By Terry Allan
Remember Bhopal? The site of the worst chemical industrial disaster in history? I will never forget it. The tragedy of Bhopal put me on a path of questioning our agricultural systems that dramatically changed my world view and led to my decision to become an organic farmer. Going to Bhopal changed my life, forever.
On the night of December 2, 1984, at the Union Carbide Corporation pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, water leaked through faulty valves into a storage tank containing over 40 tons of Methyl Isocyanate (MIC), causing a runaway reaction. The reaction produced poisonous clouds of deadly gases that were carried over the sleeping city by a gentle wind. No alarm was sounded. Over a period of several hours, the clouds spread out over some 40 square kilometers, poisoning over half a million people. The gases burned the eyes and lungs and damaged the nervous systems of people and animals. Leaves were burnt off of plants and trees. Blinded and coughing, people ran, trying to escape, many vomiting uncontrollably or convulsing with seizures before falling dead in the streets.
Thousands of people died in the first three days of the disaster, and thousands have died of illnesses related to the exposure since then. The current death toll is over 16,000, and today, 15 years later, 10 to 15 people die each month from causes attributable to their exposure.
I first went to Bhopal in January 1988, three years after the disaster. The entrance to the factory was hard to miss, with “Killer Carbide” painted across the gates. Across the street, a concrete statue of a mother, hand over her face, holding her dead infant while another child clings to her sari, stood as a silent memorial to the victims. I met survivors, and activists working with the survivors” organizations, and heard their stories: a 10-year-old boy, Sunil, who lost his parents and five brothers and sisters; a factory worker who outlined the cost cutting management decisions, safety violations, and poor plant operations that led to the disaster. Efforts of the survivors” groups were focused on the long, drawn out litigation over civil and criminal liability and compensation.
In 1989, Union Carbide and the Government of India settled the civil case for the sum of $470 million, significantly less than the $3.5 billion demanded. The survivors” groups challenged the settlement because it extinguished the criminal case against Union Carbide. In 1991, the Supreme Court of India reinstated the criminal case and upheld the amount paid by Union Carbide. The majority of the victims, faced with lifelong health problems, each received 15,000 rupees (about US$ 500) in compensation, an amount not even sufficient to cover their medical bills for five years.
The tragedy in Bhopal is a symptom of a much deeper problem. Chemicals pervade every aspect of our lives, and all of us carry residues of toxic chemicals in our bodies. The breast milk of every woman on earth is contaminated with dioxins. The insecticide Dursban is present in the blood of every U.S. citizen. Although banned in the United States, DDT is still being used in many parts of the world. The chemical that poisoned the people of Bhopal – MIC – is used to produce carbaryl (Sevin) and aldicarb (Temik), common, widely used agricultural pesticides that were produced at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 911 million pounds of synthetic pesticides are used on conventional crops in the United States each year. Dozens of these chemicals are known carcinogens. Many of us worry about chemical residues on food, but look back down the production chain and think about the farmers and farm workers who apply these chemicals to the fields; think about their more concentrated exposures. Think about the workers in the chemical factories and the communities in which the factories are located. Think about Bhopal.
In 1992, I quit my job with the U.S. Government and became an organic farmer. The conviction that agricultural practices should not poison the environment or endanger human health remains a driving force for me. Practicing organic agriculture is my personal commitment to take positive steps toward a sustainable future. It is my way of counter balancing all of the depressing news about toxics.
This past December I returned to Bhopal for the observance of the 15th anniversary of the disaster. My commitment to organic agriculture was reaffirmed. Sunil, the boy I met on my first visit, is now a young man. He has attempted suicide several times over the years and is now under psychiatric treatment. Graffiti still identifies the factory gates, now becoming overgrown with vines, and the memorial statue still stands there, grieving and garlanded with marigolds. The city was buzzing with activity, with candlelight vigils, marches, rallies and blockades. Greenpeace International released its report documenting the toxic contamination of the soils, aquifers and community water supply pumps in and around the factory site. An International Conference called “No More Bhopals” brought together survivors of chemical exposure, medical professionals, environmental activists and others to share information and techniques for community based health monitoring and response to toxic threats. The Bhopal Express, a feature film set against the backdrop of the disaster, premiered to an emotional audience of survivors and their families. Krishnabai, an elderly survivor who has lost 11 members of her family to the disaster, said, “We are getting old and may soon die. But our children, and our children’s children, must know our story as victims and survivors. This film will help keep our memories alive for our children.”
The survivors’ groups in Bhopal seem more resolved than ever to continue their struggle for justice. Criminal cases against Union Carbide officials are still pending. The compensation paid to victims did little to improve their situation or health condition. The victims feel that they have been sold out by their government, which is avidly courting investment by multinational corporations, and would like to forget that the disaster ever happened. One woman at the 15th Anniversary march held a sign that read “Our Government – Loyal to Union Carbide.”
Today in Bhopal, more than 120,000 survivors need medical attention for chronic symptoms, including breathlessness, persistent cough, diminished vision, loss of appetite, menstrual irregularities, recurrent fever, neurological disorders, fainting spells, fatigue, weakness, anxiety and depression. Tuberculosis is more than three times higher than the national average. Cancers are beginning to show up. Children born to many gas exposed women have physical and mental retardation. Young men and women who were children, or even in the womb at the time of the disaster, are being diagnosed with reproductive disorders.
