Info Change India



Last updateSat, 22 Jul 2017 6am

You are here: Home | Toxic Tours | Toxic Tours - III: Bhopal's forgotten chemical stockpile

Toxic Tours

Toxic Tours - III: Bhopal's forgotten chemical stockpile

By Shailendra Yashwant

Photo-journalist Shailendra Yashwant revisits the deserted Union Carbide factory where the world's worst industrial disaster occurred on December 2, 1984. And finds on the premises several drums containing deadly chemical ingredients for the pesticide sevin, exposed to all the elements, leaching into the groundwater. Seventeen years, and the place hasn't even been cleaned up.

The plane broke through the clouds and began making wide circles over Bhopal, readying for descent. I half-expected the garrulous captain to announce "and ladies and gentleman on your left is the infamous Union Carbide factory", and why not, the man had pointed out enough temples and forts in the last hour. I kept peering through the window searching for the factory. After a couple of false starts, I gave up. Besides it was raining.

Ramzan's rickety white Ambassador brought me to my hotel which overlooked the bada talab, literally 'big lake'. It was a lot more impressive than the 'small lake' I had passed on my way here. I was in Bhopal to do a photographic documentation of the premises of Union Carbide's pesticide manufacturing plant, which started killing people long before the infamous night of 3rd December 1984, and continues to kill today.

Despite its sordid claim to fame, Bhopal is one of the more pleasant cities of India. The lake only adds to the charm of this city of striking Moghul period buildings. Driving through the inner lanes and unruly small-town traffic of the old bazaar area, I could have been in any Indian town except for the occasional glimpses of anti-Carbide graffiti, which built a sense of apprehension and a knot in my stomach.

And suddenly there it was, across a tall wire-fence, beyond high grass, the ruins of the factory, the office block, the sevin unit and the flare tower, draped in a gentle drizzle. The factory sits in a thickly-populated residential area, three-quarters of which is slums and the rest middle class colonies with a primary school in every third building. One part of the slum stands off the broken wall at the back of the factory. This is the wall closest to the sevin-manufacturing unit.

I joined a cow that had ventured into the factory from a breach in the back wall. I realised that I was trespassing, but so was the cow and scores of other children, some to retrieve over-the-boundary 'sixes'. Still, I could not afford to ruin the chances of my official application for photography, which the local activists were actively pursuing with the Ministry of Gas Relief. I scouted the housing settlement instead. I was looking for official signposts put up near hand-pumps, which declared the water 'poisoned - not fit for drinking'. My entourage of rowdy kids kept promising the elusive signboard and gave me a tour of all the busy drinking water facilities, but there were no signboards. Finally enquiries with the adults were met with a resigned "They must have been removed, or rotted away or fallen down, who cares? This is the only water we get anyway."

It was on December 2, 1984, during routine maintenance operations in the Methyl Iso Cynate (MIC) plant of Union Carbide's sevin manufacturing plant, that a large quantity of water entered one of the storage tanks containing 60 tonnes of MIC. This triggered a runaway reaction resulting in a tremendous increase of temperature and pressure. A little before midnight, a deadly cocktail of MIC, Hydrogen Cyanide, Mono methylamine and other chemicals escaped the pesticide plant in what is dubbed the world's worst industrial accident. The gas snuffed out over 16,000 human lives that night and left thousands of survivors and their offspring with serious health disorders. In a protracted legal battle, Union Carbide managed to escape all liabilities except for a paltry sum in compensation. The factory itself went into legal limbo and was deserted by its management long before the fires at the mass funerals had died out. Recently Union Carbide Limited merged with Dow Chemicals, a chemical giant and a notorious repeat environmental offender which has washed its hands of all UCL liabilities.

Since that night, tonnes of deadly ingredients, along with the finished product, sevin, a broad-spectrum pesticide, have been lying in open drums and sacks in the deserted factory. Studies of the groundwater around the factory have revealed the larger problem of leaching of these poisons into the groundwater: this had escaped everyone's attention. In fact, nowhere in the Supreme Court settlement was it mentioned that Union Carbide actually had open-evaporation tanks and deplorable waste disposal facilities for their deadly effluents, which had begun causing havoc with lives in the neighbourhood many years before the disaster occurred. The poisons in their drinking water further compounded the various ailments that were debilitating the affected population.

For the next two days I walked around Jaiprakashnagar and Arifnagar. Jaiprakashnagar had taken the worst hit on that fateful night, when the deadly gas aided by strong winds enveloped this locality. Hundreds perished in their sleep, thousands succumbed over the next few days. Most residents rebuffed our attempts to interview them. And I couldn't blame them -- hundreds of journalists and assorted do-gooders have visited the disaster site in the last 15 years. Tired of giving interviews and disappointed with empty promises, most survivors are suspicious of all visitors today. A certain amount of cynicism and apathy has set in amongst most of them, but some brave survivors continue to meet every week to keep their battle for justice alive.

After much 'string-pulling' at the ministry and secretariat, a few hours before I was to catch my flight out, a limited access permission finally came through and we were given a whirlwind tour of the factory premises.

The drama preceding the permissions had me in knots; after all, I was entering a contaminated toxic hotspot that time had forgotten. Very few people had actually been inside the factory after the disaster and I was definitely the first photographer in a very long time.

A three-storey, grey-and-red building that housed the offices and laboratories is at the centre of the facility. The overgrown weeds and the state of disrepair was expected; only two guards have been in charge of the premises for the last 15 years.

And then I saw a cycle shed with rusted and rotting bottomed-out drums filled with sevin on the left of the building. A forgotten stockpile of pesticides, a poison manufactured to kill. Exposed to all the elements -- land, air and water.

That was not all. Down from the office block, in one of the warehouses, I shooed out a cow from among the sacks of deadly chemicals. The whole place was stripped of anything of value and children had left their unmistakable signs behind. God alone knows how many sacks had been stolen by the desperate and ignorant.

By the time I saw the state of the sevin plant, I was ready to leave, and fast. Visible mercury littered one patch; the huge drum of the machine with the last batch of sevin rolled out and decaying…the place was evil and dreary in every sense of the word. A putrefying rubber glove in the grass added to the eerie atmosphere.

And the stories from the last two days, the medical evidence I had seen, and those broken people I had met. All of them flashed past me in a moment. The pre-pubescent girl suffering from multiple menstrual periods; those listless men; children with multiple disorders; the deserted women with gynaecological disorders; the anger, the frustration, the sense of impotency.

Even with my limited knowledge of science, I realised that there was something drastically wrong with what I was seeing. Shouldn't these deadly toxic wastes be at least contained and put away safely? Isn't it obvious to the authorities that the state in which the poisons were lying was a major threat to the environment and human health? How could they have forgotten to clean up and contain the site of one of the world's worst industrial disasters?

(Shailendra Yashwant is a senior photo-journalist who has worked with The Hindu, Outlook and The Independent. He is associated with the toxic campaign of Greenpeace and has been documenting the subcontinent's ecological problems for several years.)