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Bhopal cleanup

Murali KrishnanSeptember 19, 2012

A German organization has pulled out of a deal to dispose of toxic waste left at the now defunct Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, the scene of one of the world's worst industrial disaster almost 30 years ago.

Photo from March 13, 2012, showing the abandoned Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India. Photo:Rafiq Maqbool/AP/dapd
Image: AP

It's back to square one in the Indian government's arduous mission to get rid of toxic waste from Union Carbide's pesticide plant in Bhopal. After months of contract negotiations, the German agency GIZ (German Society for International Cooperation), which undertakes waste management among other tasks, has backed out of a proposal to airlift 350 tons of waste to Europe for safe disposal.

Public uproar in Germany

In a letter to federal finance minister P. Chidambaram, GIZ said it could not carry out the agreement, citing a public outcry in Germany.

"We have made an assessment of the situation in Germany and decided that it would be in the best interests for strong Indo-German cooperation not to pursue this project further," the state-owned development aid company said in a statement.

Activists from Greenpeace stage a protest in front of parliament in New Delhi Friday December 3, 1999on the 15th anniversary of the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal Photo: AP Photo/John McConnico
Survivors are still waiting for the site to be cleaned upImage: AP

GIZ also pointed out that the chemical waste it had undertaken to clean up was from the period prior to the 1984 disaster.

"This is not hazardous waste related to the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy. GIZ has decades of experience in the safe and responsible disposal of hazardous waste."

In 1984, some 3,500 people were immediately killed when a storage tank at Union Carbide India's factory in central India leaked, spewing methyl isocyanate and other poisonous substances into the surrounding slums.

Scars still remain

According to government figures, the total death toll from the pollution and its side effects had climbed to over 15,000 by 2007. Activists place the figure at twice that number.

The old factory site in Bhopal, with its rusty tanks and rundown clusters of buildings, is like a ghost town. Even today the people in Bhopal still live with the consequences of the gas cloud and continue to fight for compensation.

"Those who live in the vicinity of the factory still suffer. Contaminated ground water still affects Bhopal residents. Now the government has to look at alternate means," Hamida Bee of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action told DW.

Survivor Abdul Jabbar Khan, who lost about 60 percent of his eyesight in the chemical gas accident, was caustic.

"Now, let's see what the government will do. First they tried to pacify us by saying this waste will be removed. Obviously, other governments are also aware that victims are suffering and the Indian government has done nothing to help us," he told DW.

Still scouring for sites

The government for its part refused to comment on GIZ's decision. But a Supreme Court-appointed monitoring and advisory committee has decided to take advice from technical experts on the safe disposal of toxic waste.

"We will take advice from technical experts to see the possibility of disposing of the waste in different facilities available within the country. At present, there are 27 sites within the country for the safe disposal of toxic waste," said a state government official, requesting anonymity.

In this Decembe 5, 1984 file photo, two men carry children blinded by the Union Carbide chemical pesticide leak to a hospital in Bhopal, India. Photo: AP Photo/Sondeep Shankar, File
The Bhopal gas tragedy left an estimated 15,000 people deadImage: AP

Some analysts feel that protests staged in Germany, especially by environmental groups such as Greenpeace and the nature conservancy BUND, might have played a major role in the reversal of GIZ's plan.

The disposal of Bhopal's toxic waste was to have taken place in an incinerator in Hamburg, and would have cost Indian taxpayers about 3.4 million euros (4.25 million US dollars).