Page last updated at 00:04 GMT, Friday, 4 December 2009

Untouched Bhopal offers tourism potential

By Jorn Madslien
BBC News, Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh

Bhimbetka rock shelter
Bhopal's world heritage sites have yet to be discovered by mass tourism

Sunset at the Bhimbetka rock shelters on the outskirts of Bhopal offers a glimpse into how people used to live in central India 100,000 years ago.

The earliest traces of human life in India have been discovered here. Inside natural caves there are impressive rock paintings, some of them thousands of years old, depicting hunters or warriors mounted on elephants.

Bhimbetka rock painting
The Bhimbetka rock paintings are thousands of years old

The caves, which have been designated a Unesco World Heritage Site, lie on a hilltop surrounded by the sort of jungle that Rudyard Kipling wrote about in his books.

Yet there are only about a dozen or so visiting tourists here, none of them foreign.

The central Indian state, Madhya Pradesh, and its capital city, Bhopal, are not known as Kipling country.

Bhopal's claim to fame remains a deadly industrial accident, often described as the worst in the world, a quarter of a century after it happened.

Desperate poverty

Child living in the slum outside the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal
There are 6.4 million malnourished children under five in Madhya Pradesh

On the steppes that surround the Bhimbetka hill top, many have lives that seem only marginally removed from those of their ancestors, both in terms of geography and in terms of modern comforts.

Tribal people make up at least a fifth of the population in Madhya Pradesh, much more according to some estimates.

But members of tribes are not the only ones here who live marginal lives here.

The state, which is roughly the size of the UK, is extremely poor, with 37% of its population living below the national poverty line, according to the UK's Department for International Development.

There are 6.4 million malnourished children under five years in Madhya Pradesh, more than the total number of children in the UK, so every hour of every day 17 children die unnecessarily here, according to the department.

Not welcome

This was the state that Union Carbide left in a hurry after the 1984 gas leak from its factory killed thousands.

Mock Dow advert in the Chingari Rehabilitation Centre for disabled children born to parents exposed to the gas
Dow Chemicals is seen as a symbol of unwanted multinationals

Locals, though they resent the way the firm fled without first cleaning up the mess it had caused, do not regret its departure.

At the Chingari Rehabilitation Centre for disabled children born to parents exposed to the gas, a home-made mock Dow advert carries the title Toxic Trespass and a declaration: "We make poisons for every part of your body."

Seated on the floor below the poster, a little boy in wearing a woolly hat coughs. He looks like a five-year-old. I am told he is 12. Next door, a worried-looking mother looks on as a physiotherapist treats the limp limbs of her tiny daughter. I am told she has epilepsy and is mentally ill.

Dow Chemicals, the current owner of Union Carbide, points to how it has paid $470m in compensation as part of an out-of-court settlement with the government of India reached in 1989.

Union Carbide itself, meanwhile, says "the Bhopal plant was owned and operated by Union Carbide India". Its 51% stake in the subsidiary was sold after the accident.

Union Carbide factory, Bhopal
Initial deaths (3-6 December): more than 3,000 - official toll
Unofficial initial toll: 7,000-8,000
Total deaths to date: over 15,000
Number affected: Nearly 600,000
Compensation: Union Carbide paid $470m in 1989

Source: Indian Supreme Court, Madhya Pradesh government, Indian Council of Medical Research

"As a result of the sale of its shares in UCIL, Union Carbide retained no interest in - or liability for - the Bhopal site," the firm says in a statement.

People in Bhopal do not accept that selling the factory relieves the parent company of responsibility. To them, the firm has become a symbol of how multinational companies can destroy rather than improve the lives of locals.

"What our country has learnt from Bhopal is that multinationals are allowed to come in and pollute, but when it comes to a time of taking responsibility it is the Indian subsidiary - usually underfunded, usually undercapitalised - that has to pay," according to Rachna Dhingra, campaigner for the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal.

"They do nothing for local people. They only look after their own bottom line."

Poverty reduction

If multinational companies are not welcome, the feeling is mutual. They do not really want to come here either. Union Carbide was the last one to make a substantial investment here.

But if multinational corporations are not to be part of the solution as Madhya Pradesh struggles to arise from poverty, then alternatives must be found.

Industrialist Jacob Mani, chief operating officer of Hindustan Electro Graphite, the largest company here, is a man who thinks clearly during times of crisis.

Madhya Pradesh tourism boat
There are not many foreign tourists in Bhopal

On the cold night of the gas leak, survivors were running past his factory to escape the gas. He took them in, his workers lighting a huge pyre of pallets to help keep them warm. He then spent the next four days in the city's hospital.

Now, as Madhya Pradesh is facing its own crisis, Mr Mani believes the fact that industrial development has largely escaped much of the state could turn out to be its biggest asset.

The state's unspoilt nature, its jungles and wildlife, and Bhopal's tremendous lakes, combined with historic and world heritage sites such as the Bhimbetka rock shelters could provide a haven for tourists from all over the world, he insists.

"I have travelled the world," he says. "Once I went on a guided boat trip on Lake Geneva where we were shown a woman who lived alone in a house full of cats.

"That's supposed to be a tourist attraction? Here, we have tigers instead of cats."

Few facilities

Yawar Rashid, a member of the royal Muslim dynasty that used to rule Bhopal for hundreds of years, agrees that Madhya Pradesh is attractive to tourists.

Madhya pradesh
The unspoilt nature could become Bhopal's best asset

But at the moment there is not enough infrastructure for them, he points out.

His newly opened Reni Pani jungle lodge, some 90 miles south-east of Bhopal, is one of only two in the Satpura National Park, he says.

Yet Shivraj Singh Chouhan, chief minister in Madhya Pradesh, is optimistic.

"The Bhopal you see today is not the same as the one that was destroyed 25 years ago," he says.

"It has the power to emancipate itself and I still believe it is the most beautiful capital city in India."

And once the world discovers the beauty of Bhopal's impressive lakes, once they come to visit these jungles, which are so large they are second only to the Amazon, there is every chance that tourism becomes a vital source of foreign earnings for the poverty-struck state.

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