Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

10 Years On, Bhopal Still Suffers

BHOPAL, India -- Ten years after a cloud of lethal fumes spewed out of a Union Carbide pesticide factory in the world's worst industrial accident, more than 6,000 people have died and hundreds of thousands of others are still injured.


The ranks of the sufferers include those whose lungs are permanently damaged and others who are blinded, their eyes seared by the gas as they squinted and ran from the cloud, according to independent health studies conducted this year and government-funded medical research sealed by the authorities but reviewed by Newsday. Women have suffered miscarriage after miscarriage.


There are incidents of gas-related cancer.


Post-traumatic stress runs high.


Meanwhile, desperately poor families are left to survive without their primary breadwinners, and most of the 600,000 people who believe they were injured by the gas leak have yet to receive compensation.


Many are still scrambling to find medical documents to prove their case to the authorities.


In the early morning hours of Dec. 3, 1984, water leaked into a tank containing methyl isocyanate gas in the pesticide plant, causing an explosion that unfurled a trail of poisonous gas over the sleeping city of 900,000.


Those who survived continue to live with an ever-present fear of death and dread of the onset of disease.


"The people who are alive are worse off than those who died," said Sheela Devi, a resident of Jai Prakash Nagar, a densely packed neighborhood across the street from the empty Union Carbide plant, which never reopened.


The government has awarded relief money to the relatives of 6,000 people it believes were killed by exposure to the gas -- three times the number initially reported to have died.


But victims' advocates say the compensation process is rife with corruption -- a charge the government says is overblown but under investigation -- while much of the $470 million that the government obtained in a controversial 1989 out-of-court settlement of its suit against Union Carbide sits in an account in the Reserve Bank of India. The settlement of the $2.6 billion lawsuit effectively blocked all future litigation against the company.


In an interview earlier this year, A.G. Qureshi, the welfare commissioner who oversees the courts that decide who gets relief and how much, said officials are moving as quickly as they can.


"There should be no reason to complain," said Qureshi, a high court judge. "Everybody who is deserving will get the money."


But critics charge that the government has tried to sweep the memory of the gas leak under the rug at a time when India has embarked on its most ambitious drive ever to lure foreign investment.


"If the government takes strong action against Union Carbide, it would drive away foreign investment," said Satinath Sarangi, who heads the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, an advocacy group.


Union Carbide has maintained all along that the leak was caused by the actions of a disgruntled employee. The company has never sued that employee, and the Indian government has never released a report of its investigation into the causes of the leak.


Whatever the causes of the accident, in Jai Prakash Nagar the gas has wrought havoc on Sheela Devi's family.


Her husband, who once worked in a local wine shop, now spends his days in bed, paralyzed from the waist down and blind in his left eye. One of her daughters has had trouble breathing ever since the explosion and another has suffered from irregular menstrual cycles.


Sheela Devi had tumors removed from her stomach a few years after the gas leak. Only one of eight family members who filed claims has been awarded a relief check for 16,000 rupees, a little over $500.


"At least the people who are dead have found peace," she says. "We are the living dead."