Earthmovers lay paths and workers clear the undergrowth with a pace of urgency that the derelict Union Carbide factory site in Bhopal has not known in a quarter of a century. A pesticide tank at the plant leaked deadly gas shortly after midnight of December 3, 1984, devastating the central Indian city.
Officials and their retinues, who visit the site several times a day and animatedly inspect the work in the wasteland, are following directions from state authorities to open the premises for public viewing on the 25th anniversary.
But victims of the disaster are outraged, saying the exhibition of the “death factory” highlights the abject indifference they face from the government.
It is a bitter irony that the catastrophe is to be showcased amid continued neglect and injustice meted out to victims, many dying due to lack of medical care, as accused officials go unpunished and damaged babies are still being born.
Revelations years after the tragedy showed the US company also dumped chemical waste around the plant that contaminated groundwater supplies.
As wisps of glass wool play move in the wind, time stands still at the pesticide-producing unit, a 35-metre-high block of rusting pipes, towers and gantries.
Creepers grow over storage tank 610, which spewed 40 tons of highly poisonous methyl isocyanate over densely populated slums, killing 3,800 almost immediately, many in their sleep.
More than 15,250 people were officially confirmed to have died in the weeks that followed, although activists claim a death toll of about 25,000.
Some 100,000 of the 574,000 people exposed to the gas were affected permanently, suffering from illnesses including respiratory and psychiatric problems, cancer and tuberculosis.
“Two and a half decades later, the truth is not known. There is no official word on how the disaster took place. No one has been held responsible, which shows officials and companies are hand in glove,” says T.R. Chouhan, a former engineer at the plant and now considered an expert on the disaster.
“There is evidence to prove that the management neglected safety standards for cost-cutting even though they knew the hazardous nature of the chemicals,” he said.
The company blamed the disaster on sabotage by workers, alleging that they introduced water into the tank that triggered a chemical reaction causing the gas leak.
Bhopal remains the subject of several legal cases in India and the US. Dow Chemical, which took over Carbide in 1999, says all the liabilities were settled when Carbide paid 470 million dollars compensation in a Supreme Court-brokered settlement.
But survivors continue to fight for just compensation and economic rehabilitation, as 300,000 people still need treatment, many of whom lost their capacity to earn a livelihood.
“More than compensation, people want justice and dignity of life,” says Rachna Dhingra, one of the leaders of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, an activist coalition.
“The government should immediately establish an empowered commission to look into long-term relief and rehabilitation measures of gas victims, their proper medical care, pensions to families with children requiring special care,” she said.
Children are being born with cleft palates or webbed feet. The water the families drink remains contaminated. Around the factory, the disability rate among children is almost 10 times the national average.
The pungent smell of chemicals hits the nose as cattle graze the area where some 20 toxic dumps continue to release the poisons.
“The disaster didn’t end in 1984,” said Ratan Lal, father of 20-year old Mamata, who suffers stunted growth and did not attend school because children used to tease her.
“Damaged babies are still being born. People get skin rashes and stomache aches because of the water,” said the labourer who lives in nearby Garibnagar slum.
But gas relief minister Babulal Gaur denies any danger and insists the plant is opened to help people get rid of misconceptions and apprehension that the factory’s chemical wastes pollute the city.
“The chemical waste is confined to a room and it is not polluting water. By visiting the site people will be able to see for themselves that the government is not hiding anything from them. It would ensure transparency,” he said.
Activists view the move as another effort by the government to give the issue a quiet burial. More than 10 governmental and non-governmental studies have confirmed the presence of highly toxic chemicals in the soil and environment of the site, Dhingra said.
“The site should be preserved as a memorial but the government is using the occasion to absolve Dow of its responsibilities,” Syed Irfan, a leader of the Bhopal campaign, said. “If justice is not done, many Bhopals will happen elsewhere. Companies will come, pollute, kill and leave without liability.”