Bhopal’s 30 year fight for justice

It was once known as the City of Lakes. But Bhopal has since gone down in history as the site of one of the world’s worst industrial disasters.

In 1984, a toxic gas leak in the central Indian city killed and maimed tens of thousands of people. Thirty years later, that tragedy has turned into an ongoing human rights travesty, with survivors and activists leading a relentless fight for justice.

The players in this battle have taken on mythical overtones — David and Goliath come to mind. On the one side are thousands of survivors of the gas leak; on the other, the multinational corporations Union Carbide and Dow, along with the US and Indian governments who have effectively protected them.

The story of what happened in Bhopal, and the struggle that has endured for three decades, is best told by the people closest to it: the survivors and their supporters. Here we bring you some of their stories with portraits by acclaimed Magnum photographer, Raghu Rai, specially commissioned by Amnesty International.

All images © Raghu Rai / Magnum Photos 

© Raghu Rai / Magnum Photos 

The doctor whose hands were tied

Dr D.K. Satpathy, aged 66, sits below a painting of what looks like his younger self surrounded by flying doves. He is relaxed, animated, but becomes increasingly emotional as he recalls that fateful night, 30 years ago, when Bhopal became the site of one of the world’s worst industrial disasters.

From 2 to 3 December 1984, about 24 metric tonnes of methyl isocyanate (MIC), a highly volatile and deadly gas, escaped from the US-controlled Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal. Thousands of people were living in shanty towns nearby.

Like many of those people, Dr Satpathy was asleep when it happened. “Suddenly, at 4am, my professor comes to my home,” he recalls. “He is shouting at me to rush to the mortuary as fast as possible.”

Dr Satpathy, a pathologist and former head of the state Medico-Legal Institute, immediately ran to Hamidia Hospital. As he approached, he found the road was full of people.

“I saw thousands of people lying there. Some were wailing, some were gasping, some were crying. I couldn’t understand what was happening.”
Mass cremation of victims held beside communal graves within days of the gas leak, 5 December 1984. © Raghu Rai / Magnum Photos

As patients died around him, Dr Satpathy and his colleagues struggled to find a way to treat them. One doctor rang up a medical official at Union Carbide hoping to find out more. The official’s response, recalls Dr Satpathy, was that the accident had “something to do with… carbon monoxide” and that it was “not a serious matter”. His advice was to “put a wet cloth in their mouth and they will get well.”

Shocked by this, Dr Satpathy, too, appealed to the Union Carbide official: “I told him, ‘Sir, I am Dr Satpathy. I am your student speaking. You are a citizen of Bhopal. Union Carbide is from a foreign country and here my people are dying. If you know anything, please tell me, so that at least we shall be able to extend some medical treatment.’ He replied saying, ‘I am a citizen of Bhopal. The people who are dying are my brothers. If I knew anything, I would have definitely told you. Why would I hide such a big fact.’”

With no medical guidance from Union Carbide, Dr Satpathy and his colleagues continued to carry out post-mortems on patients, looking for evidence of carbon monoxide poisoning. What they found, however, were results consistent with cyanide poisoning.

From 5 December, doctors were advised to inject patients with sodium thiosulphate, a known antidote to cyanide exposure. But this advice, which came from Union Carbide’s US headquarters, was withdrawn within days and doctors were told to stop using it.

“If all the victims… would have taken this injection, the after effects… could have been controlled,” says Dr Satpathy.

Up to 10,000 people died within three days of the leak. Thirty years on, the death toll is over 20,000. To this day, Union Carbide has refused to disclose critical details about the composition of the gas and its effect on people — information vital for providing effective medical treatment.

© Raghu Rai / Magnum Photos 

The survivor

Shahzadi Bi was living with her family near the old Union Carbide factory the night of the disaster. “I was vomiting, had severe chest pain and eye irritation,” she says. Her husband fared no better — doctors told him that his heart was irreparably damaged by the leak.

Their children suffer chronic chest pain. Her two other children, who were born after the leak, have also been blighted by illness. “My daughter couldn’t conceive for four years after her marriage,” she says, adding: “Doctors had told her clearly that ‘since you have been drinking this toxic water, you will not be able to give birth.’”

Shahzadi, aged 60, lives with her family in Blue Moon Colony, one of the 22 communities that surround the old Union Carbide factory. This area is blighted by water contamination, caused by chemicals from the abandoned factory site.

“I am a victim of both disasters — the toxic gas leak and toxicity in drinking water,” says Shahzadi.

Despite all these ailments — or perhaps because of them — Shahzadi is now a member of a number of campaigning groups, including the Stationary Workers Association and the Bhopal Gas Victims Struggle Committee.

