The residents of JP Nagar have no way to escape their ghosts. This ramshackle neighbourhood, on the outskirts of the Indian city of Bhopal, stands just metres away from the chemical factory which exploded just after midnight on 2 December 1984 and seeped poison into their lives forever. The blackened ruins of the Union Carbide plant still loom untouched behind the factory walls.
It remains the world’s worst industrial disaster, which saw 40 tons of toxic methyl isocyanate gas released into the air, killing over 3,000 instantly and condemning hundreds of thousands to a future of prolonged pain, cancer, stillbirths, miscarriages, lung and heart disease and the drawn out deaths of everyone around them.
“It would be better if there was another gas leak which could kill us all and put us all out of this misery,” said Omwati Yadav, 67, who can see the Union Carbide factory from the roof of her tiny one-room stone house, painted peppermint green with orange doors. Her body shaking with sobs, she cries out: “Thirty five years we have suffered through this, please just let it end. This is not life, this is not death, we are in the terrible place in between.”
Her husband Panna Lal Yadav, 70, who worked as a packer in the Union Carbide factory, points to the black marks and lumps all over his body. “The poison is still inside my body,” he says. “Here you can see it coming out.”
This week marks the 35th anniversary of the disaster yet the injustice suffered by the people of Bhopal remains stark and unrelenting. The official death toll is still disputed but an estimated 574,000 were poisoned that night and upwards of 20,000 people have died since from related conditions. No one from Union Carbide was ever tried for the gross negligence that led to the gas explosion, despite multiple criminal charges being brought against them in India. No cleanup operation of the chemical waste – which was already being dumped into the local community before the explosion – has ever been conducted.
Surveys done by the Bhopal campaign groups have shown this toxic waste, which according to their tests contains six of the persistent organic pollutants banned by the UN for their highly poisonous impacts on the environment and human health, has now reached 42 areas in Bhopal and continues to spread. The pond where Union Carbide used to dump the chemicals sits festering and untouched, with children and wild pigs running on about on its banks.
State officials have long disputed that this waste has any harmful impact, accusing activists of inventing it to get charity funding; offers by the UN and the German government to carry out tests and clear it up have been refused by the Indian government. However, SR Mohanty, chief secretary of the energy department for the state government, told the Guardian that plans have finally been made to carry out a toxicity assessment in the coming months.
The Guardian can also reveal the role the US government has played – and continues to play – in obstructing justice for the Bhopal victims, in order to protect American corporate giants Union Carbide and its now owner Dow Chemicals.
Those who did not initially perish in the blast live with a toxic sword of Damocles over their heads. New data collected over the past nine years by the Sambhavna Trust and currently undergoing peer review by the Lancet medical journal, suggests that even after three decades, the mortality rate for gas-exposed victims is still 28% higher than average. They are twice as likely to die of cancers, diseases of the lungs and tuberculosis, three times as likely to die from kidney diseases and 63% more likely to have illnesses. The Trust’s data also highlights the fact that over the past three years, almost a quarter of gas exposed victims were diagnosed with an under-active thyroid, which can have devastating long term health impacts.
The data also suggests that the explosion has had a particularly adverse effect on women exposed to the gas, even as babies just days old, causing high rates of infertility, stillbirths, abortions, early menopause and wreaking havoc on menstrual cycles. As a result, many women in Bhopal continue to be abandoned by their husbands, believed not to be capable of fulfilling the familial duties expected of them.
Yet it is the lasting impact on the second and third generation, and on those yet unborn that haunts those in Bhopal the most. The Chingari children’s centre, established for those born with disabilities as a consequence of the disaster, has registered over 1,000 children, with most affected by cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, autism, intellectual disabilities and severe learning difficulties. “This is the terrible legacy of Bhopal: all of these children were born to parents, or even grandparents, who were in contact with the gas that night,” said Rashida Bee, the centre’s founder. “The situation is getting worse, not better. We are seeing more and more second and third generation children being born with such disabilities and coming here. Bhopal’s tragedy has not stopped.”
Activists allege that there has been a deliberate suppression by the Indian government of any research which proves the long term systemic or genetic damage caused by the gas explosion, to protect the corporations involved. Proof of the lasting damage of the gas exposure could have major legal implications for Union Carbide and its current owner Dow Chemicals, who took ownership of the company and its legal responsibilities in 2001, in terms of compensation liability. A civil court case, begun in 2010, is ongoing in the supreme court, which is arguing to re-open the compensation case for victims of Bhopal.
Indeed, one recent rare study authorised by government medical body the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR), found that between 2016-2017, 9% of the babies born to gas-exposed mothers had birth defects compared to 1.3% born to mothers with no exposure. However, the study was subsequently discredited by the ICMR, who ordered it not to be published or disclosed.
“From the beginning the government has protected the corporations at the cost of human lives,” says Satinash Sarangi, founder of the Sambhanva Trust which runs an medical clinic that has treated over 300,000 Bhopal victims. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the trust, which was established entirely on the basis of donations given by thousands of Guardian readers who responded to a newspaper advert by the Bhopal Medical Appeal.
