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A Photographer Captured What The Bhopal Gas Tragedy Looks Like 30 Years Later

As reported by Amnesty International, 10,000 people died within three days of the disaster. Thirty years on, the total death toll is 22,000.

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On December 3, 1984, there was a major gas leak at the Union Carbide Corp pesticide factory in Bhopal, India.

Amnesty International © Raghu Rai / Magnum Photos

The incident has been recorded as one of the world's worst industrial accidents, killing thousands and leaving thousands more with permanent ailments and disabilities. Pictured above is a victim later identified as as Leela who lived in the Chola colony near the Union Carbide factory.

Photographer Raghu Rai took a series of photos in the days that followed the tragic disaster.

The photos depicted the effect that the gas leak had on the people living around the area, and the adverse effects it has had on the local community that continue till today.

30 years later, with the help of Amnesty International, Rai returned to Bhopal to once again to document how the tragedy has affected the people living there in the long term.

Rai photographed patients at Sambhavna Clinic, a free clinic that was set up by activists to provide vital health care to all those that were affected by the gas leak.

Amnesty International spoke to several of the people living in Bhopal, including Satinath 'Sathyu' Sarangi, who originally went to Bhopal as a volunteer to help out after the tragedy.

Amnesty International © Raghu Rai / Magnum Photos

He currently is one of the founding members of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action as well as the Sambhavna Trust.

Over the last 30 years, Sathyu has been instrumental in helping those that were affected by the gas leak. “The disaster occurred essentially because the government prioritised foreign investment over the life and health of ordinary people,” he says, adding: “The more awareness spreads on the continuing disaster in Bhopal, the more we will move towards achieving what we are still trying to achieve. Most of our hope is bestowed in public support.”

Here's a photograph of Satinath 'Sathyu' Sarangi and Rachna Dhingra, another person who moved to Bhopal to help the survivors.

Amnesty International © Raghu Rai / Magnum Photos

Rachna Dhingra had a job with a multinational management firm in the US, but left it to move to Bhopal in 2003. Since then, she's been helping out wherever she can, becoming a member of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action. “Corporations cannot just come, kill and pollute, and leave without any kind of responsibility,” she said.

Amnesty International also met with Shahzadi Bi, a 60-year-old survivor, and her family.

Shahzadi Bi lived in Blue Moon Colony, which is just a few hundred metres from the now abandoned Union Carbide factory. Her community much like the other 22 that surround the factory is ravaged by water contamination, caused by the fall out of the gas leak. “I am a victim of both disasters – the toxic gas leak and toxicity in drinking water,” she explains. “Everyone has dreams,” she explained, “I too had those. My dream was not about becoming a teacher or doctor… I wished that we would provide a good education to our children… but the gas leak shattered all these dreams.”

Shahzadi now actively participates in campaigning groups, including the Stationary Workers Association and the Bhopal Gas Victims Struggle Committee. “We did many demonstrations and carried out many rallies, burnt many effigies, sat on hunger strikes, carried out two marches on foot from Bhopal to Delhi, in 2006 and 2008,” explains Shahzadi. “In 2006, we raised the issue of toxicity in ground water of these 22 slums. The government listened to us and agreed to provide us clean water from the Narmada pipeline.”

Here's a picture of Shahzadi Bi and her husband standing about 100 meters from her home, at the base of a pond which Union Carbide used to dump factory waste.

Amnesty International © Raghu Rai / Magnum Photos

Shahzadi Bi explains what the night of the deadly gas leak was, “I was vomiting, had severe chest pain and eye irritation,” she said. Her husband's heart was irreparably damaged by the leak. Their children suffered as well, experiencing chronic chest pain. Her two other children, who were born after the 1984 disaster, have also been plagued by recurring illnesses. “My daughter couldn’t conceive for four years after her marriage,” she says, adding: “Doctors had told her clearly that ‘since you have been drinking this toxic water, you will not be able to give birth."

Safreen Khan a second generation affected by the tragedy also spoke to Amnesty International about feeling the need to do her part.

Amnesty International © Raghu Rai / Magnum Photos

She recalls her mother Nafisha being taken away on the night that the disaster took place, only to be brought back home by her father Zabbar Khan when someone noticed she was still breathing.

“People have run out of patience," she says. "They still remember. They still cry and mourn for their family members who died that day. They feel that at least now, our government and the company must listen and take steps, because 30 years is too long… to get justice.”

Rai photographed Dr D K Satpathy, pathologist and former head of the Madhya Pradesh state Medico-Legal Institute, with foetuses of pregnant women who died immediately after the Bhopal gas leak.

Amnesty International © Raghu Rai / Magnum Photos

Dr. Satpathy, recalls the horror that was that nights, “I saw thousands of people lying there. Some were wailing, some were gasping, some were crying. I couldn’t understand what was happening," he says, describing the bodies he saw in the street just outside the hospital. "No country must do hazardous business by compromising human health."

Photographed here is Rampyari Bai, one of the oldest and most persistent survivors of the Bhopal tragedy.

Amnesty International © Raghu Rai / Magnum Photos

At the time of the tragedy, Rampyari was living with her son and seven months pregnant daughter-in-law. As the gas took over their household, her daughter-in-law went into labour, and both mother and child passed away soon after.

Due to the damages caused by the gas leak, Rampyari developed a vicious form of cancer and continues to suffer from breathlessness. But she explains that she will keep on fighting for the people, “I will not leave this task of chasing governments,” she says. “Till my last breath, I will keep fighting.”

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