It’s well known I have an inquisitive mind and love to get access to normally out of bounds locations.
5 months ago when I started planning this trip, I noticed that the train from Delhi to Chennai passed right through Bhopal, the site of the world’s worst industrial disaster.
In the early hours of a December night in 1984, a storage tank at a USA/Indian pesticide factory leaked mixing it’s contents with water resulting in a dangerous chemical reaction which spread a deadly gas across the densely populated city.
By morning, the streets were filled with dead people and animals, trying to flee the noxious gases. Estimates put the death rates at 16,000 people and a further 550,000 people affected with long term health issues.
The factory closed down and the Union Carbide was later purchased, along with its liabilities, by what is now Dow Chemicals. No compensation or clean up has since been undertaken by the Americans (India paid out £490million in 1989 which never actually reached the victims or the clean up operation) and a warrant for the American boss’s arrest was made as he fled India for the safety of New York.
I started by emailing both the mayor and governor of Bhopal. When neither replied I managed to find their phone numbers via Bhopal Facebook groups and tried calling but they were very unhelpful.
Apparently the site of the factory is secured but there is a hole in the wall and locals use the land for recreation and farming. However, if a foreigner is caught within the walls, the penalty is tough and can result in a short jail term, something I hoped to avoid…
Having no luck doing what I thought was the official way, I found a British charity working to keep international awareness of the incident and help people still affected by the disaster, 35 years on. They welcomed me to visit and linked me up with their fixer on the ground, Tabish.
Permission to enter had to come from the Indian Government and we couldn’t formally apply until we had visas in place. Much to my surprise, Louise also decided she’d like to accompany me into the chemical wasteland.
The head of the charity in the UK explained that if we stay too long inside the grounds, you can feel a slight burning in the back of your throat and sometimes your eyes. We ordered respirator masks on eBay but they failed to arrive in time.
Despite applying for visas and subsequently permission to enter the grounds a month before our departure, it wasn’t until the day after we left that we finally got access granted. We were given just 1 hour inside, and strictly no photography allowed.
The morning came, I was so excited. I’ve been inside Chernobyl and despite the dangerous radiation levels there, I had a geiger counter to warn me of invisible dangers. This time I had only my throat.
We arranged to meet Tabish in a facility close to the factory that nursed victims and provided support to affected families. Our cab took us across the bustling city and we arrived to meet him just a few minutes late, a cow in the road had caused a huge traffic jam enroute.
Introductions and formalities complete, we were loaded into a tuk tuk for a short drive to the factory. Despite being warned against, I’d brought my camera kit on the off chance I might be allowed to take photos inside. The charity were very keen to use them in the 35th anniversary coverage they were planning next December and requested I try to push my luck…
The factory walls weren’t like I expected, they were painted with vibrant murals. The security kiosk and barriers I’d seen on the news back in 1984 were no more and the site was sealed with a metal gate.
Tabish accompanied us and after leafing though lots of paperwork with a lone security guard, we were waved in.
Walking just out of the view of the road, I was told that in exchange for INR500 (about £5.50), we could take as many photos as we wished. I built my camera excitedly!
The first stop was what looked like a lab, stripped of most furniture but many chemical bottles covered in dust remaining. It was an Urbexers paradise! I could have spent all day in here but we were beckoned out by the security guard who wanted to keep us moving.
We walked down the barron paths. Much of the vegetation was scorched by the blazing sun and the soil was orange and dusty. There were a lot of cows grazing and wild dogs sleeping in the afternoon heat.
Eventually the main manufacturing plant came into sight. Towering above the bushes it’s dark rusty skeleton was a stark contrast to the bright afternoon sky.
The guard led us inside the tangled, decaying pipework and I cautiously followed. I’d been warned that the soil here was highly poisonous and most problems occur with rainwater in the monsoon seasons.
Pointing at white pellets that had spilled out of an open pipe creating a carpet on the ground, Tabish explained that these were the end product, a pesticide, that the factory produced. I considered taking a handful but common sense prevailed and my souvenir is simply a photo of them.
