New Delhi: When Bhopal resident Rasheeda Bee woke up on Thursday morning and saw the news of the gas leak in Visakhapatnam, it brought back painful memories. On the night of 3 December 1984, Bee fled home when poisonous methyl isocyanate gas leaked from the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal.
“In every way, it reminds me of what we went through 35 years ago," says Bee, 65. She’s aware the gas is not the same—styrene leaked from the LG Polymers in RR Venkatapuram village, Visakhapatnam, around 3am on 7 May—but says the scenes have triggered painful memories.
“From what I’m seeing, people were sleeping, just like we were, and were suddenly woken by shouts and screams. People were running like a like a storm was coming. I saw people losing consciousness, struggling to breathe, feeling nausea, raking at burning eyes—it feels just the same. We know what it feels like," she says, who was 30 then.
She used to live 3km from the Union Carbide plant. “My eyes were streaming, it felt like my skin was on fire. I was looking for water to wash our faces and eyes. We ran to the bus stand but there was gas; then the railway station, the gas was there too. When people fell, we had no strength to raise or revive them," she says, describing the leak, now considered the world’s worst industrial disasters. Bee survived, but lost her son to an illness she says he developed after breathing the gas that night.
Close to 40 tonnes of chemicals leaked from the factory that night, and the official death toll that night was put at 4,000. Decades later, people from the area suffer from kidney and lung ailments and cancer, while women have a number of reproductive and menstrual health problems, reports show. More children with disabilities are born here too, she says. Bee and her friend Champa Devi Shukla, who lost her husband to the gas, have spent the last 35 years organizing local women to demand compensation and a clean-up of the site. Bee and Shukla shared one of six Goldman Environmental Prizes in 2004.
“The government has not learned from Bhopal. We’re very callous in India; governments don’t value people’s lives," says Bee, the president of president of Bhopal Gas Affected Persons’ Women Stationery Workers’ Union. “We especially don’t value workers’ lives. Look at the way we’ve treated migrant workers during this lockdown," she says, alluding to the millions of daily wage workers who are without food or money for the past six weeks of the lockdown to curb coronavirus and are trying to walk back to their home states.
Medical treatment is the immediate need, but it is also important to bring in experts who will be able to advise the local government on the long-term impact of the gas on health and environment. Polymer chemists at Indian Institute of Science at Bengaluru, who did not want to be named, said styrene, which is a component in the packaging material polystyrene, is not as toxic as methyl isocyanate but the effect on lungs and health after such a leak needs to be examined.
Despite the fact Bee and her fellow activists are still continuing fight for compensation and a clean-up of the site, she says she’s hoping the government will do better this time. “Now medical treatment is better, there’s more money in India, I hope the government will do more and take responsibility to protect future generations."