The world renowned photographer, Raghu Rai, arrived in Bhopal hours after the gas leak. “What I saw was to change my life. It was an unprecedented scene of chaos. I vowed then and there to continue my work, to do all I could to show the world what happens to people when corporations are not held liable for their operations, when they are allowed to cut costs and safety standards,” said Raghu Rai.
It all began on the night of December 2/3, 1984, when 40 tonnes of lethal gases leaked from Union Carbide Corporation’s pesticide factory in Bhopal, India. Before anyone could realize the full impact of the disaster an area of about 40 sq.km, with a resident population of over half a million, was engulfed in dense clouds of poison. People woke up coughing, gasping for breath, their eyes burning. Many fell dead as they ran. By the third day of the disaster, an estimated 8000 people had died from direct exposure to the gases and another 500,000 injured.
Today, the number of deaths stands at 20,000.
If this was the beginning of a disaster, the years that have followed have been much worse as the tragedy has meant a slow but definite grind to an early death for most of the survivors. Their lungs remain impaired. Their capacity to work has diminished. Children born today to survivors are facing health impacts from the chemical industry’s toxic legacy.
The sufferings of the gas survivors living around the abandoned Union Carbide factory are aggravated by the presence of several tons of toxic wastes scattered and exposed to the environment around the factory premises.
Survivors’ pain has been redoubled by the fact that the perpetrators of the disaster have been let off cheaply. They have never been held fully accountable for the civil and criminal offence they committed. Calls from the survivors of Bhopal for proper compensation, rehabilitation and clean up of the toxic site have been ignored.
Justice remains more elusive than ever for the survivors of the Bhopal disaster.
Text courtesy: Greenpeace India.
View of abandoned Union Carbide plant, Bhopal 2001.
Children playing in the abandoned Union Carbide site, Bhopal 2002. Union Carbide abandoned its factory after the disaster, leaving hundreds of tonnes of toxic waste on the site. Until mid-2001, the factory grounds were inaccessible without special permission from the government. Now the perimeter walls are broken and local children play in the area, which remains dangerously contaminated. The deadly gas storage tank #610 that exploded on the night of the disaster – retained as evidence for the on-going criminal case against the chemical company – lies just a few yards away.
An estimated 20,000 people have died and tens of thousands have lived with debilitating illnesses since the gas leak. A week after this picture was taken in January 2002, Zubeda Bi died. She lost all her relatives in the disaster and lived in an out-building of someone’s house in the Chola colony, where she was affectionately known as “Amma” (mother). Among those who looked after Amma were Asma and her niece, Raisa. Before she died, Zubeda Bi recalled the night of the gas leak to a representative of the Sambhavna clinic: “We couldn’t see anything and were coughing. My grandson was one year old then. I put him on my chest to protect him as much as possible. But his face swelled to twice its size, his eyes were puffed tight. My eyes were so swollen that I couldn’t see out of them. About an hour after I first felt the gas, we left the house. The streets were full of corpses. The skins of people were full of blisters. Nobody could be recognised.”
Hasan Ali and his Daughters, Bhopal 2002. Hasan Ali has seven grown-up daughters. “Our education has suffered because of our father’s illness, and the fact that we too have been ill at different times. Because of this, there are several problems related to our marriages,” says Kishwar, one of the seven daughters.
Survivors await treatment at the Sambhavna Clinic, near the abandoned factory site. Run by a public trust, the clinic offers herbal remedies and ayurvedic preparations to thousands of survivors each year.
“More than 400 outpatients come here for treatment everyday and there are seven such centers in Bhopal” says Dr. Smila Correa, the chief at the Ginnori primary unit run by the Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Center.
“I committed myself to this task 40 years ago, and since then we have made it our mission to ensure that every person, however poor, gets decent last rites. All the hospitals and police stations have our contact numbers. They just have to inform us and we do the rest. But the tragedy was a different matter. We just could not cope with the volume of the work,” says 76-year old Amarchand Ajmera.
Foetuses which were aborted by pregnant women escaping from the gas, or shortly after the gas leak, were preserved by Dr. Satpathy, a forensic expert at the state government’s Hamidia Hospital, to establish the cause of death.