Sarangi set up the clinic after several incidents convinced him the government were not giving Bhopal victims the correct treatment or information in a bid to disguise the lasting scale of the tragedy. Even today, in government-run hospitals, doctors will not acknowledge if victim’s diseases or disabilities are gas-related. “It has become obvious to me this is never about medicine and people, it is about politics and power,” Sarangi says.
Omwati Yadav’s two grandsons, born to a mother and father who were both exposed to the gas, are among the second generation victims of Bhopal. Walking into the hut where where Yikas, 21, and Aman, 19, lie side-by-side on the floor on a pink woven mat, she breaks down.
Both born severely disabled by cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy, the severity of the boys’ condition is on stark display. They are unable to walk, talk or eat without assistance; their frail limbs splay out at awkward angles. Their grandmother sits in between them, strokes their heads and whispers gently in their ears. Looking up Yadav gestures at the boys, “Is this a life?” she asks, furiously wiping away her tears.
Their mother Sharda Yadav, 41, who was 12 years old when she was exposed to the gas from the explosion, fiddles with her canary yellow sari in distress. “Doctors told us secretly this is because of the gas,” she whispers. “They are adult men, they should be standing shoulder to shoulder with their father, but look at them. The do not even know if it is day or night, I have spent my whole life taking care of them but I get sick most of the time. I feel a pain in my soul when I look at them.”
A tsunami of grief engulfs the small hut, as mother, father, grandmother and grandfather all quietly sob. Lying on the floor before them, Yikas lets out a gentle wail, his only means of communicating with his family. Their father Sanjay Yadav shook his head. “Every day we are punished,” he says, “while the companies and the government have got away with doing nothing for 35 years.”
Justice has indeed remained elusive for the victims of Bhopal. A 1989 compensation deal, now widely panned as shamefully inadequate, saw most victims given just 25,000 rupees (£275), while some received nothing at all. None of the nine Indian officials who were convicted in 2010 for their role in the disaster served any time behind bars, while Union Carbide has never appeared in court.
Lingering behind the scenes has been the shadowy hand of the US government, who, throughout three decades of administrations, have repeatedly intervened to shade Union Carbide and more recently its owner Dow Chemicals, from legal liability, according to documents seen by the Guardian.
In 2003, when an extradition request was sent to the US for Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson to be extradited to India to face trial, emails released through freedom of information reveal that secretary of state Colin Powell and figures at the state department emphasised “the importance of this issue to the US business community” and various officials at Union Carbide met with officials at the US state department. The extradition request was later declined.
Classified emails released as part of WikiLeaks show that in 2010, when the Indian government pushed to reopen the compensation settlement for Bhopal victims, Robert Hormats, who served as President Obama’s under secretary of state for economic growth, energy, and the environment, met with then Indian cabinet minister Montek Ahluwalia to communicate that it would “look really bad to reopen a settlement”. Hormats is now vice president of Kissinger Associates, the geopolitical consulting firm set up by former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who took on Union Carbide as a client following the disaster and lobbied on their behalf for years after.
State department documents also reveal that in his 2010 visit to India, President Barack Obama specifically did not meet with NGOs dealing with Bhopal out of fear of stoking the issue and that a key objective of the visit was instead to stress his “support for Dow’s business in India.”
US government intervention continues to this day. On six separate occasions between 2014 and 2019, the US Department of Justice has simply not passed on the summons for Dow Chemical to appear in the Bhopal Court on criminal charges of sheltering a fugitive, their subsidiary company Union Carbide. This is seen by campaigners as a direct violation of the treaty of mutual legal assistance between the US and India, and has ensured Dow Chemical has never appeared in the courts to answer the criminal charges.
In a statement, the department of justice said they did not “publicly comment on communications with foreign governments on investigative matters, including confirming or denying the very existence of such communications.”
The Indian government has also been accused of working against the victims by kowtowing to corporate interests. In 2015, while on a visit to the US, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi met with officials from Dow Chemicals. Contacted by the Guardian for this story, Dharmendra Kumar Madan, joint secretary at the ministry of chemicals, which is responsible for Bhopal, refused to comment, stating simply: “I am not concerned with this issue.”
Even the smaller indignities suffered by Bhopal victims are relentless in their absurdity. A rare state government scheme to assist victims saw a series of yoga centres built to encourage a holistic approach to helping their pain. But no yoga teachers were ever hired and the centres now operate as high end wedding venues. There are ongoing plans to clear only a small portion of the toxic waste so a high-end Delhi architecture firm can build a Bhopal memorial.
Each anniversary brings a smaller onslaught of attention to Bhopal but the tragedy remains the same. In JP Nagar, eight people have died in the past two months of diseases related to gas exposure, including two of the key activists who have led the fight for justice for Bhopal.
Sitting in her small home, furnished only with a wardrobe and a single plastic chair, Leela Bai Ahivwar, 70, still remembers the night of the explosion with anguish and said the past 35 years since has been “only pain”. She lost both her son and daughter to diseases connected to their gas exposure. “I no longer have any hope for justice. We walked to Delhi twice in protest, and for what,” says Ahivwar. “Almost everyone is gone now. Maybe at last it will be my turn next.” Another Bhopal life then, defined only by death.
Contributions to the Bhopal Medical Appeal can be made at www.bhopal.org