On the night of Dec. 2-3, 1984, Bhopal suffered one of the worst industrial accidents of modern times. On the edge of town stood a seven-hectare pesticide plant owned by the U.S. company Union Carbide. Around midnight, water passed through a safety valve that had been deactivated and poured into a 13-meter steel tank of methyl isocyanate (MIC). The water caused a superheated reaction, turning the MIC into a deadly gas; the tank ruptured, breaking clean through its concrete housing; and 27 tons of MIC was released into the gentle southerly breeze that made kite-flying Bhopal's favorite sport. Over the next weeks, months and years, Chand and 15,247 others died—often blinded, and poisoned or drowned as the gas turned to liquid in their lungs—and a further 572,173 out of a population that was then 900,000 needed treatment.
Bhopal's tragedy—dreadful enough—was then compounded. In the two decades since the disaster, the survivors have seen a more insidious venom spread across the town. Without a healthy work force, the economy stagnated as businesses and factories such as Chand's ice-cream factory, which had paid for a five-bedroom house and three servants, closed overnight. Replacing them were an army of quacks, fly-by-night nongovernmental organizations and lawyers. After fighting compensation claims in the courts for five years, Union Carbide paid out $470 million, but victims often received only $500 for injuries and $2,000 for deaths. Some widows given new houses on the edge of town by the state government promptly sold them, pocketed the money and moved back to the slums. And this October, when India's Supreme Court ordered the Reserve Bank of India to release the remaining $321 million in compensation funds it still held, retail banks descended on Bhopal offering accounts to anyone who could produce a medical card certifying them as a gas victim.
Abdul Jabbar Khan, of the Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udyog Sanghathan, a group for female victims, says the disaster poisoned Bhopal's soul. "The shame of Bhopal," he says, "is that there's no humanity here today. People began to spend their lives in queues, for ration cards, for hospital, for compensation. We became a city of victims, a city of beggars, with nobody caring for anyone else." Psychiatrist Santosh Tandon, 45, said the "disempowering" effect of the catastrophe, which left a whole city unable to provide for itself, was overwhelming. "The gas took away Bhopal's spirit," he says. He adds many patients developed "compensation neurosis": unable to do anything but wait for help that never came, or was insufficient when it did, they became consumed by bitterness, alienation and a feeling of worthlessness that frequently turned suicidal.
For Shanti, now 60, the past 20 years have been one long revelation about the frailty of community. "I've learned how people really are," she says. "The people who used to work in our factory blank me in the street. Even my relatives didn't want to help me." She says she has learned to adjust to poverty but not to the other changes in Bhopal. "After Kishen died, I faced a lot of problems. So did a lot of families. But people were just asking for money, always money. I was never begging for money. I was begging for love. And Bhopal had none."