It is past midnight inside the dank labour room at the Sultania Janada Hospital, Bhopal. Three attendants wash the tiny infant and routinely hold him up to give his mother her first glimpse.
“Tumhara ladka paida hua hai (You have a son),” says one nurse as she pats the child to make him cry. There is no response. In the dim light, the skin of the child looks macerated and bluish. Within minutes, a senior doctor is called in. He looks down at the curled figure, asks for the mother’s medical record and scrawls in the column for details of the birth: “Stillborn boy weighing four pounds, born to the mother”. Then he rushes out to the maternity ward to attend to another patient about to deliver. Outside there is silence as the father looks expectantly at the white-clothed figures washing hands in the waiting room. Then comes the sound of weeping from beyond the green curtains of the labour room.
“Yeh bhi gas kand ka baccha paida hua hai, (Here is another child of the gas tragedy)” says the nurse as she shows the father the shrivelled face of his newborn.
With these words, written in July 1985, the Indian magazine Sunday opened its report on The Babies of Bhopal, describing the situation as reporter Ritu Sarin found it, seven months after “that night”. The grief of these parents was drowned in a universal horror, for hundreds of parents were to be told,
“Your child is another victim of the gas“.
In a sample of 865 women who lived within a kilometre of the plant and who were pregnant at the time of the gas leak, 43% of the pregnancies did not result in live births. Of the 486 live births, 14 percent of babies died in the first 30 days compared to a death rate of 2.6 to 3 percent for previous deliveries in the two years preceding the accident in the same group of women. Source: Varma, D.R, ‘Epidemiological and experimental studies on the effects of methyl isocyanate on the course of pregnancy.’ Environmental Health Perspectives 1987
But getting through the first month was no guarantee of survival. As Sunday magazine reported: “Out of every three children born to women who were pregnant on the night of the disaster…only one survives. Many are born deformed.” A foetus showing birth defects that continue to manifest among the gas-affected communities in Bhopal. “Children are being born with deformities like cleft palate, three eyes, all fingers joined.” (The Lancet, 14 September 2002)
The true death rate for children who were exposed to Union Carbide’s gases in their mother’s wombs was nearly 50 percent. This horrifying figure and the monstrous births that had begun taking place were hushed-up by panic-stricken officials. Ritu Sarin found an unwillingness among government bureaucrats and senior doctors to speak about what was happening. But…
“…attendants and midwives in the hospital tell the truth about the bizarre observations of childbirth these days. Travelling in the ambulance which carries cord blood samples, placentae and ailing children to Hamidia Hospital, one learns that four to five children are dying every day only at the Sultana Janana Hospital with more than ten placentae being sent for experiments to the Gandhi Medical College. There are sorry tales of mothers who have lost their offspring or who are bringing up deformed infants, the shocking accounts given by the junior staff of hospitals, midwives and nurses who insist they have never seen any birth-and-death cycle of this kind before. Against this is the official version of births and deaths and accounts of senior doctors who are under instructions not to talk. There is an attempt to cover-up disclosures of the nature of the deformities or abnormalities being recorded and an attempt to declare the situation has been normal till date.
Ritu Sarin could not have known how disturbingly prophetic her next remark would turn out to be.
“And nobody knows if the trauma will end with this generation, or the next.”
That was written in 1985. Here is an extract from an article published in September 2002 in the Lancet, quoting recent research from Bhopal:
“Children are being born with deformities like cleft palate, three eyes, all fingers joined, one extra finger, one testicle, different skull shapes and Down’s syndrome”, says N Ganesh, a researcher at the Jawaharlal Nehru Cancer Hospital and Research Centre (JNCHRC). Ganesh drew his sample from gas-hit areas designated as “grade A” for the severity of MIC exposure. “My study is only indicative of the situation in Bhopal”, he says. “We need to do longterm genetic studies, because some of the abnormalities may be due to consanguineous marriages prevalent among the local Muslim community.” (Source: The Lancet, Volume 360, Number 9336 14 September 2002)
That these facts were published at all is something of a miracle, because officials in Bhopal to this day maintain their mystifying conspiracy of silence. Eighteen months before the Lancet article appeared, Tim Edwards, a researcher, and photographer Andy Moxon, were in Bhopal and talked to Ganesh. The following is a previously-unpublished account of that conversation:
“When I visited the Jawarlhal Nehru Cancer Hospital for the first time in April 2001, it was at the behest of N Ganesh, a medical researcher working on the final stages of his PhD. Andy Moxon, a photographer I was working with in Bhopal, had met Ganesh on the Punjab Mail during a journey from Bombay to Bhopal. Ganesh told Andy that he was undertaking research on the longterm genetic effects of MIC exposure, and had invited the two of us to see some of his work.
“The JNCH appears impressively up to date, with clean cool corridors, broad, well-aired wards and state of the art equipment. Ganesh’s lab was exceedingly well equipped, almost cluttered with contemporary medical laboratory equipment. Racks of test tubes on the benches, a large refridgerator, charts on the walls, a machine utilising centrifugal force to separate blood cells, medical posters, and, in pride of place, an electron microscope. Ganesh seemed pleased to be able to show us around his working environment, but he also seemed a little jumpy, especially so when footsteps passed in the corridor outside.
“The name of Ganesh’s project was Genetic risk evaluation of MIC – clinical and cyto-immunological studies in population exposed in Bhopal. He explained that the subjects of the photos he was about to show us were born to parents heavily exposed to MIC. They were all from areas close to the factory. The cases had come to light in government hospitals over the previous few years, and Ganesh had had exclusive access to them.
