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Thirty Years After Bhopal's Union Carbide Disaster, Gas Leak Survivors Are Still Suffering

The leak at the US chemical plant in central India killed thousands instantly and in the years that followed. Raghu Rai photographed its aftermath, and recently returned to document locals' continued struggle with its consequences.

by Sally Hayden
Dec 1 2014, 5:00pm

Photos by Raghu Rai/Magnum Photos/Amnesty International

Thirty years ago, on the night of December 2, 1984, a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, central India, began leaking 27 tons of the poisonous gas methyl isocyanate. Six security mechanisms that should have stopped the escape proved inoperable because of lack of maintenance or lack of care.

One of the world's worst industrial disasters ensued. 

The gas spread quickly through the city, clinging low to the ground. Half a million people were exposed to it, with thousands killed almost immediately. At least 25,000 have died to date as a direct result of inhalation.

Magnum photographer Raghu Rai arrived in Bhopal the morning after the disaster, and spent three days documenting its horrors.

Almost half of the pregnant women who breathed the gas spontaneously aborted, their fetuses falling out of them as they ran. Locals recall seeing friends dying while vomiting or foaming at the mouth. Survivors affected experienced blindness, cancer, neurological disorders, and psychological damage.

Alongside the devastation of the gas leak, another — more hidden — danger damaged the residents of the area further. For 15 years before the disaster, the Union Carbide plant had been dumping toxic chemicals in the soil beside the factory. This resulted in a second round of poisoning, as 40,000 people from 18 townships continued to unknowingly drink contaminated water for decades. Though officials from the US chemical company became aware of this, they didn't warn local communities of the risk.

Compensation for survivors of the gas leak was paltry, and slow to come. In February 1989, Union Carbide agreed to pay $470 million — 15 percent of the initial claim. In 1991 Warren Anderson — Union Carbide CEO at the time of the disaster — was charged with manslaughter, but the US refused to extradite him to India to face trial. He died in a Florida nursing home in September this year, aged 92. 

In 2001, Dow Chemical Company bought Union Carbide, meaning that it also inherited the company's environmental liabilities. However, Dow maintains that it isn't responsible for the Bhopal accident.

Rai has returned to Bhopal numerous times since, most recently when invited by Amnesty International to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the gas leak.

He spoke to VICE News about his experience of the tragedy: both immediately after the event, and in the long decades since.

Bhopal, 1984. This victim was identified as Leela who lived in the Chola colony near the Union Carbide factory.

VICE News: How did you end up on the scene in Bhopal so quickly after the gas leak?
Raghu Rai: At that time I was connected with India's leading magazine called India Today. And by 12.30 at night I had a call from my editor saying Raghu this is happening, and I guess we'll have to get there tomorrow morning by the first flight. But then I spoke to him in detail and I had barely put my head on my bed again and then there was a call from Paris office Magnum saying Raghu, this is going on. I said yes I know it.

It was a 7 o'clock morning flight and we landed about 8 o'clock and by 8.30am we were on the scene.

Did you immediately comprehend the scale of the disaster?
Absolutely, because we were told there was the biggest hospital called Hamidia hospital, and they said most sick and dead are being brought there. And because everything was so sudden, that was the centre of every activity.

And while driving down to this hospital — actually it's a hospital plus an educational institute where they train doctors — so on the way we found dead animals, bloated bodies and people rushing and it was very chaotic. And when we got there it was like the war had just ended or an earthquake had just finished and people were trying to recover their dead and wounded ones.

Bhopal, 1984. A man carries the body of his dead wife past the deserted Union Carbide factory, the source of the toxic gas that killed her the night before.

And had you seen anything like that before?
Never ever ever. And this was so far the biggest industrial disaster in the world and at that time nobody had an idea of the magnitude of the deaths that were happening. And nobody had had the doctors or the Union Carbide didn't have any clue what was the antidote for it. And they kept telling people: "Just put the wet cloth on your eyes, this is like tear gas." And your eyes start watering, so you keep putting wet cloth on your eyes. Of course the wet cloth gave some relief but in the first few days more than 7,000 people were dead. 

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The images you took are completely heart-breaking, and I read that you've said you felt guilty searching for dead bodies to photograph. How did you manage to stay disengaged enough to continue your work?
The fact is that when the tragedy is so enormous, and being in photojournalism one has learned to be disciplined and not be sentimental about it and don't get stuck emotionally in situations. So it was death everywhere. There was the silence of death — nobody was talking to anybody. Death had taken over the city, you know. We were like mad people shooting, and going from one situation to another. The Hindus were burning their dead, doing mad cremations. The Muslims were digging up deep graves so that they can bury not one but one on top of another, and another three graves were being dug beside that, because there were so many dead bodies coming, and there were so few people who were handling it. 

