WITNESS: A stroll through the factory of death in India's Bhopal

Wed Dec 17, 2008 7:21pm EST
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Alistair Scrutton is chief correspondent in India for Reuters. He joined Reuters in 1998 as a correspondent in Lima, Peru and then worked in Buenos Aires covering Argentina's economic crash. As a regional correspondent, he flew around the continent to cover stories ranging from the rise of Hugo Chavez to civil war in Haiti. In 2004, he moved to Washington as editor for political and general news in Latin America before moving to India in 2007. In the following story, he describes walking through the Bhopal plant in India, 24 years after a toxic gas leak killed at least 8,000 people.

By Alistair Scrutton

BHOPAL, India (Reuters) - First it was an acidic smell, then a slight itching of the throat, a burning sensation as I sucked in the southern Indian air.

This was Bhopal, and history had come to visit.

I was looking for an innocuous pipe, one of a maze that juts out from Bhopal's plant. The leaking pipe still stands, 24 years after it spewed toxic gas into nearby slums, killing at least 8,000 people in one of the world's worst industrial disasters.

In search of that pipe, I had strolled through this plant just outside the city with a government permit in hand, accompanied by a bored-looking policeman and my guide, Sanjay.

By an old rusty tank near one of the plants, I suddenly smelt something acidic, what survivors had told me hit them as clouds of gas drifted over their homes before they started choking, panicking, and going blind.

"It smells like benzene," said the policeman, as if that piece of wisdom would reassure me.

I was later told the odor could be from a chemical used to make Sevin, the pesticide then manufactured at the plant by U.S.-based Union Carbide Corporation.   Continued...

<p>Alistair Scrutton REUTERS/Handout</p>