At the 29th anniversary, last December, a young reporter and law student, Sonam Saigal, visited Bhopal to witness for herself the terrible, ongoing disaster which sees the ground water, for miles around, contaminated with highly toxic chemicals dumped by the Union Carbide factory.
In Sonam’s own words: “I was born after the Bhopal Gas Tragedy took place, didn’t know about it for years. But when I did get to know, I just kept reading and watching the news about it. Last year, something ticked off and I said I must go and see what’s actually happening out there. As a journalist, the least I can do is see, ask and write. But all of this is already being done, so what is my contribution? Therefore, I decided to take the legal route. I am a law student and will complete my education next year June. The laws of the country has failed the victims too, but for now I am trying to find some refuge for them under its ambit. And the fight continues with one more to fight for them.”
The Bhopal Gas tragedy in 1984 rendered tens of thousands of people living near the guilty, but not convicted factory, orphans. Sonam Saigal narrates the ordeal of the people living their fate, by consuming the long declared ‘unfit for consumption’ water.
At five past midnight on 2 December 1984, the Indian pesticide plant of the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) in Bhopal, leaked 27 tons of the deadly gas methyl isocyanate (MIC). Half a million people living in the vicinity were exposed to the gas that night and 10,000 are believed to have died within 72 hours. Up to 25,000 people exposed to the gas are estimated to have died till date in one of the world`s worst industrial disasters. Twenty nine years later, the survivors of the tragedy are still struggling for their basic rights to clean drinking water, besides medical relief and adequate compensation.
It is appalling that 346 tonnes of toxic waste is still lying in the factory premises as the government authorities have not been able to decide on the best way to safely dispose it. The soil and groundwater in the neighbourhood of the factory site is highly contaminated and the water has been declared unfit for human consumption, but in the absence of clean and safe drinking water, people are forced to consume it.
In Kanchi Chola, a gas affected area, Jyoti Ben, a local resident, says, “We know this water is unfit to drink but what do we do, we don’t have an alternative source of water. Year after year we are promised clean drinking water by the local councillors of the area but nothing is being done.”
“Don`t we deserve clean drinking water, the most basic necessity?”, asks Kajal Ben of the same area. “Relatives don`t come to our house to stay, as we can`t even offer them clean drinking water. They fear their children will fall sick. Even if someone comes to our house, they bring their own bottle of water, it is very humiliating.”
Post the tragedy, the water available in their homes has a layer of oil on it. You can skim the oil off the water. No amount of boiling or any other tactic helps remove the toxins.
In 2009, a comprehensive survey was conducted by a local NGO, ‘Sambhavna’ in 15 communities surrounding the UCIL plant site in Bhopal that revealed that the drinking water supply in majority of these communities to be insufficient or, in many cases, contaminated with toxic chemicals. Thousands of residents are lacking access to clean drinking water as the water supply system, installed by the Bhopal Municipal Corporation, is in poor condition while groundwater from private hand pumps and bore wells is of poor quality and/or contaminated with chemicals.
The water supply system consists of large water plastic tanks that are either refilled by surface pipes or by tanker trucks. The system is not properly maintained; many water tanks are broken, water pipes are often ruptured and the water supply from tanker trucks is irregular. Residents try to use private hand pumps and bore wells to meet the demand. However, these private water sources do not provide sufficient water and the water is often of poor quality. In the dry season, many wells stop providing water as the groundwater table lowers. During monsoon, the ground water accessed by hand pumps and bore wells is often muddy and potentially contaminated with coliform bacteria due to sewage water infiltration from the surface. Furthermore, there is serious chemical contamination of groundwater in much of the investigated area.
The current water supply situation within the communities included in this survey is unacceptable. The supply is clearly insufficient and the chemical contaminants present in groundwater has concentrations massively exceeding WHO drinking water guideline values, posing potential health risks to thousands of residents.
Shakira Be from Kazi Camp says, “We have received compensation for injured and the dead. What about medical compensation for those who died after the tragedy due to gas-related diseases? A man in this area died of cancer sometime back. It is difficult to prove that the cancer was caused by drinking toxic water for many years?” She continues, “In the house next door, Nasir, a 23-year-old boy died because his liver stopped functioning. How do you prove that his liver was affected because of the water he was drinking?”
