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Bhopal gas tragedy lives on, 20 years later

Evidence of contaminated water in Indian city mounts.

(Page 2 of 2)



For Abdul Jabbar, a community activist here, a case establishing clear responsibility has been a long time in coming. Mr. Jabbar has been involved in the Bhopal gas victims' cause since that first night on Dec. 3, 1984, when he woke up to the sounds of screams on the street, and gathered up his family to flee.

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"This tragedy is living on," says Jabbar, who runs a seamstress workshop for widows of gas victims. "The groundwater for 3 to 5 kilometers from the site is contaminated, and this comes 20 years after the fact. The state public health agency has conducted two studies proving the water is unfit for drinking, but still people use the hand pumps."

Jabbar says he believes that the previous Congress government withheld information about water contamination at the Union Carbide site because it was the Congress government that welcomed Union Carbide to Bhopal in 1969, and Congress led governments that regulated it thereafter. The current government's hands are not dirty, he adds, so they are happy to blame Congress and move on with the issue. Officials with the Congress Party did not return calls for this report.

The scientific evidence of water contamination is mounting. By 2002, a number of environmental and public interest groups had collected samples from the soil, groundwater, fruits, and vegetables, finding high levels of heavy metals such as nickel, chromium, mercury, and lead, along with other toxic materials such as dichlorobenzines, all of which were used at the Union Carbide plant.

Contamination levels in soil and water samples at the plant were more than 10 times higher than in surrounding areas, indicating that the plant was the source of the contamination. Mercury and lead contamination have even found their way into samples of breast milk.

There is one more cruel twist. Back in 1984, the wind direction carried the methyl isocyanate gas toward the south. But now, the contaminated groundwater is heading north, carrying the poisons to a completely new population.

Holding Dow Chemical responsible has its risks, of course. India's central government, led by the BJP, has opened its doors to foreign business, including dozens of new chemical factories scattered along the Arabian Sea coast, from Bombay to the southern tip of Kerala and up the east coast of Tamil Nadu.

Any new legal action in the 20-year-old Bhopal case could scare off foreign investors who might fear an unending barrage of litigation in the case of an accident. Some survivors here say that Indian regulations on industry remain lax and sporadic, and that a future Bhopal-style tragedy is still possible.

Down at Shahjahani Park - a small patch of grass from which tall mango trees grow - a meeting of old men and women promises to keep the struggle going.

Among them is Raisa Bi, one of more than 500,000 Bhopal residents who survived that night but continues to suffer from its effects. She works six days a week stitching clothes at the workshop run by Jabbar's group. Her disabled husband, himself a gas victim, cries every day she goes to work, she says. "He asks, 'How do I go on living my life like this?'"

While she is encouraged that the state government is now showing interest in water contamination, she believes that the only people who truly care about the Bhopal gas tragedy are those who have survived it.

"Those who are living out the consequences of the tragedy, they are the only ones who remember it," she says.

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