Pilgrimage to Bhopal

Manoj and our guide
Late in the night of 2 December 1984 poor safety measures led to the release of 27 tonnes of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas from a pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide India Limited in the city of Bhopal, India.  The poisonous gas went on to kill 25,000 people in the minutes, days, months and years following.  Many more were injured and children there are often born with birth defects.  The Union Carbide Corporation did their best to downplay their responsibility as much as they could in the aftermath and after a sketchy settlement process they were done with the matter. When the Dow Chemical Company bought Union Carbide in 2001 they generously settled all outstanding claims against Carbide at home in the US and have consistently ignored claims from Bhopal.  The story is back in the news as a result of the public outcry over Dow Chemical’s sponsorship of the 2012 London Olympics.

In this post I want to share an account of my visit to the abandoned Union Carbide factory site last month.  All these photos and a few more can be found in a new set I have just posted on my flikr photostream.

A tank
I was four months old when the initial leak happened.  I probably heard it mentioned a few times in school or pop culture, but only knew about as much about it as anyone knows about horrible things that happened a long time ago in a foreign country.  The first time I really started to learn about it was after I heard about the culture jamming pranksters the Yes Men and saw this legendary 2003 hoax:

In 2007 when I was sent to Karnataka in South India as part of my internship through the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute, I was trained in Calgary, Alberta with Prabjit Barn, another Shastri intern who was being sent to do research with the Sambhavna Clinic on the ongoing health impacts of the gas leak on people in the area.  When we all got together again in Delhi at the end of the internship some of us met up with some of Prabjit’s friends from Bhopal who had marched to Delhi to demand more from their government.  Many of the people I saw there were old women, including one octogenarian who apparently led the entire 700km march, walking faster than everyone else.

I learned much more later on after I returned to university and took on a group assignment where each of us were to take on different stakeholders on the Bhopal gas leak tragedy.  Despite all the depressing subjects I had studied up to then, I had never found myself feel so upset and moved by a research topic before.  In the way they allowed for the disaster to happen and how they have managed it in the aftermath, Union Carbide and Dow Chemical have showed almost no respect for human life and no legal system has been able to bring them to account.

In his 2004 documentary Scared Sacred, Canadian filmmaker Velcrow Ripper visits a number of the planet’s ground zeros as a sort of modern pilgrimage to make connections and search for hope.  I wasn’t crazy about the film itself, but I appreciated how he decided to take a pilgrimage to Bhopal to pay his respects to these victims of the world’s worst industrial disaster.  I decided that the next time I was in India, I would do the same.

Believe it or not, the market for serving Bhopal gas tragedy pilgrims is not a big one.  Search any website or guidebook on visiting Bhopal and they will mention the lakes, temples and museums – but nothing on the single event that most people know the city for and how one can learn about it first-hand.  Through emails with Prabjit back in Canada and connecting with some people at the local Baha’i Centre I figured out where the factory site was and a couple clinics to visit and people to meet.

From what I read during my research I was pretty sure that the factory site would be closed to the public since the factory site itself has yet to be cleaned up and is a major part of the ongoing controversy.  To my surprise, my new friend Manoj and I were met at an entrance by three casually dressed men lying on cots who claimed to be in charge of letting people in.  For 300 rupees (about $6) they would let us in and show us around.  From looking at them I doubted they were in charge of anything.  I asked who they work for – the city, state or central government?  They said that they answer to the In charge, who was not around today.  In charge is actually a very common job title in India which means exactly what it sounds like.  Eventually one of the men brought me inside a building where their uniforms were hung on hooks on the wall and there was a pile of signed photocopies of passports and forms of other foreigners who went through the municipal corporation (think: city hall) to request access the legal (think: mind-numbingly bureaucratic) way, a three day process.  Three hundred rupees it is!

Abandoned Cabide lab
First stop was an empty lab where Union Carbide scientists did their research.  The floor was covered with broken glass from the windows and old lab containers.  Under the counter we found several bottles of lab materials left untouched that none have dared to disturb.

