Bhopal… 30 years later

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Nearly three decades after the gas tragedy, many of the victims are still fighting for some kind of justice

We arrived in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, in the dark. It was only about 6pm, but a dense cloud of smog kicked up after a day’s worth of traffic winding through the capital had shrouded the sinking sun.

In just a few months it will be the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal gas tragedy, which saw more than half a million people exposed to toxic fumes leaking from the Union Carbide pesticide plant in early December 1984.

We had come to report and meet those families who lived in the path of the gas cloud and woke choking in the night. A disputed number of between 3,000 and 8,000 died on the night, or within a few weeks of the leak. Many survivors suffered disabling injuries and ongoing health problems; often breathing difficulties, eye problems, neurological and reproductive impairments.

I stayed in a dirt-cheap hotel that smelled of damp sport socks. The lobby had a bare concrete floor and dusty couch facing a TV in one corner. It was much like a cavernous basement car park, and felt you could roll your Enfield in, park it in a corner, and it wouldn’t seem out of place even if it left an oil stain. The young man at the counter seemed shocked to see me. “This is an Indian hotel, only Indians stay here,” he told me, while taking a good 20 minutes to check me in.

The next morning I meet my friends in their hotel down the road. They are chatting with an American man in their lobby (which smelled like mosquito spray, the kind that probably damages your future unborn children) who works for Lonely Planet. He’s in the middle of a tightly scheduled trip, checking out India’s hotels, tourist sights and hidden (but not really hidden, because they’re listed in a globally published travel guide) attractions for the next edition of the lazy travellers bible.

“Tourists don’t come to Bhopal,” he says matter-of-factly, after telling us the best place to get food is from a small chain of restaurants called ZamZam. ZamZam has meat only, veg only and a ‘mixed’ restaurant, for those occasions when vegetarians and carnivores want to dine side by side and gawk at what each other is eating. The other attraction, aside from lakes and what’s said to be the world’s smallest mosque, are the NGOs set up to provide care for gas victims and their children—many who suffer developmental and other disabilities.

The next day we visit Chingari Trust, which provides rehab for the children of gas victims born with disabilities, as well as children affected by ground water contaminated by chemicals leaking from the plant’s holding pond. The kids are bright bundles of energy. Several play cricket with staff on an enclosed concrete porch at the front of the building. We marvel at the fact that there are no windows broken from stray balls. A little girl sits next to us, explaining that she’s too young to play the game yet, using her hands and gesturing at her tiny frame, as she is unable to talk.

Afterwards we head to the site of the accident. The plant has never been cleaned up. Its skeletal frame looms over the colonies it scarred with gas all those years ago like a gory monument. We’re told that on weekends, the site fills with local children who play in the overgrown scrub tangling around and growing over the crumbling buildings.

A bunch of police guards are stretched under a tree a short way from the rusted entrance gate. They perk up on seeing us, check our permission forms and delegate an old man to guide us through the scrub to the plant. When we reach the building where the leak came from we take photos and get eaten alive by mosquitos—which are twice the size of those in Delhi and leave red welts like a horrible pox on your skin. The guard points at a gas tower with white pellets spilling from a hole. He motions for us to take some and rub it on our skin. We assume it’s designed to kill mosquitoes. But given it’s lying in part of a structure that brewed chemicals to kill insects that instead ended up killing thousands of humans, we politely decline. The guard tells us he remembers waking that night, running, and seeing people running beside him falling down dead. We leave overwhelmed, itchy and sore from lugging heavy camera bags.

Nearly three decades after the accident, it’s incredible to meet some of the people who are still fighting for the gas victims, fighting for some kind of justice. They only recently forced the government to give piped water to the communities drinking contaminated ground water, but the locals tell us the water comes only a few times a week. It seems every small victory in this struggle has a ‘but,’ and it’s inspiring that people are still to this day fighting for each one to be put right.

The 30th anniversary this December will likely attract a fair amount of media attention. The victims and activists will get another moment in the spotlight. But afterwards they’ll go back to their normal routine of slow struggle, and the rest of the world will tune into the next news item.

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