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Photos: Living in the Shadow of the Bhopal Chemical Disaster

Thirty years after the Union Carbide leak killed thousands, residents are still dealing with contaminated water, toxic waste, and lingering diseases.

| Mon Jun. 2, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Rashid Ali hugs his seven-year-old son, Rahil, who has been diagnosed with torch infection and lissencephaly. Children with similar conditions have an average life expectancy of less than 10 years.

Before dawn on December 3, 1984, a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, exploded and leaked 45 tons of methyl isocyanate. Half a million people came in contact with the toxic gas and other chemicals, and thousands died within days. As many as 25,000 people are thought to have eventually perished after exposure to the gas, which causes nerve and respiratory damage.

Union Carbide, the American company that owned the plant, initially tried to avoid any liability for the disaster, claiming sabotage by an employee. In 1989, it finally agreed to pay out $470 million—which worked out to about $550 per victim. The corporation's CEO, Warren Anderson, spent years ignoring Indian criminal charges in his abode in the Hamptons. (A 2006 Mother Jones story explores the tangled the legal fallout from the tragedy.) Dow Chemical, which acquired Union Carbide 17 years after the accident, has also avoided responsibility for its subsidiary's troubled past, maintaining that the legal case was resolved with the 1989 settlement and that cleanup now falls to the Indian government.

Unlike these corporations, Bhopal's residents don't have the luxury of moving on. In 2010, the disaster site still contained 425 tons of uncleared waste. An estimated 120,000 to 150,000 survivors still struggle with serious medical conditions including nerve damage, growth problems, gynecological disorders, respiratory issues, birth defects, and elevated rates of cancer and tuberculosis, explains Colin Toogood, spokesperson for the Bhopal Medical Appeal, which runs free health clinics for survivors. And tens of thousands of families continue to rely on heavily contaminated water from around the abandoned factory.

Sanjay Verma was orphaned by the gas leak, though he didn't know it until he was five. He doesn't remember the night of the explosion, but he lives with the nightmare of Bhopal's second disaster: The failure to fully clean up the leak and the ongoing neglect of its victims. Verma's story, excerpted below, is included in Invisible Hands: Voices from the Global Economy, a new anthology of testimonies from laborers from around the world from the Voice of Witness book series.

London-based photographer Alex Masi spent years documenting those living in the shadow of Bhopal. "I strived to portray my subjects with intimacy, meaning, and depth," writes Masi, "in the hopes of becoming a catalyst for the promotion of awareness, action, and change for the people of Bhopal." Though Masi's photoessay does not picture Sanjay Varma, the images help answer Verma's plea: "I hope that people will find out more about Bhopal. It is not just history. We are still here, and we still need help."

For Sanjay Verma's full story, see Invisible Hands: Voices from the Global Economy (Voice of Witness). Some of Alex Masi's photos were featured in his 2012 book, Bhopal Second Disaster (FotoEvidence).

Sanjay's Verma's Story

"I grew up in an orphanage in Bhopal. I was there with my sister Mamta, who is about nine years older than me, for around ten years. We went to primary school nearby. One day when I was about five years old, we had a parents' meeting at school, and many of my classmates came in with their parents. But I didn't have anyone there that night. So then I realized, I don't have parents with me. I said to my sister, "my classmates came with their parents to the meeting, but there was no one with me. Our foster mother—she's my mother, right? So who is my father? And how come they didn't go with me?"

And so my sister told me about what had happened. She said, "Sanjay, there was a tragedy, a disaster, in 1984. We were four brothers and four sisters and two parents. But both our parents, three sisters, and two brothers died that same night." And that's all she said. When she told me that, to be honest, I don't even remember how I felt. I knew that she had answered some pretty big questions, but I still had many more.

The abandoned Union Carbide industrial complex in Bhopal. Alex Masi
Rashida Bee demonstrates with other survivors. She lost six members of her family in the Bhopal disaster. Alex Masi

 

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At this time, our surviving older brother Sunil was still living by himself in the old house where we had lived before the disaster. He was just a young teenager when the disaster occurred, about thirteen, but he was allowed to live by himself rather than come to the orphanage, because he could take care of himself. I think the government was paying him and other victims living on their own about 200 rupees ($3) a month at the time. My sister and I weren't awarded any compensation other than money paid to SOS Children's Villages for our support.

And then when I was ten, we moved out from the orphanage and back into the house with Sunil. Soon after that, in the mid-nineties, we were given a new apartment by the government. Over 2,500 new homes were constructed by the Indian government for families who had lost loved ones who had supported them. The houses were built all in one big neighborhood that people called the Gas Widows Colony.

A child in a makeshift house in Oriya Basti, one of the areas in Bhopal still dealing with water contamination. Alex Masi
Poonam, 6, soaks up monsoon rain in Oriya Basti. When monsoon season hits, the rain seeps through the buried waste of the abandoned Union Carbide plant and pollutes underground water reservoirs. Alex Masi

When we started living with our brother I began finding out more about the tragedy. We found pictures of my other siblings who had died that night, and then once in a while my brother would talk a bit about it. He would say, "one day, we were four brothers and four sisters," and he would list their names. And then he would tell us about who our siblings had married or were going to marry, what sort of work they were going to do, everything about their lives that he could remember. He told us that our father was a carpenter in Bhopal and our mother was a simple Indian lady; she was a housewife. He wanted us to feel like we knew something about the family we'd lost.

I came to find out more about the night of the accident as well. It was my sister who took me when I was a baby and ran with me when gas started to fill the air. My brother and sister said the gas made it hard to breathe and burned people's skin. Everyone was running. My brother Sunil had started to run, too, but he had to go pee, so he stopped in the street on the way. There were so many people running in the streets, and he got separated from us. Then, later, he fainted.

New Arif Nagar, a neighborhood near the abandoned plant. Alex Masi
A "corporate man" statue burns as Bhopalis demonstrate on the 29th anniversary of the disaster in December 2013. Alex Masi
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