Nov 26, 2014

Bhopal - Thirty Years Later

Thirty years are enough to heal wounds and rebuild lives. But for the people of Bhopal, their past haunts them and clouds their future. From the photographs of long lost loved ones on their walls, to the constant trips to hospitals, every day comes with a reminder of 3rd December, 1984.

“I lost my son and husband...people continue to die.
 There is poison in our bodies.”
 - Shamshad Begum Survivor and activist
That day, poisonous methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas leaked from the plant of Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) and killed up to 10,000 people. Hundreds of thousands more were left with permanent disabilities. The effects have now trickled down to the second generation.

BusinessLine travelled to Bhopal on the 30th anniversary of the industrial disaster and found a city that was helpless about its past but was clinging on to a slim hope of a better future.

A night with no end

As one walks down Gali Number 3 (street number 3) in JP Nagar, it is hard not to imagine the scenes here on that fateful night thirty years ago.

It was past midnight. Most were already asleep in this cluster of thatched houses that ran along the boundary of the UCC plant. A few were sitting along the narrow lanes; chatting after watching a late-night movie on Doordarshan, the state channel.

It was about 1am, when they first got the smell. “What is it? Is someone burning chillies in this hour?” Their eyes had started burning. But it got worse. The smell grew stronger, foul and revolting. Those awake soon started complaining of breathlessness, many started vomiting. Their shouts and the spreading stench awakened the rest from their slumber. Soon the lanes and the unpaved roads were teeming with people, confused, scared and angry. Mothers were running with babies on their shoulders and some were dragging their half-awake children.

“It is the plant, gas is leaking from the plant,” someone finally shouted. But in the chaos, none knew where to run. Within minutes people started falling on the ground, frothing at the mouth; others couldn’t open their eyes. By the time the warning siren from the plant went off at 2.30am bodies had started piling on the streets of ‘old’ Bhopal.

The moments were captured in black and white photos. The photos were stark - bodies dumped in trucks, some of the piles being burnt, dead cattle strewn across the streets. One photo showed a toddler lying next to his mother, both dead and their mouths frothing.

Death walked Gali Number 3.

A broken family

The cluster has now become a shanty town. Many of the thatched houses have become multi-storeyed. In one of the houses lives Shamshad Begum. The door to the ground floor is locked but a narrow flight of steps leads to the second floor. The floor consists of two small rooms and a kitchen. A bed occupied the first room; someone is sleeping, under a blanket. In the second room a mat is laid beside a fridge. Nearby a cooler is on, but its fan is barely turning.

A teenaged-girl comes out of the kitchen and without asking anything says, “Please sit, I will call ammi (mother).” Surely, the family is used to visitors.

Begum soon comes down from the third floor. Dressed in a spotless salwar-kameez with a necklace of pearls around her neck, Begum is polite but informal, instantly making a stranger comfortable. She smiles, nods her head and starts off in what looks like an effortless, practised way.

“We were staying in this same house. Then it was just the ground floor. We were sleeping - me, my husband, mother-in-law, two daughters and a son. We woke up due to the smell of the gas,” Begum recounts. Like others in the neighbourhood, the family also decided to flee. “But my mother-in-law was unwell and couldn’t run. My son wanted to stay back with her,” When they got back early next morning, her mother-in-law and son could barely breathe. Both were rushed to the hospital but it was too late. Begum’s mother-in-law died at 9am and her son Raja passed away two hours later. Begum was all of 22 then.

“The gas leak destroyed my family. My husband developed lung problem and he died in 2007. I have five daughters. “Mera ab vansh nahin hain (with no son, the family tree is broken),” Begum laments. The 52 year-old shows files of neatly organised photos of her son Raja and paper clippings, many of which have her pictures. “I have been an activist since then. The government has failed us,” she adds. On the terrace Begum points out the Union Carbide plant not very far away. Like an activist shouting slogans on the road, she says: “The company has blood on its hands. Many families in this colony were wiped off.”

Despite her loss, many among the affected say Begum is one of the luckier ones. She got ₹8 lakh each as compensation for the death of her son and mother-in-law. The government also allotted her a house in the nearby “Housing Board Colony” meant for gas victims. She sold it a few years ago to marry off one of her daughters. “I have used the money for my daughters’ weddings. I still have ₹4 lakh left in the bank and live off the interest from it. It is against my religion (to earn from interest), but I have no choice,” says the mother. She has also rented out the ground floor for ₹700 a month.

