Bhopal disaster – 20 years on
Growing up in the shadow of chemical pollution
Thu 18 November 2004
Almost 20 years have passed since the World’s worst industrial disaster took place in Bhopal, India. To commemorate the anniversary and remind people about the environmental crimes committed by Dow we are running a series of features; part one ‘Growing Up’ follows two childhoods spent in the shadow of toxic pollution.
On Dec 3rd 1984, toxic gas leaked from the poorly maintained and understaffed Bhopal plant owned by Union Carbide, killing up to 20,000 people and leaving 120,000 chronically ill to date. The survivors have never received adequate compensation for their debilitating illnesses. To this day the polluted site of the abandoned factory, bleeds poisons daily into the groundwater of local residents. Dow Chemical now owns Union Carbide. As this series of personal recollections reveals, it operates differently, but equally irresponsibly, in India and the US.
Ruby and Paul were born around the time of the Bhopal disaster. Both have suffered as a result of Dow’s negligence and deception, even though they live 12000km apart. To discover their stories and learn how their experiences have motivated them to take action, read this first instalment of our three part series.
Read part two of our series, where Paul and Ruby discuss what motivated them to become active in the fight for justice in both communities by battling against a huge chemical corporation.
My name is Tahira Sultan, but people affectionately call me Ruby. I am 22 years old, and I was born in Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh. I am a happy-go-lucky person and usually keep everyone around me in splits of laughter. I have spent all 22 years of my life here in Bhopal. At present, I am studying for my Masters in Science in Biotechnology.
Growing up in Bhopal
We always look forward to each new day. But not just every day, but every week, every year, once in a while we sit back and wish we could wipe that one day off the calendar – it would be so wonderful if that could happen. The memory of the night of 2/3 December 1984 for us, I am sure it is like 9/11 for Americans. For those involved, that was the most horrific day of their lives. Their most horrific day can be compared quite rationally to our most horrific night, though if you really think about it, the impact of our tragedy was far greater.
That black night of 1984 is still an open page in front of my eyes as if it were just last night that it happened. That Sunday night, half past midnight, I suddenly woke up coughing – when I looked around, the room was full of white smoke, and my eyes started to water. I asked my mother what was wrong, and she told me to wrap my blanket close around myself and go back to sleep. Meanwhile she went to the other room to check on my grandparents. My grandmother said, “We can’t stay here much longer. Let’s go to the Hamidia Hospital.” My mother picked up my little brother and wrapped him up in her shawl while I clung to her kurta from behind, and we started running. Outside, we saw all the neighbors running. The sky over us was turning red. I hadn’t been able to put on any slippers. I can still remember the blue frilly frock that I was wearing that morning.
My brother was lying absolutely still in my mother’s arms, neither moving nor talking. My mother ran on desperately, with both her children. At a crossing, we got separated from my grandparents, but my mother did not give up. She kept calling out, screaming, “Somebody help us! Get us out of here!” All around us, people were running, screaming, falling over. Their eyes were swelling up, they were out of breath, and many were vomiting or had diarrhea. I saw life ending all around me that night, but we kept running.
Suddenly, my mother spotted a rickshaw and ran towards it. She lunged at it desperately, and somehow managed to heave herself into it with both my brother and myself. But the rickshaw had gone hardly any distance when it got a puncture and it trundled to a stop. Neither my mother nor I had strength to go any further, so we just lay there, semiconscious, ’till a stranger came to our rescue.
A kind man, he took us to his own home, where his wife gave us clean clothes to wear and cups of hot tea to revive us, though I couldn’t see anything clearly. We were so exhausted we just fell asleep right there in their home.
The next morning, my mother thanked them and we headed home, passing through horrific sights one after the other. The roads were lined with the swollen carcasses of all kinds of animals; dogs, goats, buffaloes, even sparrows. Worse were the human corpses – men, women, children and old people. All the corpses were swollen and people were lifting them into trucks. Some were screaming, others were crying. The sight was worse than anything you can imagine. I have no words to describe the devastation of that morning. When we reached home, I found that all the leaves and fruit of our almond tree had turned black. The fruit, suddenly rotten overnight, had fallen to the ground. We were still not able to breathe properly and our vision was blurred. A while later, my grandmother arrived and took us away from Bhopal to my uncle’s home.
It is an exciting romance to grow up in this city of the Nawabs and Begums, Bhopal. But the romance ends when you think back to the disaster of that one night. The disaster has become a part of my very existence, because my entire childhood was spent around the Union Carbide factory.
My home was about 1km away from the factory site. We often have to go past the site. When I was a child, a fumigation truck came around to spray a pesticide to kill mosquitoes and would often interrupt our play. The colour and smell of the smoke spewing from it, all brought back memories of that one black night. Whenever we heard the sound of that truck, all the children would run screaming, “The gas is leaking again, run! run!” and we would run to hide in our houses. Even though it may have been just a game those times, it wasn’t really a lie. Ever so often, my friends and I would think of going into the abandoned factory, to see what had caused the gas leak. But we were always too scared to do that. It was as if we lived in a city that had a big demon living in it – a demon that no one could clean up or move from the city. There are many children like myself who have lived near the factory their entire lives. But I always pray that no other children should have to live through a childhood like mine. I pray that children all over the world may grow up in an environment that is clean and safe, and not have to deal with the tragedy that my friends and I had to grow up with.
My name is Paul Damore and I live in Michigan, USA, close to the town of Midland where Dow Chemical has its global headquaters. I’m 20 years old and am currently studying at college. Since discovering that Dow had been busy polluting my community for years I have been active trying to get the company to clean up the mess in its own backyard.
Growing up downstream of Dow
Throughout my younger years I would play in the floodplain of the Tittabawassee River, which flows behind the home in which I live. I ran bare foot through the floodplain, grabbed handfuls of soil and threw it playfully at my brother and sisters. Eventually, I would come back into my home covered in mud which, unknown to me at that time, was laced with a highly toxic chemical known as dioxin. For almost 18 years I did not know the dangers I was being exposed to when I played in my backyard.
Down the road from my family’s house is a wildlife refuge. This was a great place for a kid like to me to explore. The refuge has exciting bike paths and great places to fish. I remember riding my bike through the muddy trails after it rained. I was soaked in mud, I still remember the horrible taste of that dirt when the bike tires would kick it up onto my face. I have not been back to the refuge since I found out about dioxin in the soil. I now constantly wonder if all the dirt I ate has affected me.
My mother has lived in the Tittabawassee Floodplain her entire life. She always told me about the days in which the river would never freeze during Michigan’s cold winters. While I was young I didn’t think that river and the soil would be harming me and others. I never made the connection or thought about the issue of toxic chemicals. Mind you, I didn’t even take chemistry until I was 17, and even then they never discussed dioxin. Why should I question the safety of were I lived, that is the governments jobs, right?
I had no idea that the area I was growing up in was being polluted slowly and consistently by the Dow Chemical plant up stream, every year for as long as they knew the authorities would let them get away with it.
As well as not knowing about the local pollution problem I had no idea that the same companies where acting just as irresponsibly or worse in other parts of the world. I didn’t even know about the horrific incident in Bhopal, India until I was about 18 years old. The disaster happened in the same year I was born. Usually when something major like that happens it will be aired on the news for a couple of days, then the people will never hear about it again.
Also I never was interested in politics or sociology throughout growing up. My interests were in creative and performing arts, not complex laws and long chemical names. But how quickly my mind changed when I found out about my backyard and the problems Bhopal faces. I can say officially I grew up when the dioxin issue was in my backyard.