Factory Visit

On Tuesday, we visited the abandoned factory responsible for the 1984 Union Carbide gas explosion. Although we had been learning about the incident for a few days beforehand and had met with survivors the day before, it was extremely sobering to visit the site itself. The nightmare I had been learning about became considerably more real the moment I stepped onto the premises and saw corroded pipes, holding tanks, and broken windows. In a way, it felt like I was in a ghost story—but this was not a story at all, and it continues to be the chilling reality for hundreds of thousands of Bhopalis still living with the effects of the leak, more than 25 years later. We stood in silence for a while, looking up at the factory piping and imagining the 32 tons of toxic gas that escaped from the pipes that night, spreading as a dense fog across the landscape. Dabish, an employee at a local NGO who accompanied us to the factory, explained that Union Carbide’s emergency plan had six different security measures, all of which were grossly ineffective. Some had malfunctions—and a few were not even in operation at the time of the incident. It was revolting to stand at that site, knowing that Union Carbide’s willingness to cut corners contributed to such a catastrophe. For me, the most disturbing part of all is the fact that it’s still not cleaned up. Lurking under the very ground we walked on was the untreated toxic waste Union Carbide buried under the site—the waste that is now responsible for the contamination of the drinking water of more than 200,000 people. We walked through one of the research and development labs, where bottles of chemicals still remain beneath a workbench, covered in a thick layer of dust. I knelt down and read a few of the labels. Methyl tetrachloride. Chloroform. Potassium hydroxide. These are all extremely harmful reagents—to the environment as well as to the human body. Yet here they sit, abandoned, a chilling reminder of the greatest industrial disaster the world has ever seen. It’s so frustrating to see this with our own eyes, knowing that CEOs are sitting in the United States, unbothered, with their wealth intact. It is estimated that giving proper compensation to the victims would amount to a figure around 7.1 billion dollars. This sounds like a lot, but it’s less than two percent of the company’s annual profits. If corporate greed and neglect caused a disaster like this in the United States, there is no question that the victims would be compensated almost immediately. In fact, all victims of 9/11 were compensated within a year. But here we are, 25 years later, and Bhopal is yet to see justice. This is grotesque inequality in its purest form. The victims of the incident are not a random sampling of people. It is no accident that the factory was erected in a slum area, inhabited mostly by impoverished Muslims and Dalits, none of whom benefited from any of the products manufactured with Union Carbide’s chemicals. Yet citizens are still living with the effects. The nightmare continues. And until the ground contamination is cleaned up, it’s hard to imagine how things will ever get better.

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