Begum is now fighting to get compensation for her youngest daughter Noor Jahan, the teenager in the kitchen. The soon-to-be-married 19 year-old is wrecked by stomach aches. Though tests haven’t shown any abnormality, Noor Jahan constantly complaints of the ache. “It is because of the gas. But the government is not providing her compensation. I have shown all the papers as proof,” says Begum.

She is not alone. Her fellow victim-turned-activist Sobha Sohini lives nearby. Her husband died in 2012 after suffering from a chest problem after he was exposed to the gas leak. The 62 year-old now lives alone in a rented house in old Bhopal. “Till now I have got compensation of just ₹10,000. But as per government notification, I should get a total of ₹8 lakh,” says Sohini referring to the 2010 Union Cabinet notification that had hiked compensation.

A city in pain

Begum and Sohini live in Old Bhopal, the historical part of the Madhya Pradesh capital. Some historians trace origins of the city to King Bhoja of the 11{+t}{+h} century. The modern city was formed by an Afghan soldier Dost Mohammed Khan in the 17{+t}{+h} century. This part of the city retains remnants of its history in its architecture, language and cuisine. But some of this old-world charm is now lost in the unruly traffic on the narrow roads and the crowded, dusty neighbourhoods.

The newer half looks the better off. Broad roads, clubs, planned colonies and shopping streets with outlets of latest brands make it one of the upcoming urban markets in the country.

The difference might not have been this stark 30 years ago. But the Bhopal Gas Tragedy of 1984 reinforced it.

When 40 tonnes of MIC leaked out of one of the tanks in the Union Carbide plant, located in old Bhopal the most vulnerable were the one lakh people such as Begum and her family who were living within one km radius. According to government figures, the gas spread to 36 of the 56 wards under the Bhopal Municipal Corporation. While there is a wide disparity between the official and unofficial estimates of those killed in the tragedy, government says in total 5,59,835 people were affected. Those unaffected (rest of the 8.94 lakh population in 1984) belonged to new Bhopal.

“You will not find one family here that is not affected by the gas,” says Naresh Kumar Rajput, an auto driver. Rajput suffers from a kidney ailment and has till now received ₹50,000 from the government as compensation. “Sir, do you know when we will get the rest of the amount?” he asks. His peer Aleem Khan, who has been driving an auto for the past 32 years in Bhopal, lifts his shirt to reveal a scar running along the right lower back. “I don’t have one kidney,” he says. He too is waiting for the compensation.

Studies by the government-run Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) have documented significant impact on the health of the locals. Over the years, an increasing number of ailments related to lung, kidney and heart have been reported. “We have several patients with menstrual irregularity and polycystic ovary syndrome that can lead to infertility,” says gynaecologist Tapasya Prasad, who sits at a clinic run by Sambhavana Trust. The Trust was founded by Satinath Sarangi, a social activist in the city. Equally serious impact might have been made in the minds of the locals. “There are many cases of digestive complaints, anaemia, insomnia, headache and stomach ache. A few of these cases are unexplained… It is now imprinted in the mind of the people here that they are not normal because of the gas tragedy,” says Roopa Baddi, the Ayurvedic specialist at the Sambhavana clinic. This might explain the stomach ache of Begum’s daughter Noor Jahan.

Another consequence has been the impact on the next generation of gas victims. At the rehabilitation clinic run by Chingari Trust – founded by two gas victims turned social activists Rasheeda Bee and Champa Devi - 700 children are registered with health problems that range from cerebral palsy to hemiplegia (weakness of the left or right side of the body). “The clinic is for children affected by the gas tragedy. About 200 children come everyday for different kinds of therapy,” says Syed Tabish Ali of the Trust.

Farida comes here daily with her two sons - Usman, 29, and Azhar, 15. Both suffer from muscle dystrophy. “√úsman was fine till his 19{+t}{+h} year. But suddenly his muscles started weakening. Now he can’t even brush his teeth without help,” says Farida. She now brings her sons to the clinic for physiotherapy sessions.

“It hasn’t made much change. But without the sessions, it is worse,” says the mother. None in her family has ever suffered from this disease. Does she think it is because of the gas leak? “I don’t know. People say it is,” says Farida.