“He had mapped out diagrams of the family history of each subject. There were photographs of chromosomes attached to each of these case files, and Ganesh pointed out ominous breaks and abnormalities within the material. We were then shown about 30 photos – taken from 2000 onwards – of young children born within gas-exposed families. The images revealed birth deformities, the majority of them so monstrous, so disturbing that I kept revisiting them in my mind’s eye for weeks after. The first pictures, amateurly shot, with a garish fullness to the colour, presented a sequence of retinoblastinomas, a type of cancer that rages just behind the eye socket of its host, making the eye horrifically swollen, misshapen and bounded with livid tissue. None of the children affected were older than six. In some of the photos, with one half of the face being unmarked, there was a jolting bifurcation between monster and ordinary child. In others the deformity wrought by the cancer tugged upon already imperfect features. In one photo a baby months old was hidden behind two of these grotesque afflictions.
A pile of Sevin (carbaryl) rocks rotting into the open ground, where each monsoon washes it further into the groundwater. Sevin is the trade name of the pesticide that was made at the Union Carbide factory
“There was no restraint in the horror of these images. Next there were genital distortions, followed by gross limb deformities (one girl held up a foot five times larger than the one on which she stood – another flexed fingers that protruded from her shoulders), and tiny babies with hyenchephalitis, whereby the skull swells and bloats, throwing the body out of proportion and squashing down the features. Finally there was a boy with doughy skin, lying in what looked like an incubator, looking past the camera through a large, single, milky eye situated near the middle of his forehead. It was a relief when the photos ended. Ganesh said that he didn’t have the resources to collect more case studies but he knew that there were many more out there. Apparently the director of the hospital wasn’t giving Ganesh much support on his project. Not only that, he didn’t really want outsiders to know about Ganesh’s research.
“I asked Ganesh if, in his opinion, the congenital abnormalities had resulted from gas exposure. ‘Certainly’, he said. ‘But what I have is not enough to publish the data.’
“I thought about the sparseness of the known research on the matter. An Indian Council of Medical Research study from the 1980s found that 15 in 1000 babies born after the gas showed congenital malformations. In a study ranging one to ten kilometres from the Carbide factory, 12 months after exposure 71% of the exposed population showed evidence of chromosomal damage compared with 21% in a control population. Breaks and gaps were also found in the chromosomes of exposed people three years after the gas. After that, no systematic research had been published.
In Union Carbide’s laboratory, bottles of reagents are abandoned. Greenpeace found mercury pollution at the site in some places at 6,000,000 times the ‘safe’ level.
“As we came out of the lab and I asked Ganesh more questions, he seemed to get more nervous. It wouldn’t look good if the director knew that he had brought us in here. We moved off to talk to people in the hospital’s MIC wards, which were funded by a Rs 1 crore grant from the Department of Gas Relief and Rehabilitation. But the Director quickly did find out we were there, and summoned my colleague Andy into his office for a half-hour dressing down. Andy said nothing about Ganesh or the photos we had seen. We were asked to leave the hospital.
“A few weeks later I took an ABC Nightline filmmaker to meet Ganesh at a neutral location: the museum of Hamidia Hospital where, among other gruesome exhibits, there were several malformed foetuses kept in jars in formaldehyde. One of them, blue in colour, looked scarcely human; the rear of its skull was small and squared off, whereas its frontal lobes were exaggerated and prominent. Ganesh told us that it was a gas baby.
- Mercury was used in the 1-napthol plant as a liquid bearing, but when the automated machinery ceased to work, labourers were hired to carry sacks of chemicals on their backs and tip them into the hopper with their bare hands. No warnings were ever given to them about the dangers of exposure.
“I asked Ganesh to tell the reporter what he had told me earlier. He didn’t, instead talking generally about cancers, case studies that were not MIC related. Every time we tried to bring Ganesh back to the birth defects, back to the subject of MIC-related health consequences, he would make increasingly nervous and erratic statements that led us away from the topic. I got the sense of a man deeply afraid for his job.
“My suspicion, from these encounters and other stories I had already heard, was that information pointing to the serious longterm consequences of MIC exposure was being systematically suppressed by local officials. It was not so many years back that national officials were implicated in the same business, when the programme of ICMR studies were inexplicably shelved, many unfinished and a ban placed on their publication by the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers. The ban was lifted in 1996, silently, but the studies have yet to receive the benefit of public scrutiny.
“Before leaving Bhopal I met Dr Ghazala, a paediatrician at Hamidia Hospital, gas-affected herself and with an active concern for the welfare of Bhopal’s survivors. Her comments were unequivocal: “The government doctors won’t say a word about gas problems. They are under orders not to talk about these things. If they talk to the press they will say there are no problems.”
“The muddying of information on the condition of gas survivors by Indian authorities has quite a history. The settlement of $470 million, struck behind closed doors with representatives of Union Carbide, was based upon grossly under-calculated figures for the dead and maimed, figures that are still quoted as fact by the company and by careless journalists. The phenomena only throws up questions and more questions. Why would a government so greatly weaken its own position in a settlement dispute? Why would it prevent medical information on the gas being publicly available, information that could benefit the efforts of physicians working with the aftermath of gas poisoning? Why indeed, even 18 years later, was there an official climate of secrecy and cover-ups concerning what a foreign company had done to the very people that the same officials are assigned to represent and protect?”
Tim Edwards, Researcher and BMA Trustee, December 2002
All photographs: Andy Moxon