It was announced this week by state authorities that the sealed pesticide
plant that leaked deadly methyl isocyanate gas on December 3 1984 is to be
opened to the public for a week next month to coincide with the 25th
anniversary of the disaster.
Around 3,500 people died immediately when a storage tank of the plant run by
US group Union Carbide - bought by Dow Chemicals in 1999 - spewed the poison
gas over the populated slums of Bhopal in central India.
The total death toll from pollution and its side effects had climbed to more
than 15,000 by 2007, according to government figures, but Indian rights
activists say the real figure is double that.
The idea to open the site to the public was designed to dispel fears about the
safety of the blackened factory which still looms over the city's slums, but
locals are not convinced.
"I can prove that toxic waste is still there," said Tota Ram
Chowhan, who worked at the factory as a technician for more than 10 years.
"Several government agencies have established that contaminated water and
pollutants exist in the plant's vicinity because of the toxic waste inside.
More than two dozen [toxic material] dump sites are still there."
Babulal Gaur, who heads the state ministry of Bhopal gas tragedy relief and
rehabilitation, defended his plan, saying free-of-charge and supervised
access would be granted to people who had sought permission to visit.
"This is to help people to get rid of apprehension and misconceptions
that chemical waste lying inside the factory is still harmful or that the
chemicals are polluting the water in nearby localities," he said.
But Komal Singh, a 45-year-old survivor, told AFP it would be "ridiculous
to expose people to this danger once again", while campaigners in the
Bhopal Group of Information and Action also attacked Gaur.
"Mr Gaur is neither a scientist nor a man with common sense because there
are still 24 deposits of high toxic material inside the plant," the
group's spokeswoman, Rachna Dinghra, told AFP.
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Amsterdam-based environmental group Greenpeace joined the chorus of
Vinuta Gopal, spokeswoman of the Indian chapter of Greenpeace, labelled the
"It is the most foolish thing to do and it shows that despite all these
years we have not understood the gravity of hazardous waste issues in India
that this plant represents," Gopal said.
She insisted the plant, seen by many as India's worst toxic hotspot, must
remain shut in line with various court rulings.
Only state-approved experts and investigators have access to the plant, which
was built in the 1970s by Union Carbide India Ltd - an Indian firm
majority-owned by Union Carbide Corp.
"They [the courts] have ruled against free access only because of the
hazardous nature of the waste inside," Gopal added.
Rasheeda Bi, a survivor activist who leads a campaign for compensation for the
survivors, was also angry with Gaur's project, which also includes a
week-long exhibition at the site to highlight government welfare measures.
"Some 340 tons of toxic waste is still out there and if Gaur is so sure
that it is not harmful then why is he saying visitors must view the dumping
sites from a distance of 20 feet (six metres)?" said the 51-year-old
woman who lost her entire family in the tragedy.
Dow is under pressure to clean up but it insists all liabilities regarding the
disaster were settled when Union Carbide concluded a $470 million (£282
million) compensation settlement with New Delhi in 1989.
Several lawmakers of a 27-member US congressional group lobbying for the
plant's clean-up say 15 more people are dying each month from effects of
exposure to the gas.