“We did many demonstrations and carried out many rallies, burnt many effigies, sat on hunger strikes, carried out two marches on foot from Bhopal to Delhi, in 2006 and 2008,” explains Shahzadi. “In 2006, we raised the issue of toxicity in ground water of these 22 slums. The government listened to us and agreed to provide us clean water.”

The clean water didn’t arrive right away — that took another three years and another march to Delhi, too. Still, it’s a significant win in the 30-year campaign.

“Now our struggle is against the injustice meted out to gas victims and victims of toxicity in water,” says Shahzadi.

She is determined to secure justice for her community, not least because of the tragic impact the disaster has had on her and her family’s lives.

“Everyone has dreams,” she says. “I too had those. My dream was not about becoming a teacher or doctor… I wished that we would provide a good education for our children… but the gas leak shattered all these dreams.”
Satinath Sarangi (standing, left) and Rachna Dhingra (standing beside him) at Sambhavna Clinic. © Raghu Rai / Magnum Photos

The volunteers who never left

Satinath Sarangi — or Sathyu, as he prefers to be known — was working in a small village about 100km from Bhopal when he first heard about the gas leak over the radio. At the time, it didn’t sound serious.

Still, he thought he should try to help. A trained engineer, he reckoned his science background might be useful. So he went to Bhopal within a day of the leak. “I had come prepared to stay maybe a week, max,” he recalls.

He came, and never left.

Thirty years later, Sathyu is a founder member of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, formed in 1986. And he is the founder of the Sambhavna Trust, which has been running a free clinic for survivors of the gas leak since it was established in 1996.

In these 30 years, he has been a linchpin for gas survivors, for their children, and for those who have lived off the water contaminated by plant operations before the disaster. With them, he has campaigned continuously for accountability — for UCC and Dow, who now owns UCC, to take responsibility for what happened. And for the government of India to defend its citizens against the might of international corporations.

“Today in many senses the situation of victims is worse than it was on the morning of the disaster,” says Sathyu. “There are close to 150,000 people who are battling chronic illnesses. Additionally we have the next generation, which we also find is marked by Union Carbide’s poisons. And on top of that we have about 40,000 people living next to the factory who have been exposed to a range of toxic chemicals and heavy metals. And there again we see a range of health problems.”

Rachna Dhingra was working for a multinational management consultancy firm in the USA when she realized that something was still very wrong in Bhopal.

It was 1999 — a full 15 years since the gas leak. “At that time, survivors and activists from Bhopal had come to protest the merger between [Union] Carbide and Dow Chemical,” recalls Rachna, who was also a university student in Michigan, where Dow is based. “And that is how I heard, after so many years… that the disaster in Bhopal not only continued, but how things were worse.”

Coincidentally, one of Rachna’s clients at the firm where she was working was Dow Chemical, which has wholly owned Union Carbide Corporation since 2001. “I thought that I could bring a change from being on the inside,” she says. “I realized after working for some time that that is not possible.”

This realization prompted an unexpected life change for Rachna — she moved to Bhopal in 2003 and has remained ever since. Today she is a member of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action.

“Corporations cannot just come, kill and pollute, and leave without any kind of responsibility,” she says.

In the battle for accountability, activists need to be vigilant. “Just as corporations are so well equipped with all their lobbying and their lawyering and their spying and their snooping on activists,” she says, “we have to be better equipped in handling and exposing their lies.”

© Raghu Rai / Magnum Photos

The torch-bearer

At 20, Safreen Khan is a new generation of activist. Too young to have experienced the disaster first hand, she has instead been defined by its aftermath. Her parents were survivors of the leak, and she continues to live in the factory’s toxic shadow.

Safreen first heard about the 1984 disaster and Union Carbide, the company responsible, when she was at school. “I tried to gather more information by asking my mother. It was then that I came to understand that the problems that my family were going through started with the gas leak.”

Intrigued by what she was hearing, Safreen went to more and more meetings. She watched her parents go on hunger strike with other protesters. A member of Children Against Dow-Carbide since 2008, Safreen has taken the struggle for justice for Bhopal survivors as far as the UK and the USA.

“People have run out of patience,” she says. “They still remember. They still cry and mourn for their family members who died that day. They feel that at least now, our government and the company must listen and take steps, because 30 years is too long… to get justice.”
Survivors of the 1984 Bhopal gas leak protest outside the Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister’s residence, demanding proper compensation, September 2014. In November, a hunger strike by five women survivors compelled the Indian government to promise to use medical research and hospital records as a basis for the revision of the numbers of deaths and injuries for the disaster, paving the way for a new compensation deal. (c) Raghu Rai/Magnum Photos

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You can find out more about Raghu Rai by reading his blog for Amnesty International.