I tried to climb the rusting steps for a higher elevation of the plant, Tabish warned it was of course at my risk and he’d noticed a giant bees nest above us. Again, common sense prevailed and I reluctantly stepped down.
The security guard shouted in Hindi to Tabish and in turn Tabish shouted, ‘hurry up!’ to us in English before politely whispering that it was just a show for the guard and we can take our time.
I was led to a huge container sized tank which had been engulfed by nature, sat at a precarious angle by a pathway. This was tank E610, the very tank that was compromised 35 years earlier releasing 40 tons of deadly methyl isocyanate gas, poisoning a city of 850,000 innocent people while they slept at night.
I was told I can explore around it but to be careful for any snakes, although they were usually more nocturnal. I explored the tank thoroughly, this was the centre of the disaster and without it I wouldn’t have sat as a young child watching all the suffering af the other side of the globe on John Craven’s Newsround.
There’s only so many photos of a tank in the bushes you can take and I was also starting to get a burning sensation in my right eye. I figured it was time to move on but before I did Tabish put the fear of God up me. The tank we could see was now empty, but a further 2 tanks that were full of liquid methyl isocyanate had been simply buried under the ground where we stood. At any time they could decay and leak causing yet another human and environmental disaster on a huge scale. It was my turn to hurry our security guard along!
We walked past lots of building foundations, presumably offices, packaging and warehousing areas. All had been demolished and removed, the two dimensional perimeters were the only evidence of their being now.
Finally, the ground opened out to a lawned area where children were playing cricket. Their was a hole in the concrete wall akin to a Banksy artwork except this was very real. Despite the huge amount of poison in the earth kids were playing cricket and a little oasis in such a busy, bustling city. At the other end a farmer had brought his goats to graze. I’m not sure if this was apathy or lack of education but it seemed pretty suicidal to me.
Fast approaching the hour time window we’d been granted, we were told to put cameras away and were led to the hole in the wall. Intrigued children followed us, and as we exited a farmer with his herd of goats followed through the hole.
Across the road we were shown a carved granite memorial of the disaster. The plaque blamed the evil Americans and while part of me agreed there was some responsibility, it did cross my mind that the Indian government owned 49% of the factory; but the USA parent company had failed to contribute anything to the clean up or ongoing human suffering.
I asked about graffiti on the outside of the plant that I had read about, criticising Union Carbide’s new owners, Dow Chemicals. I was told it had long since gone and the perimeter wall was now painted with upbeat vibrant murals; to be honest without Tabish I would never have guessed the horrors it contained inside.
A charity minibus was waiting to pick us up and we were driven a short ride to an expanse of land adjacent to a housing estate. They explained that this land was once part of the chemical plant and home to huge evaporation lakes used to dump waste. Children were playing on the land and livestock grazing the small amount of vegetation on the scorched land.
The houses had been built upon it with just a rotting foil sheet and 12 inches of soil seperating them from the cocktail of poison below. During monsoon season the area’s water source is polluted with heavy metals, while fishermen sit at the edge of lakes waiting for a tug on their rods to feed their family. The result is ongoing birth defects 2 generations down the line.
In Hinduism, water is considered the source of all life. In Bhopal however, a cycle of death begins with each year’s rainy season.
We headed back to the charity and were given a brief tour of the facilities where teachers and doctors patiently tended to young children with a variety of disabilities.
Privileged to be part of a very select group of Westerners to be allowed inside the plant in the past three and a half decades we thanked our hosts and flagged a taxi to the train station.
Here, at the very quiet end of Platform 1 was another memorial to the disaster. The station master on the horrific morning had waived through all trains arriving at Bhopal Station and refused to allow them to deliver their rush hour crowds to the bustling city. Choking and nearly blinded, he spent hours declining all inbound trains. It’s estimated he saved up to 10,000 lives that morning, yet he sadly passed away the following day along with 8 other members of his team.It was yet another poignant reminder of the terrifying night when Bhopal woke to streets full of death yet the warm and happy people we met here didn’t seem to bear any grudges.