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|April 14, 2000|
Bhopal should never happen again
Fifteen years ago, I lived in Bhopal, India. My family was fortunate. Our home was in a neighborhood on the other side of the lake from the US-owned Union Carbide pesticide factory. Otherwise, I probably would have passed away silently under my blanket in the early morning hours of December 3, 1984.
At least 6,600 people died because of the leak of methyl isocyanate gas from the plant in the worst industrial accident in history.
My experience was not as horrific as those of so many others. I was 11 years old then. My parents were out of town and my grandmother was taking care of my eight-year-old brother and me. In the middle of the night, my brother woke up coughing violently. We all were confused, since the room was filled with an acrid yellowish-white mist that swirled in through open windows and crept in under the doors into our bedroom.
Within a few minutes, my brother started vomiting. Our eyes were burning. We splashed water on them but that didn't help much. We had difficulty breathing.
My grandmother became really worried and went out of the house to get help for us. She was puzzled to see most of our neighbors fleeing at that hour of the night. One of our neighbors saw her and rushed to support her, since she was feeling dizzy. He took us to his basement apartment, where the gas had not entered. We stayed there that night.
The next morning, I got dressed and went to the bus stop to catch the school bus. I then noticed that the street was deserted. I waited for an hour. When the bus didn't show up, I went home.
The phone was ringing off the hook with calls from my parents (who rushed back to town), worried family members and friends inquiring about us. It was only then that the gravity of the situation dawned upon me.
People who lived closer to the plant moved in with relatives in our neighborhood. I saw people with immensely swollen eyes, which were dripping constantly. They told us of their stampede to escape the gas.
More than 40 tons of the gas leaked from a storage tank that night. It hugged the ground and, since it was heavier than air, it swept through the nearby slums. The water-spraying system supposedly set up to neutralize any leak proved useless, since the water was falling 20 feet short of the leaking gas.
Later, Edward Munoz, former managing director of Union Carbide India Limited, said that Union Carbide's engineering department at South Charleston, West Virginia, overrode the Indian subsidiary, which had wanted to store the lethal gas in small drums. Instead, the company stored it in massive tanks for reasons of efficiency. The leak was a disaster waiting to happen.
Once the leak started, it took about two hours before the factory sounded the alarm. By then, the gas was taking its toll on an unsuspecting populace.
The next morning, all of us in Bhopal awoke to horror and death. The slums near the factory were the worst affected. Bodies and animal carcasses lay on sidewalks, streets, railway platforms and in huts and houses. Even many trees and vegetables had a scorched appearance and were covered by a thin white film.
Thousands of injured victims streamed into the city hospitals. But the doctors could do little to alleviate their suffering, partly because Union Carbide was less than forthcoming about the nature and toxicity of the gas and because most doctors knew little about it. In the days to come, spontaneous abortions occurred three times the normal rate among expectant mothers, according to New York Times reporter Sanjoy Hazarika's Bhopal: The Lessons of a Tragedy (Penguin, 1987). Many children born shortly after the leak were extremely thin and weak.
Bhopal was changed forever. A picturesque medium-sized town with pretty lakes and friendly people lost its innocence. While Union Carbide wrangled with the Indian government over compensation, people who survived the tragedy were often driven into destitution due to the loss or the permanent disabling of the family breadwinner.
What happened to my home town 15 years ago should never happen to any town again. Multinationals like Union Carbide should not be allowed to gamble with the fate of communities all over the world.
Deepa Pal is a graduate student in the Rehabilitation Counseling program at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
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