Some lab materials
While the plant has been abandoned, it hasn’t really been abandoned.  As we walked along its lanes we crossed paths with women grazing their livestock and boys hanging out as they foraged for small fruit.  I have now learned that the people who live near nearby know that these are dangerous activities, but they feel they have no choice.  The pressure is worse when it comes to drinking the water that continues to poison them.  Researchers have found high concentrations of chlorobenzenes, organochlorines, chromium, copper, nickel, lead, zinc and mercury in the local water and soil.

Some boys
It should be noted here that it is far to easy to make Indians look sad and severe in photos.  That’s just how they like to be photographed. These guys were actually really excited to see a foreigner and have their photo taken, but as soon as I raised my camera to my face, the smiles had been wiped off theirs.

A boy
We made our way to a very tall structure of pipes, platforms and containers at the centre of the site.  Our guide pointed out a tiny pipe near the top and said that it was the very pipe that the MIC gas escaped from that night in 1984.

The main structure
Across from this structure was a giant tank sitting on the ground that reminded me of beached whale.  Not that I have ever seen a beached whale.  Our guide said that this was the very pipe that held the MIC gas before it escaped.  What happened was that some water leaked in past a number of shoddy safeguards, which caused a reaction with the MIC, dramatically raising the temperature and pressure inside the tank and leading to the leak.  Our guide said that the government later pulled the tank out of the ground so that they could more easily show the world the tank that killed so many people.  There are several other tanks throughout the plant which many suspect may not still hold MIC and other toxic materials.

The tank
As we walked through the site a police officer called down to us from a rooftop and our guide waved some pieces of paper he had been carrying up at him.  I assume those papers were standing in for the authorized forms showing that we were allowed to be there.

A police officer
Before we left we walked over a wide concrete surface that was growing over with weeds.  Our guide explained that here there used to be a building there but it was torn down by a mob of local people in the days after the disaster.  They were enraged over what happened and decided to take it out on a number of buildings on the site.

Our guide

Outside the plant Manoj and I crossed the street and walked over to a statue of a woman and a baby that I had seen pictures of years earlier online.  Its plaque reads:


Mother and child statue
We decided to make our pilgrimage complete by reading a couple prayers for the departed, one in Hindi and one in English.  I chose this short prayer:

O my God!  O Thou forgiver of sins, bestower of gifts, dispeller of afflictions!

Verily, I beseech thee to forgive the sins of such as have abandoned the physical garment and have ascended to the spiritual world.

O my Lord!  Purify them from trespasses, dispel their sorrows, and change their darkness into light.  Cause them to enter the garden of happiness, cleanse them with the most pure water, and grant them to behold Thy splendors on the loftiest mount.

-‘Abdu’l-Bahá (Bahá’í Prayers, p.45)


The red text ‘ORA E SEMPRE RESTENZA’is Spanish for ‘Now and always resistance’

We also visited two amazing organizations that serve the victims of the disaster, Sambhavna Clinic and the Chingari Rehabilitation Centre. Sambhavna Clinic offers all types of health care to victims of the disaster as well as heath education and research work on the ongoing contamination of water and soil.  Prabjit had a list of people for me to say hello to for her, including Chandrakanta a very good friend of hers who does cleaning at the clinic.

At the Chingari Rehabilitation Centre we chatted with their new Public Relations Officer Tabish Ali. Chingari offers special education and other treatment for children who are born with severe learning disabilities as a result of the gas leak.  He told us about their activities and showed us a great short film he had just made with the help of a volunteer.  The film is made entirely of digital photographs rather than actual video footage:

To keep up with the ongoing struggle, I recommend the blog of the Bhopal Medical Appeal, a UK based organization that raises funds for these two clinics and works with the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal.

UPDATE:  A version of this article was published by the Bhopal Medical Appeal on their blog at bhopal.org.  Click here to see it.  (21 March 2012)