Bhopal's economy was stalled by the 1984 gas leak by Jorn Madslien and Ben Richardson

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published Published on Nov 30, 2009   modified Modified on Nov 30, 2009

Twenty-five years ago this week, a gas leak at a Union Carbide chemicals plant in Bhopal released 40 tonnes of poisonous gases over the Indian city, killing thousands and injuring tens of thousands.

To this day, many of the survivors live in crowded shacks in the slums that line the old factory walls.

The people here are not the only ones who have been affected, however.

The leak, which is often described as the world's worst industrial accident, also knocked the city's economic development back years, if not decades, causing widespread and long-lasting poverty well beyond the areas affected by the initial gas cloud.

"We were growing, and then the Union Carbide accident took place," recalls Rajendra Kothari, Bhopal's resident director of PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which covers 10 Indian states.

"The moment the accident took place, the whole society and the state government became focused on resettling the victims. The focus was not economic development, the focus was on getting a normal life."

Left behind

Inside the now derelict Union Carbide factory, the main structure resembles a five-storey rusting Meccano set that is slowly being reclaimed by the sort of jungles that Kipling wrote about in his books; a poignant memorial for a shattered dream.

Ahead of the accident, Union Carbide had offered hope of a prosperous future, not only for the city but for the entire state, Madhya Pradesh, where Bhopal is the capital city.

The pesticides produced at the factory were designed to help Indian farmers produce more food as part of a "green revolution" sweeping the country.

And hopes were high that the mere presence of such a large, global company would attract large-scale industrial investment to the city.

The gas leak changed everything.

Since Union Carbide there has been no major investment by foreign companies here, according to Mr Kothari.

Stigmatised city

To this day, anyone from the outside considering Bhopal, whether as a holiday destination or a place to invest, will be overwhelmed by stories about the plight of the gas leak victims, the environmental degradation around the old factory, and a bitter, very public dispute about who should be blamed.

"You're quite quickly put off," laments Yawar Rashid, a member of the royal Mirazi Khel dynasty that ruled the Muslim state Bhopal for hundreds of years and who runs the Jehan Numa Palace hotel.

"Investment hasn't been coming to Bhopal because of the stigma."

Hence, while the rest of India has been enjoying an economic boom, Bhopal and Madhya Pradesh have been left behind in the economic race.

Resilience and strength

That is not to say everyone in Bhopal is poor.

The city itself has become a noisy, traffic-choked centre for artisan workers who make intricate gold jewellery or handmade sarees in cramped workshops.

On the outskirts of the city, two industrial areas have emerged - in Mandideep and in Govindpura - and although neither has attracted significant investment from the outside, they are both growing fast.

But the city has nevertheless failed to create enough jobs for poor people who have flocked in from the countryside to look for work. Since the gas leak, Bhopal's population has trebled to about 1.8 million.

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan is optimistic nevertheless.

"I don't think there is any need for an image change for Bhopal, even after the disaster, because of the city's resilience and strength which emerged from it," he says.

"The people of Bhopal have a passion to work and rise."

Gas victims

But there is also another side to Bhopal, explains Mr Kothari.

"There is the other group, which has remained poor and uneducated, has poor health and lacks opportunity," he says.

"Ultimately, the people who are not growing and who are the poorest in the city are those who have suffered in the Union Carbide accident and have not received that helping hand to grow."

The gas victims, in turn, fall into two categories: Those who inhaled the gas that night 25 years ago and those suffering ailments after drinking water polluted by the accident.

It might seem incredible that not more is done to help them and to prevent their situation from getting worse, but the gas victims' fight for attention faces stiff competition from millions of equally poor and desperate people across the state.

Widespread hunger

Madhya Pradesh's economy is growing at a rate of about 4% per year. Such a growth rate would be hailed as fantastic anywhere in the already industrialised world, but here it is far too slow.

There are more hungry people in India than anywhere else in the world, though Madhya Pradesh is the only state in this vast country where the level of hunger is "extremely alarming", according to the India State Hunger Index.

Six in 10 children in the state are undernourished, and more people suffer from hunger here than in Ethiopia or Sudan, according to the index, which was published in October 2008.

The wealth gap between Madhya Pradesh and other states in India is also widening by the day, with the rest of India's economy growing at about twice the rate.

Taking action

"Bhopal has lagged behind, or Madhya Pradesh has lagged behind, because we have suffered through tragedies," says Mr Kothari.

But now, he insists, it is time to look beyond that.

"How long can we survive looking for aid in the name of the gas tragedy?" he asks.

"If I go and tell my relatives all the time that I am suffering, they might have pity and give me some sustainable money, but they will not give me money to provide me economic strength. I will have to make an effort myself.

"The city cannot survive on charity. The city will have to make an effort and rise to the opportunities available, make that extra effort to earn that livelihood and make the city grow," he says.

Better future

Chief Minister Chouhan insists he is doing what he can.

"Investment and development will only happen when we have the infrastructure for it," he says.

"We need three things in terms of infrastructure, which we think will be crucial," he continues, citing roads, water and power.

Bhopal's road network is being developed, as are road links to other major cities, the state government is working to improve drinking water and to provide water for rural irrigation, and new power plants are being built, he says.

"If there is electricity and water, then investment will come in automatically," he says.

Bhopal is also emerging as an education hub, and efforts are under way to develop the tourism industry, he adds.

For the poor in Bhopal, such initiatives may offer hope of a better future, though it will take a long time to shed the city's tainted image as the place where the gas leak took place.

Jorn Madslien is features editor for the BBC News website's business pages. Ben Richardson is editor of India Business Report, BBC World. This feature is the first in a series that will look at Bhopal, its economy and its development potential 25 years after the Union Carbide gas leak.

BBC, 29 November, 2009,

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