Twenty years after a cloud of deadly gas savaged this central Indian city, thousands of demonstrators and survivors marked the anniversary of the world's worst industrial accident yesterday with protests demanding justice for those still suffering.
A leak of 40 tons of poisonous gas from a Union Carbide pesticide plant on Dec. 3, 1984, killed at least 10,000 people in Bhopal and affected more than 555,000 others, although the exact number of victims has never been clear. Many died over the years due to gas-related illnesses, like lung cancer, kidney failure and liver disease.
While millions of dollars in compensation has been set aside, much of the money has been tied up by bureaucratic and legal issues and many people have received little or nothing.
``For the last 20 years I've been visiting the hospital and government offices, begging for compensation to take care of my two children,'' said Leelaben Aherwar, whose baby girl survived the gas leak but immediately afterward began showing signs of mental and physical retardation.
Her son, born a few years later, suffers from similar problems.
``The answer is always the same: 'The court will make a decision.' I don't know what court is this that cannot see our suffering,'' she said yesterday.
So far, she has received about 16,000 rupees (US$360).
US chemical company Union Carbide Corp., which was bought by Michigan-based Dow Chemical Co. in 2001, paid US$470 million in compensation under a settlement with India's government in 1989. But only part of that amount has reached the victims.
Rashida Bee, a disaster survivor who heads a women victims' group, said the protesters would conclude yesterday's rally with a mass pledge to keep up the fight until victims' demands for compensation, medical care and rehabilitation are met.
`They are treating us, the victims, like the culprits responsible for causing the disaster,'' Bee said.
The protesters also called on Dow Chemical to clean up the plant site, where rusted pipes and pesticide storage tanks have collapsed or ruptured in the years since the plant was abandoned after the disaster.
``Lethal chemicals are still lying around at the plant, some in the open. Every time it rains these poisonous chemicals are leaked into the soil, affecting groundwater resources of the area,'' Bee said.
Union Carbide insists the tragedy was due to sabotage by a disgruntled employee and not shoddy safety standards or faulty plant design, as claimed by many activists.
Union Carbide, in a statement sent to reporters, said it spent more than US$2 million to clean up the plant from 1985 to 1994, when it sold its stake in Union Carbide India Ltd. and the local company was renamed as Eveready Industries.
The company also says state studies indicated in 1998 that the groundwater around the plant was free of toxins and that any water contamination was due to improper drainage and other pollution, not Union Carbide chemicals.
The state government took over legal responsibility of the site in 1998, but it has done little to remove the debris and sacks of chemicals. Greenpeace estimates it would cost at least US$30 million to clean up the plant and the groundwater and soil that it claims are laced with carcinogens.
Dow maintains the legal case was resolved in 1989, when Union Carbide settled with the Indian government.