Skulls discarded after research at the Hamidia Hospital. Medical experts believe that the Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) gas inhaled by the people of Bhopal may have affected the brain.
Jamila Bi and her friend Shahejahan work in a stationery centre run for gas victims by the state government. Neither is married. “No one wants to marry a sick gas-victim girl,” says Aliya Bi. “There is a sort of stigma attached to a girl who does not find a suitable husband.”
Mehboob Bi has two daughters and two sons. Her husband was a fitter at the Union Carbide plant and was on duty on the night of 2-3 December 1984. “Life for us changed after that night. My husband died after 15 long years of struggle. In the last days it was painful even to look at him. We had to sell our two-storey house to pay off our creditors and move to this one-room shanty. We do not have the resources and strength to fight the legal battle for compensation.”
“I was the man in charge of law and order that night and every one in Bhopal will tell you that I was the only senior officer of the administration in action. Everyone else had fled to safety, leaving the city and its people to their own devices. But I have paid a heavy price. I have survived, but with a clutch of ailments. My son, who was then just two years old, has severe physical problems. Once I am through with this job, I will surely tell the entire story,” says Swaraj Puri, as he tends to his eyes. Puri was the superintendent of police for Bhopal district when the disaster struck and is now an Additional Director General of Police.
Born on the day the toxic gas swept across the city, this girl was named Gas Devi – ‘gas goddess’ – by her parents.
T. R. Chauhan was employed as a Methyl Isocyanate plant operator at the Union Carbide factory when the gas escaped. He has written a book, ‘Bhopal – The Inside Story’, about his experiences.
“I remember making three-tiered graves. There was no option but to pile up one body on top of another. In those three-four days we must have buried more than 4.000 persons,” says Mohammad Aziz as he looks at these skeletons that have come out of the graves.
Studies conducted by Greenpeace found contamination in the soil and ground water at the Union Carbide factory as well as stockpiles of abandoned toxic waste. Hundreds of people, such as these residents of Ayub Nagar colony behind the factory, still drink and wash with the contaminated ground water.
Demonstration at Union Carbide factory gates, Bhopal 2001. Protestors seeking justice for the victims of the disaster call on the U.S. multi-national, Dow Chemicals, to accept liability for the Bhopal disaster, clean up the contaminated factory site and take care of the victims. Dow Chemicals and Union Carbide merged in February 2001.
Impromptu exhibition of photographs of the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Such displays of the gas leak remain part of the collective memory of the city.
Survivors display a poster calling for the extradition of Warren Anderson, former Chief Executive of Union Carbide, from the US. Many protestors are women who lost their husbands and children in the tragedy.
All Images © Greenpeace / Raghu Rai
Raghu Rai was born in the small village of Jhhang, now part of Pakistan. He took up photography in 1965, and the following year joined “The Statesman” newspaper as its chief photographer. Impressed by an exhibit of his work in Paris in 1971, Henri Cartier-Bresson nominated Rai to join Magnum Photos in 1977.
Rai left “The Statesman” in 1976 to work as picture editor for “Sunday,” a weekly news magazine published in Calcutta. He left in 1980 and worked as Picture Editor/Visualizer/Photographer of “India Today”, India’s leading news magazine, during its formative years. From 1982 to 1991, he worked on special issues and designs, contributing trailblazing picture essays on social, political and cultural themes, many of which became the talking point of the magazine.
Rai was awarded the ‘Padmashree’ in 1972, one of India’s highest civilian awards ever given to a photographer. In 1992, his National Geographic cover story “Human Management of Wildlife in India” won him widespread critical acclaim for the piece. Besides winning many national and international awards, Rai has exhibited his works in London, Paris, New York, Hamburg, Prague, Tokyo, Zurich and Sydney. His photo essays have appeared in many of the world’s leading magazines and newspapers including “Time”, “Life”, “GEO”, “The New York Times”, “Sunday Times”, “Newsweek”, “The Independent,” and the “New Yorker”.
He has served three times on the jury of the World Press Photo and twice on the jury of UNESCO’s International Photo Contest.