The cursed children of Bhopal

A girl born deaf. A young man with severe diabetes. They were not even alive when a deadly cloud of chemicals escaped from the Union Carbide plant. But the suffering goes on. By Andrew Buncombe

She has no proof. She cannot know for sure. But when Niello Far's daughter was born deaf, she immediately suspected what might have been the cause. "Everybody believes it was the gas. Others have told me it is because of the gas," said the young mother, making sign language to her four-year-old, Zoba. "The doctor has told me that it may be, that it might be the gas."

When people in Bhopal talk of the gas they are referring to the 40 tonnes of toxic chemicals that poured into the sky from an insecticide factory in the early hours of 3 December 1984, wreaking deadly havoc.

Up to 8,000 people died in the immediate aftermath, perhaps two and half times that in the subsequent months. But now, almost a quarter-century after the world's worst industrial accident, campaigners are fighting to help a "second generation" of suffering Bhopalis who they say are victims of contaminated water and political and corporate neglect.

Earlier this month, in what campaigners say could be a breakthrough, a court in New York ruled that a claim seeking damages against a US chemicals giant should be allowed to proceed. "It is significant," said Richard Lewis, a lawyer. "We are back in court. We are preparing to go to trial. That is our goal."

It's hard to miss the site of the now-shuttered plant where the US company Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) produced an insecticide sold under the brand name Sevin. Located in the heart of Bhopal, in Madhya Pradesh, the plant is surrounded by a wall covered in graffiti that demands compensation for those who suffered.

The 11 acres may now be largely given over to birds and grazing cattle but, remarkably, the site has still not been properly cleaned up. A locked warehouse contains 340 tonnes of toxic waste gathered from the site and held in leaking drums and sacks. This waste was only collected from among the rusting plant equipment in 2005.

On a recent morning, clasping a permission slip from the local magistrate, The Independent was escorted around the site by a police officer. With birds chirping, the officer pushed the way past overgrown bushes to the tanks that once stored the toxic gases. Even now, the floor beneath the rusting equipment is littered with small pellets of some sort of chemical, presumably used in the production of the insecticide.

The road led past street lamps now lost to undergrowth and a rusting flare tower, designed to burn off any escaping gases but which failed to work on the night of the disaster. Like the rest of the site it stands here as a constant, taunting reminder.

To the north, just beyond the wall and next to a densely populated shanty town, are two solar evaporation ponds into which the site's industrial waste was pumped. The ponds look dark, dead and unforgiving, and campaigners say they leak, allowing poisons to contaminate the ground water. When the monsoon rains come, the ponds flood the shanties with their toxic filth. "Namak pani," said one man, pointing towards the ponds. Salt water.

It was five past midnight when more than 40 tonnes of toxic gas, including methyl isocyanate and hydrogen cyanide, poured into the atmosphere after water somehow entered a holding tank and triggered a violent reaction. Even now, the full details of what caused the accident are not entirely known, but corrosion and lack of maintenance appear to have been factors. Certainly, the plant lacked an adequate plan for dealing with disasters.

That night, the wind was blowing in a southerly direction and it was the people living in the impoverished communities close to the plant that suffered most. Thousands died in their sleep, while at the nearby hospital the piles of corpses quickly grew. Mass graves and cremations were ordered to stop the spread of disease.

"We were inside the house. I could see there was something in the air. I had problems breathing and my husband's eyes were watering," said Lilabai Ahirwar, who lives in a two-room home near the site. "Then my eyes were watering too. We just covered ourselves with the blanket. The next morning we got out from under the blanket and heard that it was gas. There were piles of dead bodies everywhere."

Three years after the accident Mrs Ahirwar gave birth to a son, Jagdish, who suffers from severe diabetes and stunted development. Though he is 21, Jagdish looks like he is six or seven. Again she has no proof, but like Mrs Far, Mrs Ahirwar suspects the industrial accident is to blame. "I feel it is because of the gas," she said.

One of Bhopal's enduring problems is that no comprehensive study has been carried out into the after-effects of the gas or subsequent contamination of drinking water. However, tests carried out by Greenpeace in 1999 discovered high concentrations of carcinogens and heavy metals around the plant. Local tube wells were found to have been polluted.

Meanwhile, a survey carried out in 2003 by the Sambhavan Clinic, a charity-run hospital operating in the worst-affected part of the city, found that 91 per cent of people relied on drinking water from contaminated pumps. Half of those surveyed complained of multiple health problems, predominantly breathing difficulties, anaemia, headaches, giddiness and vomiting. The clinic also detected a higher than average number of birth defects.

One of the patients at the clinic is Rajesh Thakur, 36. Mr Thakur was a child when the accident happened. He remembers fleeing with his family to the local lake, where people used the water to wash off the gas. His eyes stung and he felt giddy, something that continued as he got older.

Three years ago, after a day during which he felt particularly ill, Mr Thakur awoke to discover he could not walk. He was diagnosed as having high blood pressure, something his doctor at the clinic, Mali Mrithunjay, is convinced is linked directly to the gas. "I believe the gas caused the high blood pressure, and that caused the paralysis. He is a severe case of gas victim," said Dr Mrithunjay "Every day I see around 50 patients. Many have skin problems, neuro-muscular disorders, disabilities."

Campaigners say Bhopal's tragedy is not simply an event in the past but something that is ongoing. Confronted by what they say is political apathy and corporate negligence, thousands of people are continuing to suffer from a disaster that happened 24 years ago. "It's the usual thing with environmental justice," said Satinath Sarangi, who heads the clinic. "If you are poor, low caste, Muslim, then you are more likely to be a victim of industrial pollution."

Then who is to blame for this shocking state of affairs, for the failure to clean up the polluted site, for the failure to provide safe drinking water to the people of Bhopal?

Having paid $470m (£313m) in "full and final" settlement in 1989 as part of a deal brokered by the Indian government, UCC returned the leased plant site to the state government in 1998. Why the company was allowed to return a site that remained contaminated with toxic waste is unclear.

Then in 2001, UCC was taken over by the Dow Chemical Company. Dow, based in Michigan, has resisted claims for further compensation and demands that it should help clean up the site. Campaigners claim that Indian authorities at all levels are afraid of scaring off foreign investors and point to a 2006 letter, written by Dow's chief executive to the Indian ambassador in Washington seeking an assurance that the company would not be pursued. It is to their mutual benefit, the letter says, to establish "the appropriate investment climate".

Scott Wheeler, a Dow spokesman, insisted the company had not inherited the responsibilities of UCC. "[We] never owned or operated the former Bhopal plant site and this situation is not Dow's responsibility, accountability, or liability to bear. As there was never any ownership, there is no responsibility and no liability – for the Bhopal tragedy or its aftermath," he said.

The local government says it is looking to have the waste taken to the neighbouring state of Gujarat for incineration. "There is just a little poison left there because [most has been washed away by] the heavy rains," claimed Babulal Gaur, the minister in charge of relief and rehabilitation. Asked why things had taken so long, he said the matter had been tied up in the courts. He claimed the state was providing compensation and clean water to those affected. Asked whether Dow should clean up the site, he said: "They are not good people... We will clean it up. We will build a museum to show the world what happened."

At the clinic run by the Chingari Trust where Niello Far plays with her daughter, a little girl unable to hear her mother's voice, there is no need for any such museum. Champa Devi Shukla, herself a gas survivor and now a trustee, said 154 children were registered. They have a range of physical and mental disabilities. "We blame this on the contamination of the water," she said, as the children played together. "They have had to drink the contaminated water. This is causing the problem – mainly for the second generation."

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