A toxic tragedy in Bhopal

Rohit, 12, who suffers from a severe neurological disorder, bathes himself at his home. Photo by Alex Masi

Rohit, 12, who suffers from a severe neurological disorder, bathes himself at his home. Photo by Alex Masi

As Rashid Ali and his ex-wife had their three children in Bhopal, India, over the past decade, they say they had no choice but to give the children water contaminated by a 1984 gas leak.

Two of his children, a 6-year-old girl and a 3-year-old boy, are now healthy, but his son Rahil, 7, was diagnosed with a TORCH infection, or a type of infection passed from a mother to her fetus, and lissencephaly, a brain formation disorder that reduces Rahil’s life expectancy to 10 years.

Three years ago, Rashid’s wife, buckling under the daily challenges and stigma associated with birth defects in India, left Rashid, taking their two healthy children with her.

Rashid and Rahil now share a rented room with Rashid’s deaf and mute 70-year-old mother.

Photographer Alex Masi met the Alis nearly three decades after the world’s worst industrial disaster: a chemical leak from the Union Carbide pesticide plant.

Masi photographed the community’s struggles with the fallout from the disaster, specifically water pollution, over a span of three years.

Methyl isocyanate, a chemical used to produce pesticides, escaped in the form of a gas cloud from the Union Carbide plant in December 1984, taking nearly 4,000 lives in the immediate aftermath.

Since then more than 10,000 other deaths have been blamed on illnesses related to the gas leak. In addition, hundreds of thousands of survivors have reported adverse health effects.

There has been a jump in the number of cancer cases, tuberculosis cases and birth deformities in communities near the factory. According to the Bhopal Medical Appeal, 1 in 15 chronically ill survivors were still in desperate need of attention in 2010.

Many communities surrounding the abandoned plant get water from plastic tanks refilled by surface pipes or tanker trucks, according to a 2009 survey by a UK charity. But many pipes and tanks are broken, and the trucks come irregularly so residents try to build their own wells.

Often the groundwater reached by the handmade pumps is contaminated by coliform bacteria from sewage leaks, and there is still serious chemical contamination from the disaster, the survey report stated.

“A huge proportion of the factory site is full of very toxic waste,” Colin Toogood, the report’s author, said in a story published in Scientific American. “There are parts of the factory where the soil you walk on is 100% toxic waste, and there are areas where you still see pools of mercury on the ground.”

In response, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan of the Madhya Pradesh state told BBC that the plant area was safe, and tanker trucks supplied clean water to the communities that don’t have safe piped water.

Masi said the greatest injustice for the poor victims was the little consideration they receive from the company and the Indian government.

Union Carbide, now a subsidiary of Dow Chemical Co., paid a $470 million settlement to India in 1989, but the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal said survivors have received an average of only $500 each in compensation.

In 2010, an Indian court found Union Carbide and its executives at the time of the accident guilty of negligence causing death, endangering public life and causing hurt.

However, a U.S. federal court absolved them of liability for soil and water pollution around the factory. And as Dow was juggling its lawsuits, it was honored as a top sponsor of the 2012 London Olympics.

Indian aid programs and Indian Olympics officials protested, but the International Olympic Committee insisted Dow was not to blame for the accident.

For many living in the city, the accident is something of the past. Most are well-aware of the water contamination and avoid it when they can, Masi said.

“While most people in Old Bhopal know about the disaster and discuss new developments from time to time, many residents in the richer New Bhopal can’t even recall the events of 1984 and are busy working hard and developing fast,” Masi said.

He hopes to put grants and donations for this and other projects toward helping the victims.

“I wanted to convey emotions, to stimulate our deeper and most innate feelings, our senses of justice, compassion and brotherhood, in the hope of becoming an active catalyst for the promotion of awareness, action and change for the people of Bhopal,” Masi said.

His project won the 2012 FotoEvidence Book Award, which recognizes commitment to a human rights issue. Along with four other finalists, it will be featured in an exhibition at the VII Gallery on October 25 in Brooklyn, New York. The event also marks the official release of Masi’s book, “Bhopal: Second Disaster.”

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