The biggest change between my first visit and now is the presence of the Sambhavna Clinic, a non-governmental medical initiative concerned with the long term welfare of the survivors. “After many depressing years in Bhopal, here is something that offers hope,” said Satinath Sarangi, founder and Managing Trustee of the clinic, “and I am putting my heart and soul into it.”
The Sambhavna Clinic opened its doors in 1996, and provides free health care to gas victims, most of whom live in the poorest slums immediately surrounding the factory. Using a pioneering blend of western allopathic and Ayurvedic herbal medicine, Yoga and massage, the clinic had treated 8,000 patients in the three years ending in 1999 with significant success at providing relief. Medicines are made either at the clinic or are purchased from domestic pharmaceutical companies, with only a couple of drugs that must be purchased from multinationals. Many of the 17 staff people and volunteers who work at the clinic are gas affected themselves. In addition to treatment and care of patients at the clinic, Sambhavna researches and documents the continuing health crisis in Bhopal and employs the only four community health workers in the entire city. The word Sambhavna means possibility, and despite its limited resources, the clinic is creating the only meaningful and effective community based health care system the gas victims have known in 15 years of suffering.
The Sambhavna clinic is run solely on donations from private individuals. There is an urgent need to improve the clinic facilities, expand the community health care network, and carry out additional research. To make a donation, send a check made out to Pesticide Action Network/Bhopal Account to Pesticide Action Network, 116 Montgomery Street, Suite 810, San Francisco, CA 94105. Telephone: 415-541-9140. Fax: 415-541-9253. Email: [email protected]. All funds go directly to the clinic.
I can’t forget Bhopal because it is not an isolated incident. Remembering Bhopal reminds me that small, silent disasters are unfolding right now in thousands of communities all over the planet, especially in the third world where minimal safety and environmental regulations attract polluting industries. Look around your own community. Here in Maine, a cancer cluster has been identified in the town of Fairfield, probably due to toxic paper mill waste that was dumped there. Velpar, a water soluble herbicide used in blueberry production, is regularly found in tested water sources (in amounts below “acceptable” limits).
Meanwhile, through the World Trade Organization and international trade treaties, corporations are setting up the rules to override local regulations and avoid accountability and liability for the dangers of their products and factories. Until industry has to take responsibility for the harm and resultant health care costs caused by their production processes and products, there will be no justice, there will be no place safe from contamination and poisoning. What is acceptable risk? How many deaths are acceptable before we reach a threshold where we determine as a society that the risk is not acceptable? What happens when the face on the statistic is your own, or your child’s, or your neighbor’s?
The relationships among globalization, toxic pollution and human suffering are complex, and many of us feel helpless in the face of such forces. But we can act. We can practice and support organic agriculture as a positive, life affirming action, an action that we can all take in support of the victims of Bhopal and other victims of toxic exposure around the world.
As multinationals supercede elected governments of nations, and we are thought of as consumers rather than citizens, voting happens every day in the marketplace, with our dollars. Small, daily actions do add up and make a difference. The Organic Trade Association estimates that sales of organic foods in the United States topped $4.7 billion last year and are increasing by 24 percent each year. By purchasing locally grown, organic food and locally made products, we tell the producers what we want and what we don’t want. We want products that are produced in safe, non-toxic, non-polluting ways. We want products that do not create a disposal problem at the end of their useful lifetime. We want clean water, clean air, clean soil and ethical behavior.
Every organically grown fruit, vegetable and grain is a statement, a reminder, and a celebration that there is another way! Organic agriculture is a step away from chemical dependence. It is a tiny step toward a toxic free future. And perhaps, by taking small positive steps every day, we will find the courage to stand in solidarity with the courageous men, women and children of Bhopal in their struggle for justice, health and dignity, and say “No More Bhopals!
For more information about Bhopal, visit www. bhopal.org and www.bhopal.net
Terry Allan works on a certified organic farm in Maine.
Bhopal Update: April 20, 2000
The Sambhavna Clinic is expanding its services to include Cervical Cancer screening, diagnosis and treatment. Excessive vaginal secretions, irregular menses, and a host of gynecological problems are prevalent among gas-affected women. Sambhavna estimates that more than 2,000 women will benefit from these services each year.
The Bhopal Express feature film premiered in New York City on April 13th, 2000. Director, Mahesh Mathai, and Sambhavna Clinic founder, Satinath Sarangi, made presentations on the situation in Bhopal, and many in the packed theater pledged to support the efforts of the survivors to attain health and obtain justice. The film will be showing throughout the United States. Keep your eyes open for announcements of local showings in the next few months.
A class action lawsuit was filed against Union Carbide and its former CEO, Warren Anderson, with the Southern District Court of New York in November 1999. The suit charges the defendants with “grave violations of international law and fundamental human rights — unlawful, reckless and depraved indifference to human life.” The plaintiffs, who include several individuals and survivors’ groups, are waiting for the court to decide whether the case will be heard.
No More Bhopals! Members from several Indian/American activist groups demanded justice for the victims of Union Carbide at the anti-IMF/World Bank march and rally in Washington, D.C. on April 16th. The people of Bhopal point out that workers and communities are routinely poisoned all over the world. They criticize the IMF, World Bank, and WTO for promoting and facilitating hazardous industrial and agricultural development by multinational corporations throughout the developing world.
– Terry Allan