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Effects of Bhopal disaster still felt

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Steve Choitakis: Protesters today are commemorating one of the worst industrial disasters ever to take place. Twenty-five years ago today, a gas leak at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, killed thousands of people. Those paying tribute say the effects are still being felt, that the area still hasn’t been fully decontaminated. And compensation’s been lacking. Let’s speak with Mehul Srivastava, a reporter at BusinessWeek based in Delhi. Hi Mehul.

Mehul Srivastava: Hello.

Choitakis: What exactly happened?

Srivastava: Well in December of 1984, sometime around midnight, a Union Carbide plant released about 40 metric tons of this chemical called isocyanate. It’s poisonous. By the morning about 4,000 people were dead. In the 15-20 years after that, another 20-30,000 people have died. It’s not exactly clear what the estimates are. And the government says about half a million survivors are infected. The problem, of course, is that it’s not quite clear what caused the leak. Union Carbide says it was a disgruntled employee. The Indian government says it was lax safety standards.

Choitakis: And many protesters, Mehul, says that gas is still there. That it’s still a dangerous area. What’s the situation right now?

Srivastava: I mean almost every environmental group that’s tested the ground over there says the ground water, the soil, the buildings are all contaminated. So what’s resulted is that people who still live in this area, they still — 25 years down the line — there’s children born with birth defects, there’s women with reproductive disorders, there’s cancers.

Choitakis: So legally, I mean, who’s responsible? Is there anything else that can be done?

Srivastava: You’ve entered into the contentious part of the issue here. Dow Chemicals bought out Union Carbide about 9 or 10 years ago. And Union Carbide had paid $470 million in 1989 to the Indian government. As far as Dow Chemicals is concerned, that’s that. Everything was settled. But with the amount of people who were killed, that’s not a lot of money. And then the government has never actually done a clean up, the private sector has never actually done a clean up. So we have a quarter of the people in the city of Bhopal in central India who live in an area that’s essentially a chemical dump.

Choitakis: And the future. How do they move on from here?

Srivastava: You know, I’ve visited Bhopal. And I can tell you it’s a pretty tragic situation. These people are caught between this nexus of government and foreign investment and complicated laws, so it’s highly unlikely that 25 years down the line that anything’s going to change when the 10th anniversary or the 20th anniversary didn’t change anything either.

Choitakis: All right, Mehul Srivastava is a reporter at BusinessWeek based in Delhi. Mehul, thank you.

Srivastava: Oh, thanks for having me.

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