Bhopal 30 years on: The women of India are battling the poisonous legacy of the world's worst industrial accident

Thirty years ago, the world's worst industrial accident exposed 500,000 people to a toxic gas in Bhopal, India. So far, 25,000 have died as a direct result. But what of the survivors? Andrew Johnson meets three generations of women who have turned the disaster into a force for good

Andrew Johnson
Sunday 30 November 2014 01:00

The children at the Chingari Trust Rehabilitation Centre in old Bhopal are as polite as any you would find anywhere in the world. They approach without hesitation and hold out their arms for a hearty handshake. They look you right in the eye with a mix of curiosity and boldness.

Their mums sit on the floor along the corridor as they wait for the special education classes, physiotherapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy to finish. For Chingari is a school for some of the hundreds of children born with physical and mental problems such as cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy in this part of the city– the capital of the state of Madhya Pradesh, slap-bang in the middle of India.

The rate of disability is high due to the presence of the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide factory just down the road: 30 years ago, on the night of 2 December 1984, it exploded, spewing out up to 42 tons of methyl isocyanate. The poison cloud swallowed up the slums that lay across the road, crept through windows and doorways, and brought death, panic – and three decades of suffering.

Around 25,000 people have died as a result of the world's worst industrial accident, including, officially, 8,000 in the first week, of whom 2,259 perished on the first night (although that number is disputed, and the government has just agreed to look again at the figures with a view to revising them upwards).

Survivors recall parents fleeing with children in their arms, their lungs and eyes burning, only to collapse before they could reach safety. Entire families died in their homes. Tens of thousands still suffer health problems such as diabetes, joint pain and respiratory, heart, kidney and eye complaints.

Then there are the continuing births of children with learning and physical disabilities. Two hundred, up to the age of 14, are registered at Chingari. Filled with chatter, it is a happy place. In one room, a small knot of boys and girls, aged six or seven, sit around a crescent desk doing sums. In another, a child lies on a padded bench, having his limbs and fingers manipulated.

It is not a government institution. Nor was it paid for by a penitent UCIL. In fact, although in 1989 Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) – an American company that majority-owned UCIL at the time of the disaster – paid a $470m settlement to the Indian government jointly with UCIL, it fell well short of the $3.3bn damages that the government had asked for. And those who received compensation were lucky if they received $500. (Dow Chemical, which bought UCC 16 years after the disaster, denies any responsibility for the aftermath of the accident.)

Following the disaster, UCIL was responsible for cleaning up the site – but thousands of tons of toxic waste reportedly continued to be stored inadequately nearby, prompting fears that it was polluting the water supply. Union Carbide disputed this, saying, when it handed the site back in 1998, that it "found no evidence of groundwater contamination". According to one Bhopal survivor, Kaneeza Bee, the government installed a clean water source in the area only five years ago, following decades of campaigning.

Only in 2010 was anyone convicted for the disaster, when seven executives, all Indian, were given two-year jail sentences, for negligence.

Five minutes down the road from Chingari is the Sambhavna Clinic, where women are treated free of charge. Sambhavna was built with donations from Britain by the Bhopal Medical Appeal, which continues to fund it, k as well as providing grants to Chingari. In its large garden, a haven of peace amid the noisy slums, 150 herbs are grown, and turned into 80 traditional medicines on site. The clinic has treated 30,131 patients – the number is kept up to date on a white board – in the 18 years since it opened, prescribing Western medicine, traditional Hindu Ayurvedic medicine and yoga.

Women were affected more than men by the disaster. While their children were born with congenital defects, they too suffered health complications, such as early menopause. And many who had lived in confinement, due to the purdah system of female seclusion, found themselves having to find paid work due to the death or incapacitation of their menfolk.

Chingari was co-founded by Rashida Bee with the $125,000 prize money that came with the Goldman Environmental Prize she won in 2004 for her campaigning work. Unable to read or write, and married at 13 having never ventured beyond the house, under the purdah tradition, Bee founded and led a trade union at a stationery factory set up to provide work for female survivors. Paid a pittance, they struggled for 23 years before winning the right last year to be paid the same as other government employees.

Today, the ruins of the Bhopal factory are a ghostly monument to the disaster, its rusting derricks barely visible behind the trees which have grown around it. The real monument, however, resides in the spirit of the women. "In India, women were subdued," says Bee. "They were not allowed to come out of the purdah system. I realised that if a woman is given liberty, she has the power to change the world."

For more on the Bhopal Medical Appeal: Additional reporting by Syed Tabish Ali

'There are rumours that compensation will be paid… it's not easy to convince people that 30 years after the disaster, they need to keep fighting'

The union leader

Rashida Bee, 56, president of Peedit Mahila Stationery Ikai Union and managing trustee of Changari Trust

"Seven members of my family have died because of the gas tragedy. Every day I have to take medicines. I have high blood pressure, constant headaches and pains in my limbs.