In a preliminary study that was jointly carried out by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), Nagpur, and the National Geophysical Research Institute (NGRI), Hyderabad, during 2009-2010, it was estimated that “the total quantum of contaminated soil requiring remediation amounts to 11,00,000 MT [metric tonnes]”.
“We have to fight for our basic rights. My children who were once healthy cannot even run a few yards without feeling breathless. All the children in my family are born with some sort of breathing problem,” says a teary eyed Anjum Be who lives in New Arif Nagar.
The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) who did a survey in 2009, published a report titled, ‘Contamination of soil and water inside and outside the Union Carbide India Limited’. It stated heavy metals and pesticides were detected in all samples of soil, ground water, vegetables and breast milk around residential areas adjoining the factory premises. Chronic effects of exposure to chemicals cause nervous disorders, increased liver weight and liver tumours. Other chemicals present in water cause depression of central nervous system, respiratory tract and eye irritation, anaemia, skin lesions, vomiting, headaches, anorexia, weight loss, atrophy of the liver, blood dyscrasias, porphyria and chromosomal disorders.
The report further said that the lead present in water can cause several health problems, such as disruption of the biosynthesis of haemoglobin and anaemia, rise in blood pressure, kidney damage, miscarriages and subtle abortions, disruption of nervous systems, brain damage, declined fertility of men through sperm damage, diminished learning abilities of children, behavioral disruptions of children, such as aggression, impulsive behavior and hyperactivity. Lead can even enter a foetus through the placenta of the mother. Because of this it can cause serious damage to the nervous system and the brain of unborn children
Babulal Gaur, who was the Minister for Bhopal Gas Relief and Rehabilitation, had dismissed the CSE report saying, “Who are they to give us advice?”
Preliminary epidemiological data from 100,000 patients at the Sambhavna Clinic, a fully equipped medical centre near the factory site, run by Satinath Sarangi and wife Rachna Dhingra, who have been longtime crusaders for the Bhopal gas victims, suggests birth defects are up to seven times as frequent among those affected by contaminated water as compared to the general population.
In 2012, the Supreme Court had set a three-month deadline for the Madhya Pradesh government to ensure supply of clean drinking water to victims of the tragedy living in settlements around the factory, who have been forced to drink contaminated water for almost 30 years now. The people had been subjected to a “double whammy of diseases,” first because of the gas leak and then because of groundwater contamination, the court had observed.
A report filed by the Indian Institute of Toxicology Research (IITR) in Lucknow had collected 26 samples from around the factory following the apex court’s directive seeking a report on the level of groundwater contamination in the affected areas.
The survivors of the gas disaster had been claiming that the groundwater in areas around the carbide plant was highly contaminated and residents of those localities were drinking that water. Hazardous chemical waste left behind by Union Carbide in the factory premises and solar ponds created to dump chemical waste of the factory was said to be causing contamination of underground water due to seepage, particularly during rainy season. According to the IITR report, the results of the levels of chlorine and nitrate in the samples were found to be higher than permissible.
Today, more than 120,000 people still suffer from ailments caused directly by exposure to MIC or by the subsequent pollution caused by the UCIL plant site. Unsheltered chemicals have been stored on-site for decades and these chemicals continuously leach into soil and groundwater. As a result of the inaction to remove these chemicals, contamination of soil and groundwater in the surrounding communities have become a source of many health problems among residents within these communities.
Mohammad from Bafna Colony says, “New pipes were installed in our homes about five months back. But there is no water supply. Only a few areas have started getting clean water supply. I lost my parents in the gas tragedy, I don’t want to lose my children now or see them grow unhealthy because we have no access to clean drinking water”.
After consuming polluted water the quality of health care in terms of investigation, diagnosis and treatment continue to be abysmal. A proper protocol for treatment of each gas-related ailment has not been evolved even 29 years after the disaster speaks volumes about the apathy of concerned authorities. In short, for all practical purposes, more than five lakh survivors of the disaster continue to remain orphans within the Indian polity.
The Bhopal gas tragedy continues to affect the third generation of people with undiagnosed diseases and consumption of toxic ridden water. The victims still await treatment and justice in the form of clean drinking water and compensation.