Ambiguity in the causes of diseases is increasing in Bhopal because of lack of credible medical research and records. Clinics of Sambhavana and Chingari are among the few sources of reliable data on patients, diseases and long-term impact of the gas leak. While Chingari has the data base on 700 children, the clinic run by Sambhavana has records on over 30,000 patients. But that is not even 10 per cent of the affected population.

Lack of records

“…over the years, there was little attempt by the ICMR and the State Government to systematically identify all the gas-victims, provide them proper medical-care, and monitor their health-status,” write ND Jayaprakash and C Sathyamala in a special edition bulletin by Medico Friend Circle. Jayaprakash is convenor of Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahyog Samiti and Sathyamala, a member of the advisory committee on Bhopal set up by the Supreme Court in 2004. Medico Friend Circle is an NGO.

After repeated directives from the Supreme Court and a Union Cabinet resolution of June 2010, ICMR set up the National Institute for Research in Environmental Health in 2011. “There are plans to conduct studies on the health condition of the survivors, genetic changes and congenital defects in children,” says Manoj Pandey, Director, Bhopal Memorial Hospital Research Centre.

The Memorial Hospital, which was one of the seven that were set up for the gas victims, has faced criticism for having outdated equipment.

“The medication given is not proper,” says Abdul Jabbar, founder of Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan. Pandey admits that there has been a delay in buying new machines and many positions for doctors are lying vacant. “That is changing. Many of the equipment are coming in. For quicker recruitment of doctors, we have tweaked the system in a way that we can conduct two rounds of hiring at a time,” he says.

Ground zero

The main gate into the UCC plant is open. About 100 metres ahead is another gate. Weeds and bushes seem to have taken over the 92-acre campus. A stray dog passes by. A policeman emerges from a one of the dilapidated buildings. “You can’t go inside,” he says. Up ahead there are more abandoned buildings and the plant with labyrinthine pipe system. “Does anyone come here?” The policeman shakes his head. “We are the only ones here. We work in shifts,” says the policeman as one of his colleagues comes in on a bike.

JP Nagar abuts the long boundary wall of the plant. But close to Gali Number 3, it has a huge hole. Two men on the bike stop by, enter the plant premises and relieve themselves. Inside, buffaloes are grazing. Up head, children are playing cricket. Not far from them, a group of men is sitting playing cards under a tree. A few empty bottles lying beside them.

While there are murmurs in the local administration about plans to make a memorial on the site, activists like Jabbar complain about the lack of government action to dispose the toxic waste that is still lying in the plant premises.

“The toxic waste has been lying there since 1984. According to a report prepared by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute and the National Geophysical Research Institute the quantity of contaminated soil in and around the plant is over,11,00,000 tonnes,” says Jabbar. The activist, who lost his parents and a brother in the aftermath of the gas leak and suffers from lungs ailments, adds that the toxic has seeped into the groundwater.

“We have started the trial run for treating the toxic waste inside the plant,” says RA Khandelwal, Commissioner, Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation Department. “We also have plans to treat about 1,000 tonnes of soil contaminated due to a landfill within the plant premises,” he adds.

Khandelwal brushes aside complaints that the State Government is not spending enough for the victims. “The government spends ₹100 crore every year through the hospitals itself,” he adds. He also refutes allegations that the Government is intentionally not providing additional compensation to people, as mandated by the 2010 decision of the Union Cabinet.

“We need to check if the applications are valid. As we found out, most were fakes,” he says. “Few know that the government has spent ₹3,000 crore till now in compensation and providing medical care to the victims. That is much higher than the $470 million (then equal to about ₹750 crore) that came after the settlement with Union Carbide in 1989,”adds the officer.

Hope Floats

While activists like Jabbar admit that protests and demonstrations no longer attract the kind of crowd that used to come out earlier, the likes of Sobha Sohini can’t afford to lose hope; this despite the issue of compensation taking political and communal overtones during the recent general elections. “A few BJP leaders had suggested that most of the people getting compensation were Muslims,” says an activist who didn’t want to be named. One of the leaders had also promised voters in 20 wards in New Bhopal of compensation.

“But the gas did not spread to New Bhopal,” says the activist. Adds Begum: “The government can’t treat us like insects. We should get compensation.”

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