"I married at the age of 13 and in my husband's home the purdah system was strongly followed, so I was not allowed to step outside of the house.

"After the tragedy, my husband and father were sick, so there was no income. I had to go out and work. The government had opened a centre that provided employment for women. It was very difficult and frightening for me. I'd never been exposed to men in the past. At the centre we were trained how to make stationery items that were supposed to be used by the state government. But the training didn't lead to any work and we were paid just a few rupees.

"In 1987, we started a trade union to put pressure on the government for proper wages. We filed a case in the criminal court in 1989. It took us 23 years to get justice. Many of the ladies at the start of the fight [died], so weren't able to see this moment of happiness. We are still fighting for proper relief for the gas victims, but also for women's rights, issues such as domestic violence and our voices not being allowed to be raised.

"Because of the gas tragedy, I realised my potential and the abilities of the common woman. I realised that if a woman is provided with an opportunity, she can make changes. Talent is nothing without opportunity."

'In 1987, we started a trade union to put pressure on the government for proper wages for the female workers. It took us 23 years to get justice'

The nun

Sister Christopher, 81 (above)

"I came to Bhopal from Dublin in 1969 and have been here ever since, running a school for the mentally handicapped, about seven miles from the factory.

"The day after the disaster, after I was sure that our children here were safe, I went to the hospital and was there every night for three weeks. At first there were bodies all along the corridor – alive or dead, you couldn't tell. And the doctor said, 'Sister, will you be able to find out who's alive and who's dead?' Their eyes were all full of a white foam and their mouths were all white because of the poison.

"Then we found a whole lot of children with no parents. We lay them on a blanket, with another covering them. These little children, God love them, they would wake up, we would bathe them and clean their eyes. It was very sad but very beautiful.

"You could see their joy when they saw somebody they knew. They'd put their arms around them and sit close.

"Parents would come at night, saying: 'I'm looking for my child.' The sorrow in their faces… I'd carefully open the blankets and sometimes they'd say, 'That's mine!' Then, the joy in those faces…

"We also had a little baby, just born. She was beautiful. We gave her milk and held her. I wish she could have stayed with us. I read in a newspaper that this little girl we had, she has a degree now and is married. She doesn't know us, but I was so happy to hear that she had survived. She was the youngest victim, she was."

The activist

Nasreen, 34

"I was four years old at the time of the tragedy, and have kidney problems as a result.

"I carry out field work for the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal. This means going to people's houses and making them aware of their rights. We organise protests and demonstrations, and make sure there are enough people. It's sometimes very difficult to connect with people, as there are rumours that compensation will be paid and people get carried away. It's not very easy to convince people that 30 years after the disaster, they need to keep fighting.

"At present, we are showing them a movie made by the gas victims, based on the issues they face; and we are planning a rally in Delhi [which took place earlier this month] for the compensation to be raised to £5bn and for a true record of the dead and injured to be kept."

The survivor

Kaneeza Bee, 60 (above)

"I was six months' pregnant on the night of the disaster. The child was born but died six months later. My husband was a taxi driver and was left with dizzy spells. Five months after the disaster he had an accident and died.

"I have pain in the eyes, vomiting and dizziness. Three years ago, I was diagnosed with stomach cancer. But I always knew I could struggle for a cause and stand up. Many times I have had to leave my children to participate in the struggle. I would go on protest marches and lie in a coffin. The police have beaten us and put us in prison – although they grew frightened at our chanting and let us out.

"After my husband died, I used to go to others' houses to make meals, and whatever food was left over, I could bring home.

"I received some compensation money and bought a plot of land. I have taken care of each and every small thing in building my house on it, such as buying the bricks and the cement. Nobody has helped.

"I have campaigned against the water contamination, and five years ago we were given a clean supply. It is only one victory, though. One day we will get justice."

The campaigning daughter

Safreen Khan, 20

"In 2008, when I was 14, I helped start an organisation called Children Against Dow and Carbide. We had gone on a 400-mile walk with our parents, from Bhopal to Delhi, to campaign for clean water. Often we didn't have a proper place to sleep at night. We would start walking at four in the morning and finish late at night. The children thought we should start our own organisation so that [they] realised that not only the elders are fighting against them, but the children, too.

"I currently teach at a local school, but I have travelled all over, to America, the UK, Italy, France, and Germany, to spread awareness about Bhopal.

"We've been fighting for the rights of gas victims for 30 years. In the future, someone needs to carry on the fight; it is like passing on the baton from one generation to another."

Portraits by Alex Masi

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