Thursday, October 15, 2009

The definition of eerie

On Wednesday Oct. 14 our mission was to gain entry to and explore the rotting, old Union Carbide Factory- the sight on the disastrous chemical leak on Dec. 3 &4 1984. The disaster cost 20,000 Bhopalis their lives and continues to haunt Old Bhopal in the form of chemical contanimation in the soil and water, as well as, on going health problems (which Sambhavna strives to treat people for). 


Our first task was to get permission from the Madhya Pradesh gov. We headed over the the collector's office at 11 am. We rode up to a chaotic site with a dozen men sitting at an outdoor table to the right of a building made of semi-open tiles which tons of people were crowded around and along shoving papers, requests, hazy passport photos and IDs through the holes to numerous government peons, who were themselves barricaded by stacks of grey-brown old papers frosted with a thick layer of dust, and were quickly shuffling through them and sending people off in a million directions. We finally got assigned a room in the building- 101. I would go on but describing each room we were sent to would be so arduous and repetitive. Each one had people in dark corners idly flipping through dingy books, jotting down page-long numbers, and shuffling and reshuffling the books and string-tied stacks of ancient-looking dust grey papers that lined every wall. Copies were made, things were shuffled, looks were given, we were once asked why we wished to 'go and see nothing' (and we replied with a few bats of our eyelashes that we learned about it in school and were oh so interested) and about 20 Indian men signed our sheet and sent us on our way. VICTORY NUMBER TWO WITH THE INFAMOUS BUREAUCRACY OF THE INDIAN GOV! (no. 1 being our visas)


 Entering the compound. (2 guides, shehnaz, alizarin and me)


After lunch we met up with Shehnaz, who had never been and decided to come with us on our tour of the factory. We walked North for approx. 10 minutes and then sauntered up to the gate with our fancy MP-backed permission papers and handed them to the guards lounging at the end of an overgrowth-lined path. 2 men offered to show us around. The factory sits in a vast compound (we were told of 100 acres) which is largely overgrown with vines, grass, leafy bushes and mint all interspersed with crumbling brown bricks, the sparkled of monsoon-flattened litter and the occasional rusted metal object. The first thing we saw was a little clearing where about 6 giant black water buffalo were grazing green stalks grown on contaminated soil. My first instinct: this shit is eerie. then a thin, man with dark leathery skin emerged from the brush to the right our path carrying a long pole across his shoulders and cutting plants. 


We walked past a large, rusty 3 legged metal tower and the guards explained in Hindi (Shehnaz translated) that it was the control tower that was supposed to sound the alarm continuously to warn people of a chemical on the night of the disaster. In fact, it was deactivated  to avoid alarming people (!). 


We approached the actual factory and the specific area where the pesticide Sevin was produced using the lethal chemical that leaked that night, methyl isocyanate or MIC. It was a mass of Dr.Seuss-esque piping, screws, furry thermocole insolation and corrogated metal. It was rusting and  it was obvious that parts had fallen off or been stripped off by desperate residents of the nearby slums to sell as scrap metal. A strange acidic smell merged with that of buffalo dung and mint. It may have been phsycological but Shehnaz started to feel strange as we walked around. We stepped on a pile of some stuff that looked like hampster pellets and, in fact, was a substance used to mop up a chemical that leaked (according to the guard). 


  The MIC tank.   


Next we walked past a giant black structure surrounded by trees and shrubs. It looked like an old submarine or an enormous black pill. It was the tank that leaked 40 tons of MIC into the air in 1984. The plants we nearly overtaking it and like many structures around the factory, it seemed as if nature was trying to gobble up the toxic remains of that horrible night, though we know that it can't. On the contrary, the remains have the potential to gobble up nature.

  The shed.   


Then we passed a shed that the guard told us contained more MIC (though Sathyu later told us this must have simply been a bad translation and that there is no MIC in that tank). Alizarin and Ruth peered in and took pictures but Shehnaz and I ran away because we were freaked out by the guards warnings that cobras and other poisonous snakes dwell there. Overall, the shock of this surreal and utterly eerie place was sinking in. 


Us in the former control room  

Next we went to a building that was mostly overrun with cobwebs and dirt. After quickly surveying a small room that must have once been an office (in which we found an old broom and a purple kite, the first concrete proof that kids still play on the factory site) we hoisted ourselves through a broken window into the former control room, where UCC workers once sat when they were informed of the leak and hesitantly fiddled with the broken valves, to no avail. It was a creepy moment looking at the 3d architectural plans of the factory which were clearly labeled with different chemicals (including MIC and Sevin) below the empty sockets where valve control switches must have been below a big yellow sticker reading "SAFETY IS EVERYBODY'S BUSINESS". 


Finally, we walked around behind the factory after prodding the guards for a while to let us see the slums. I expected a high metal wall with maybe some barbed wire to separate them from the factory compound. What we found was a dilapidated brick wall with makeshift structures lining every inch of it (greying wooden poles propped up burlap and plastic tarps). We were shocked to watch a 12 yr old boy scale it with ease until we saw the gaping, 10 foot holes where there wasn't even wall. Kids skipped in and out, women had hung colorful laundry across it and there was a muddy, plastic studded stream just outside it that a few toddlers splashed across to come see us, the gori goris, and wave hi. Seeing the intimate, direct contact that these people have with such an acutely contaminated site left us floored and speechless. I challenge anyone who doubts the gravity of the humanitarian crisis in Old Bhopal to do so while walking around that compound, while beholding rusty tanks leaching stagnant chemicals and tiny, fragile, smiling children ankle-deep in mud within 20 feet of eachother. I know that after that experience I will keep fighting until Dow takes responsibility, the site is cleaned and justice is achieved for Bhopalis.

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