June 19, 2021
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Bhopal: 30 Years Later

The Ghosts Of The Gas

The toxic contamination of underground water and soil in and around the abandoned Union Carbide factory continues to kill and maim

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The Ghosts Of The Gas
Greenpeace/ Raghu Rai
The Ghosts Of The Gas

The gory night of December 2-3, 1984 still haunts the memories of the poor inhabitants of JP Nagar slum area, which was unfortunate to have been very close to the infamous Union Carbide plant in Bhopal. Although 30 years have passed, but for Nafiza Bi it seems as if it was just yesterday that the mayhem broke, when she gasped for oxygen, coughed incessantly, her eyes burning as if she had been attacked with pepper spray.

Her old shrivelled skin seems to stretch when she relives the trauma of that night when she and her spouse joined thousands of other people trying to escape the deadly Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) leaking from the Union Carbide plant. The entire city was trying to escape. Several of them were unlucky. They could not escape from the claws of death.

There are numerous tales of unfathomable sufferings. Paan Bai cites the case of her baby, born before time because of what happened on the intervening night of December 2 and 3, 1984. The hospital staff named the baby Zahar Lal.

Similarly, another baby, this one a girl, born to Nirmati Devi was named Gas Devi (Goddess of Gas) probably because she survived the fatal and chaotic night of December 2, 1984, while death danced on Bhopal's streets.

Thirty years ago, deadly plumes of poisonous Methyl Isocyanate gas—about 500 times more toxic than cyanide—leaked from the Union Carbide factory and killed more than 5,000 people on the same day.

But Carbide’s poison continues to kill people and over 22,000 people have succumbed to the effect of the gas disaster in the last 30 years. More than half a million people continue to live in the shadow of the disaster with lingering health problems such as cancer and respiratory illnesses.

The toxic contamination of underground water and soil in and around the abandoned factory site adds to health related problems.

"If you take an aluminium pot and fill it with handpump water, you'd soon find a hole in the pot due to the toxic waste in the water. So imagine what the water can do to a human being," says Vishnu Banu, a gas survivor.

Thousands of tons of toxic waste lie abandoned in the Union Carbide factory even 30 years after the disaster. Clean-up of the toxic waste continues to be marred in technical legal glitches.

Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board have guaranteed that Ramky facility at Pithampur (Dhar district in MP) would be ready to handle 350 MT toxic waste by January.  After 30 years, provided this incineration goes through, it would only take care of a fraction of the total toxic waste around the factory.

"Tackling 350 MT of toxic waste is just five per cent of the total toxic dump that threatens people and environment in and around Union Carbide factory", points out Rachana Dhingra member of Bhopal group for Information and Action. The world’s worst industrial has not ceased to haunt the people of the city. And the suffering of the thousands of gas victims unquantifiable.

Activists fighting on behalf of the survivors of the Bhopal gas tragedy have now found new hope in American president Barack Obama's visit to India on Republic day. They expect the Prime Minister would raise the issue with the American president on his two-day visit to India. "Modi has started the Swatchh Bharat Abhiyan. Why doesn't he start the campaign with Bhopal Toxic waste clean-up?" ask NGOs working for gas victims.

However, the state BJP leaders refuse to intervene. "It's a diplomatic issue and it will be tackled diplomatically", says BJP spokesperson Hitesh Vajpayee.

By K.S. Shaini in Bhopal

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