Bhopal's women still bear scars of gas hell

HAZRA Bee is sitting cross-legged on a rug, a gold stud in her nose, greying black hair swept back. She switches on an electric fan, which ripples her peach sari in the stifling heat. She then begins her story:

"I know it was a Sunday, as my husband had been off that day. We'd had dinner and went to bed. He woke me around 2.30am and I remember him saying: 'I can smell chilli. Someone is burning chilli.' I started laughing and said: 'Why would anyone be burning chilli at this hour.'"

Hazra recalls panic in the dark and people shouting, and then running frantically with three of her children. It was winter and very cold, yet her face was burning. She splashed water on it while taking refuge inside a nearby college and then sprinted back to search for her four-year-old son.

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In her mind, she says, she can still see the emergency services at the factory near her home. People were being moved away but she entered to look for her child.

Inside, she witnessed a "scene from hell". "There were people foaming at the mouth and bodies everywhere. And people were coughing, crying and dying. I looked for my boy but could not see him. I found him later lying near a hand cart outside my home, unconscious," Hazra says.

A quarter of a century on from that night, the 53-year-old still finds the memories harrowing. She was 28 when the gas swept over the Indian city of Bhopal. Dubbed the "Hiroshima of the chemical industry", the incident of 3 December, 1984, remains the world's worst industrial accident.

Exact numbers are unknown, but most agree that about 8,000 people died from poisoning within 72 hours of a gas leak at the Union Carbide factory. A 2004 report by Amnesty International said a further 15,000 had since died as a result of long-term gas-related effects, and another 100,000 continue to suffer illnesses relating to the poison that filled the air that night. These debilitating conditions include respiratory diseases, psychiatric problems, joint pains, tuberculosis and cancers. There has also been an escalating number of birth defects in children including cleft palates, webbed feet and hands, twisted limbs, brain damage and heart problems.

Hazra takes eight different medicines for conditions including asthma, severe chest and joint pains and fainting fits. She counts herself blessed. Many of her friends and neighbours died. Miraculously, all her immediate family survived, including second son, Mansoor, who she found unconscious.

Life for everyone in Bhopal changed that evening forever, including Hazra who has since become an activist, campaigning for justice for the survivors, particularly the women, who suffered disproportionately.

Many women were twice afflicted. Those who lost children, husbands and friends have had to nurse their grief and themselves. Some 43 per cent of pregnant survivors lost their babies and there has since been an epidemic of gynaecological diseases. The incidence of miscarriages, stillbirths and birth abnormalities have since risen. Many women survivors have been stigmatised as local men won't marry them, leaving them to a life of poverty in a patriarchal society.

Despite this, it is the women who have led the campaign for justice over 25 years. Pitted against the might of one of the world's largest multi-nationals, they have somehow sustained their efforts and dealt with complex issues without formal education or literacy skills. "The women of Bhopal are fighters," Hazra says.

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Investigations have found a tank storing methyl isocyanate (MIC) during the night of 2-3 December, 1984, released a large amount of toxic gases, including cyanide. But Union Carbide disputed it was negligent, and argument continues over reparation. Independent studies blamed a mix of faulty equipment, poor maintenance, inadequate staff training and the failure of safety measures. So the survivors' fight for compensation continues.

Hazra is now a campaigner for the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB), which co-ordinates survivors' groups. Her first step to becoming an activist was when she organised a strike in a government centre, set up in the aftermath, where she was working as a seamstress, to win equal pay with another site.

Bhopal still faces the problem of contaminated water. The ICJB has won new water tanks in some areas of the city, but Hazra, who has been arrested numerous times for her protests, says she wants every home to have taps and clean water. She wants Dow Chemical, which took over Union Carbide in 2001, to pay to clean up the abandoned factory site.

Her story is one of many collected by Queen Margaret University sociology lecturer Eurig Scandrett, an Edinburgh-based principal investigator with the Bhopal Survivor's Movement Study.

He says gender has been a key issue. "To begin with, women were the most vulnerable victims of the gas leak in 1984, in terms of the break-up of the family unit and problems of reproductive health and the social ostracism that followed. They were virtually erased from the official discourse which refused to acknowledge the impact of the gas on the as yet unborn second generation."

Hundreds of such women live in an area of Bhopal known as the "widow's colony", built by the government. Nadrabee Khan, 55, has lived there for 20 years, surviving on a pittance to bring up her four daughters and son. Her husband Jaffer Khan was 45 when he died eight months after inhaling the gas.

"We lost everything. I have breathing problems and find it hard to walk. It is a hand-to-mouth existence. I got 100,000 rupees (about 1,300] as compensation. Now we suffer because our water is bad. Union Carbide should be ashamed," she said.

Visit the Bhopal Medical Appeal at, Bhopal Survivors Speak, by Eurig Scandrett, is published by Word Power Books next month.

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