Bhopal, 1984. Mass cremation of victims held alongside the communal graves.

Did you feel the impact after you left?
After I left suddenly, when the punch is too strong you just feel the jerk, and gradually then the pain starts coming and you realise, oh my God, this situation is so enormous and so big, nobody could have done anything. Nobody knew anything about it: the leak, an antidote, its cure. Everybody was clueless and dealing with the endless deaths. And after four days we flew back to Delhi because we had to meet our deadlines for the magazine and develop the photos, and then we realised the extent. My God, this is what it was.

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Politicians refused to acknowledge the scale of the ongoing problem after the disaster. With so many sick and dead, how could they possibly deny it?
You see the extent of the tragedy had got so enormous and also the politicians, the ruling party and everybody, literally they wanted to bury it and say that it's not so big. You see in fact that the doctors and experts say that those who inhaled a lot of gas were lucky because they died a quick death, and other people who inhaled that gas died a slow death, which is happening still today. 

20 years after the event we did a big exhibition and a book for Greenpeace International, and I went to photograph again. I knew the chief minister of the street and he saw me and he said: "Why are you digging up skeletons now?" And I told him that those who inhaled that gas are dying a slow death, and they are more troubled than the people that died then. And you don't realise that. They said it was just propaganda. But the fact was that they had started registering all the victims in the hospital, all the patients had proper records, so when we went we checked every detail and met with those people in the hospitals. So it was an endless story which is going on until today, and unlike 9/11 in New York where huge compensation was given in a small time, in India it was endless and the compensation started coming in very slowly and in bits and pieces. And they say justice delayed is justice denied. So this is what it amounts to. And those who survived and their victims, you look at them, their faces look fatigued and old and grey and absolutely in bad shape. 

2014. Rampyari Bai is 90. In 1984 she lost her daughter-in-law and her granddaughter. Rampyari developed cancer and suffers from breathlessness, yet continues to fight for proper compensation. She says simply that protesting keeps her alive. "I will not leave this task of chasing governments," she says. "Till my last breath, I will keep fighting."

Do you think your photos played a part in forcing people to acknowledge what had happened?
In a way yes, because these pictures went all over the world, and even when my photographs were exhibited in America, some of the people who saw these pictures (of protesters demanding Anderson be handed over) ... one American rang up to say Anderson was his neighbour and was living here. The government of India also gave a second installation of compensation after they had refused, but let me tell you very frankly, when you work on any project you are reporting it with honesty and sensitivity to share with the rest of the world, but how much of it gets connected with the people who are in power and how much they care and how much they respond is another matter.

2014. Atal Ayub Nagar Colony behind the abandoned Union Carbide factory. The pollution in this area has never been cleaned up. For decades, people living nearby were forced to drink water contaminated by these pollutants, leading to debilitating illness, including vision impairment, lung and kidney disease, and fertility problems.

You mentioned Warren Anderson, CEO of Union Carbide. I know that he died in America earlier this year without ever facing trial. Did that have any impact on the survivors you met?
The first people to blame are the bureaucrats and the local Union Carbide officials. That plant should have been shut down several years before, because it had lived its life, but they still continued to make those poisonous gases or whatever they were doing. So to begin with our own bureaucrats and politicians are responsible. Before I can get hold of Anderson and hang him I'd like to hang some of our own people.

His death brought no closure because the deaths are happening even now. It wasn't truly, as I said, and the victims also feel, that's it's not them versus Anderson. Justice starts happening on a small scale first, and people need to be punished step by step.

2014. Survivors of the 1984 Bhopal gas leak protest outside the Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister's residence, demanding proper compensation. 

You have been back to Bhopal again and again over the past three decades. Has there been any improvement in the situation for the survivors?
Well let me tell you one thing about India. India is a country where nothing is possible, and India is a country where anything and everything is possible. And the people here have learned to carry on with their lives, and many situations where you go back to the JP colony right opposite the Union Carbide, if you get to see that settlement you'll discover that houses that were single storey have become double storey. And there are more colours and proper concrete roads inside, so there is some improvement. 

The plant has never been properly cleaned up. What's the site like now?
The plant is rotting, rusting, everything, and this is carelessness, and this is how things happen in India: so slowly. It takes ages for any serious action. They should have cleaned up, even Union Carbide should have cleaned up the symbol of disaster, which they haven't. And the government haven't done anything about it. But really now in these last 30 years — with the rain and monsoons that have happened in India — of course the plant is rusting and rotting but all around the plant is green, and trees have grown, and it looks unbelievable today.

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All photos via Amnesty International © Raghu Rai/Magnum Photos

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd

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