Bhopal: A gentle breeze blows through the rusting carcass of the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal. White strips of insulation material peel off a scaffolding of tanks and pipes that towers three stories above the rampant undergrowth.
In what must have once been a chemical laboratory, large, dark bottles of benzene, hydrocholoric acid, chloroform and an assortment of other chemicals lie scattered in the middle of a hive of cobwebs. The windows are smashed, the doors have long fallen off their hinges and black chemical residues stain the ground. Like the rest of the plant , it looks like the laboratory stalled mid-reaction and was abandoned in unusual haste.
Click here to view a slideshow of photographs of the defunct plant
It was these sights that the Madhya Pradesh government wanted to throw open to the world for the first time ever on 20 November, two weeks before the 25th anniversary of the Bhopal gas tragedy.
Hazardous history: Scaffolding of rusted towers and pipes at the factory. Madhu Kapparath / Mint
The idea was to show the people of Bhopal that the plant was completely safe and to dispel fears that hazardous chemicals were still scattered in the factory.
It was the brainchild of Babulal Gaur , the minister for gas relief and rehabilitation.
“The plant has not been seen for the last 25 years,” he says. “We wanted to give people access to it for a week.” An exhibition on the disaster by the Indian Council of Medical Research was also to be held at the factory.
The clean up, the department of gas relief and rehabilitation claims, was the result of the nearly Rs30 crore that they had spent up to March 2009 on the environmental rehabilitation of the factory.
But one day before the plant was to be thrown open, there was no sign of any exhibition, and neither were any arrangements in place for the thousands of people who are likely to visit the site. The only sign of activity were a few workers who were clearing the undergrowth in the vicinity of the plant.
The move to open the plant drew sharp criticism from people across the country.
Tota Ram Chouhan worked as a chemical plant operator at Union Carbide till the day of the accident. He now works with the state industries department, but spends his spare time taking visiting scientists, researchers and journalists around the factory.
The factory, he claims, is completely unsafe. “You don’t need studies to prove that. Just sift a little of the soil and you’ll find mercury,” he says. That is apparently just one of the many chemicals that contaminate the site.
The corroding structure of the plant has not been maintained at all in the last 25 years, and can fall down at any time. “Why, if the plant is so safe,” he asks, “does the government want to erect a barricade to prevent people from getting closer than 20ft to it?”
Activists working with the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, a coalition of NGOs, see the move as one in a series of efforts by the government to absolve itself of any further responsibility.
They point to the continuing water pollution in the slums neighbouring the factory as indication of its toxicity. “We want the site to be preserved as a memorial to the people who died in the disaster,” says Syed M. Irfan of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Purush Sangharsh Morcha, “but the government is trying to use this occasion to absolve Dow (the owner of Union Carbide) of any further responsibilities.”
Gaur disagrees. The Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board (MPPCB) has declared the site safe. “I go to the site every two months, but nothing at all has happened to me,” he says. Neither, he claims, has anything happened to the labourers who were engaged to fill gunny sacks with contaminated soil from the factory.
But the government now seems to be having second thoughts about opening the plant. First it pushed the date back from 20 November to 25 November, and now Gaur says he’s not sure whether it will be opened at all.
Was it the protests that made the government change its mind? “Definitely not,” says Gaur. “The date was tentative.”
It seems that apart from the protests, the state government is also wary of falling foul of an October 2005 order of the Madhya Pradesh high court that required the authorities to secure the factory premises and ensure a thorough clean up.
“We’ve submitted all the documents and reports from the MPPCB to the court, and the opening is conditional upon their permission,” Gaur says.
Why then was 20 November declared the opening date? “It was conditional,” says Gaur. And when does he think the plant will open? “It depends on the court,” he says.
The department of gas relief and rehabilitation has, in the meantime, spent Rs1 crore on fixing the boundary wall of the factory. But driving around the factory you can see gaping 10ft wide holes in the wall.
The factory is far from secure. In one corner of the factory a game of cricket is in progress. Women from the adjoining slums collect firewood in what were once toxic solar evaporation ponds. Two young boys sit burning a few twigs on which they’ve piled up some electrical fittings they’ve fetched from the factory.
The department also plans to construct a Rs116 crore memorial at the factory.
As the 25th anniversary of the tragedy approaches, activities around the disaster are getting shriller and more frenzied. Activists are laying siege to the Dow Chemical Co.’s office in faraway Noida, and are playing a cat and mouse game with the Bhopal Nagar Nigam to paint slogans on the boundary walls of the factory. Meanwhile, the government is busy planning events for 3 December.
But inside Union Carbide all is quiet. It’s been quiet for 25 years, and it looks like it’s going to remain that way for some time to come.
This is the first part in the series. On Monday: 25 years of struggle through the eyes of Rasheeda Bi and Champa Devi.