September 24, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Dr Wazeem, a paediatrian at Sambhavna examines a patient


In 1969, as part of the “green revolution” in India, Union Carbide established a chemical plant in Bhopal to manufacture the pesticide Carbaryl. It contained the lethal compound Methyl Isocyanate (MIC), twice as heavy as air, meaning should a leak occur, it would create a blanket of deadly gas, smothering anything that lay in its path.

Densely populated slums of Bhopal, with their easily available, cheap labour supply were selected as the site for the factory despite the contradiction this made to the regulations ensuring MIC would be kept a safe distance from populated sites.

The infamous disaster on the eve of Dec 2nd 1984 was far from a freak accident and the largest industrial accident in history. Tragically it was in fact predicted by local journalist Raajkumar Keswani, on the basis of the multiple smaller explosions and gas leaks that had been occurring 2 years prior to the accident.
Ironically Union Carbide had a very different emphasis on safety when it considered its sister MIC plant in West Virginia with no expense spared. To put it bluntly as portrayed in the recent Yes Men film: ‘The price of life was less than that of an expendable commodity’.

The remains of the Union Carbide factory

So what was the disaster? Why does its shrill warning still ring out across India and the World?

First of all was the suffering. Champa Devi, a celebrated campaigner for justice in Bhopal, describes it vividly:
‘People were running, screaming, cries renting the night air. “Allah give me death.” We too ran, my two elder sons leading the way, my husband, youngest son, two daughters and I a little way behind. My husband collapsed on a heap of stones, screaming aloud. Opening my eyes with great difficulty I saw him trembling in pain. We just sat there, all hope spent, white foam was oozing from the mouths of my two daughters. Corpses were pilled high, like sacs of wheat in a stack. Anyone who fell or fainted was thrown on the pile.’

Figures on the disaster are grossly underestimated by the government to lessen the negative impact upon international investment. Quoted numbers are 2,259 but actual figures are more like 3,000 killed outright, with 15,000 dead in the first week and 150,000-600,000 injured/still chronically ill.

The suffering continues with water contamination.

Waste dumped throughout the time the factory was active continues to leach into the soil, contaminating the water supply for 15 surrounding colonies, a radius of about 3km.

The situation now is a population where every Bhopali, it seems, has suffered the loss of a family member or friend: grandparents, husbands, wives, children. The initial gas and continuing polluted water’s effects on health are numerous. Unfortunately research into the long-term effects of exposure was stopped abruptly in 1994, again by the Indian government, for the benefit of prospective multinationals thinking of investing in India.

Health issues that have arisen are not simply respiratory (distress, pulmonary oedema or pneomonitis) as MIC effects the body systemically as do many of its numerous poisonous breakdown products; hydrocyanic acid and dicholoro-benzenes – effect bone marrow and cause leukemia and anemia.

The lack of systematic, continuous health data is not just infuriating in terms of making the legal case against Dow (Union Carbide’s current owners) but in that it prevents health care providing the best service with a more complete understanding of the cause and course of the diseases seen.

Sambhavna Clinic

However you could spend all your energy bemoaning this point and leave little energy for the everyday lives of those who continue live there. Sambhavna clinic has made its mission to do quite the opposite; it provides a beacon of light to the affected people of Bhopal. Through its integrated clinic and community care work it assists people in the rebuilding of their lives.

Set up in the wake of the disaster by a group of individuals who were shocked not only the lack of adequate care for the Bhopal people but also the exploitation. Drugs companies had found the situation extremely lucrative and shocking reports tell of patients with ‘kilograms of tablets being prescribed to them’.

Therefore the complete health of the patient is considered at Sambhavna Trust. Tablets do not always provide the answer and leaning to far in this direction can have dangerous complications when on a cocktail of interacting drugs. They have found combinations of Western (Allopathic) medicine with traditional Indian (Ayuvedic) medicine, Panchakarma and Yoga to be extremely effective for the management of chronic disease.

Whilst common conditions make up the bulk of many GP practice’s workloads here, new research is suggesting the Union Carbide catastrophe may have significantly altered the health demographic. There is great belief that metabolic conditions such as diabetes and hypothyroidism along with birth defects and infertility are now much more prevelant in the Bhopal district. This adds fuel to fire of justice that is gathering more support with every passing day in India.

A young girl in the ironically named Sunder Nagar (Beautiful Place) Colony, home to the ruined MIC plant.

The future

News came out only recently that the chief of police personally drove the CEO of Union Carbide to the airport to leave India ensuring no legal proceeding could take place in the weeks following the explosion. Small revelations like this shed light on the murky back-story to the Indian government’s handling of the situation. Its sad to see even now that no moral conclusion has been reached in this. Ironically it has recently been reported that the nuclear reactor deal India has just signed caps the payout that would be required from the contracted companies at $650 million in the event of a disaster of any scale. This adds another nail to the coffin of accountability for transnational organizations in the event of an industrial disaster with countries willingly drawing up a responsibility get out clause.

Various court cases are on going in India and with the recent media interest off the back of the BP oil disaster it may be that just one day soon justice is brought to the Bhopali people. How long still will the abandoned factory be left to poison future generation?

2014 will see the 30 year anniversary since the disaster.

Sambhavna clinic is located close to the Union Carbide sight; it provides free health care to victims of the gas tragedy and ongoing water contamination. It promotes health and wellbeing through integrated healthcare involving allopathic (Western), Ayuvedic (traditional Indian) medicine, Panchakarma and Yoga therapies.

Volunteers can are provided with food an accommodation when staying at the health clinic.

Funding is provided by the Brighton based charity, Bhopal Medical Appeal.

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