems and their parents suffer from tuberculosis.

Medical experts report a high incidence of lung cancer, adverse outcomes of pregnancy, and respiratory, neurological, psychiatric and ophthalmic problems among those exposed to the gas. "No consolidated record exists to show how many people are still suffering. As a result, even after the government paid compensation, however little, to more than half a million victims, fresh claims are still pouring in," says the Delhi-based Centre for Science and the Environment (CSE) in a new book, Bhopal Gas Tragedy—After 30 Years.

The disaster happened when water accidentally entered a methyl isocyanate storage tank, triggering an uncontrollable chemical reaction and blasting a cloud of toxic gases across nearby slums. People died instantly, coughing and choking, while the gases burned into the survivors' eyes and lungs to cause early death and ill health, with weakened immune systems and respiratory problems. Some estimates put the death toll as high as 30,000, while estimates show that around 570,000 people were exposed to the gas in two-thirds of the city's districts.

Children play on a field next to the abandoned former Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal November 15, 2014. Danish Siddiqui

I came to Bhopal a couple of days after the disaster to report for the Financial Times. There was a continuing acrid tang in the air. Bloated carcasses of dead animals lay in the streets and funeral pyres were still burning. It rapidly became clear that the accident had happened because Union Carbide of the U.S. had tired of its Indian investment that had not come up to over-egged corporate expectations. Wanting to close it down, it had allowed safety standards and management controls to decline disastrously, along with staff morale.

The key issues and demands after 30 years are that: Dow Chemical accepts responsibility for the toxic site and pays for the cleaning up; the Indian government re-examines the numbers of people affected and raises compensation and then increased its legal demands on Dow from $1.2 billion to $8.1 billion. Activists are also calling for Dow's company secretary to be extradited to India to face trial, following the recent death of Warren Anderson, who was Union Carbide's chairman in 1984.

The site looks virtually the same as it did that day 30 years ago. Gaunt steel structures are rusting and dilapidated factory buildings are decaying. The ground remains contaminated by chemicals that were dumped in the years preceding the disaster. The state government and the voluntary organizations have clashed over plans to turn the site into a Nagasaki-style memorial, which activists say the government has "no moral right" to implement. In any case, that cannot happen till the area has been decontaminated and there are disagreements over what this involves.

The government has begun tests and tenders to remove and incinerate 340 tonnes of toxic raw materials, which could be done within a year, and it would also remove topsoil from the rest of the site. But the activists want much more, which the CSE estimates would take five years to complete. Sathyu Sarangi, who runs a successful ayurvedic-based medical clinic for gas victims, says there is a need to excavate and remove as much as 25,000 tonnes.

The CSE estimated five years ago that groundwater 1.9 miles from the site contained pesticides 40 times India's acceptable standards—the water will have seeped further since then.

General view of a neighborhood next to the abandoned former Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal November 15, 2014. Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

Throughout the 30 years, there has been a lack of effective official assessments of the health and environmental problem—and without precision about what has happened and what is needed, it is easy for the years of inaction to continue.

There was a glimmer of hope last month when Ananth Kumar, the chemical and fertilizer minister in Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, agreed after meeting activists' groups on three occasions to verify the facts and figures. A senior official of his ministry even went to the Jantar Mantar protest area in Delhi last month and symbolically ended a protesters' fast by giving them water.

That was significant because no other Indian minister has taken so much interest, but little has happened since then. The activists said Kumar had agreed to amend the government's legal case against Union Carbide "on the basis of figures of death and extent of injuries caused by the disaster from scientific research and hospital records." A spokesman for Kumar's ministry told me however that the agreement was only that "the facts can be verified and the court case is continuing." Kumar is not one of Modi's closest ministers and, given the prime minister's central control of the government, it seems unlikely that much will happen on such a high profile case without his approval.

The Madhya Pradesh government's position is more curious because it has become one of India's most successful states since 2005 under Shivraj Singh Chauhan, its BJP chief minister. Chauhan has transformed the state's agriculture, irrigation, power, and roads, yet seems to have a blind spot about the Union Carbide impasse.

A boy who was born with a mental disability looks out of a window at a rehabilitation center supported by Bhopal Medical Appeal for children who were born with mental and physical disabilities in Bhopal November 11, 2014. The center only treats families it believes have been affected by the Union Carbide gas leak 30 years ago. Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

Salil Shetty, the London-based secretary general of Amnesty International, visited the area yesterday and called for Modi to recognize that tackling the problems would be in line with his Clean India campaign and would also clear up a foreign investment issue that could hurt his Make in India campaign. Shetty and others are calling on Modi to raise it with President Barack Obama when he visits Delhi next month as the chief guest on Republic Day.

"After 30 years there has been no punishing of the multinational corporation, no proper medical care, no cleaning up of the site and no proper compensation," says Abdul Jabbar, who runs one of the activists' organizations. In 2009 he pointed out to me that it took India 90 years from the first mutiny (or war of independence) in 1857 to achieve independence, and added: "We will wait."

Will Modi intervene faster than the British did after 1857?

John Elliott's new book is IMPLOSION: India's Tryst with Reality (HarperCollins, India). He can be read at