Bhopal: One day in November, patients start gathering at 7am outside the Sambhavna Trust Clinic, a small, free clinic in one of the areas worst affected by the Bhopal gas tragedy. After getting their tokens, they sit in the warm winter morning sun to wait their turn.
Shamshen Nisa, a portly, middle-aged woman who is awaiting her turn, has been coming to the clinic for the past 10 years. The exposure to the gas released from the Union Carbide factory, she says, has left her with high blood pressure, a tendency to put on weight and painfully swollen feet.
A few kilometres away at the Chingari Trust, a rehabilitation centre for children of gas victims born with congenital defects, seven-year-old Kushi Verma’s twisted frame lies on her mother’s lap. She was born with cerebral palsy. Her spine is so curved that she can’t even sit straight. Her words are slurred, and she can barely manage a delicate smile.
Nisa, Verma and others like them are at the core of a debate that continues to rage 25 years after the leak of methyl isocyanate from Union Carbide’s factory here. Are these ailments and congenital defects a result of that leak, and the continuing impact of pollutants in and around the factory? No one is sure, and there are no statistics that anyone had bothered to collect.
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And there are two, opposite schools of thought.
None of the studies conducted by the state’s hospitals has “shown a significant incidence of medical problems in the gas affected wards”, says Babulal Gaur, minister for gas relief and rehabilitation, Madhya Pradesh.
He adds that the Union Carbide factory is absolutely safe.
Rachna Dhingra, an activist with the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, has problems with both claims. Chemicals dumped on the factory premises, she claims, continue to pollute groundwater in the area. And the exposure to gases from the factory 25 years ago and the continuing pollution have, according to her, left Bhopal with a slew of medical problems.
The schism between activists and the government seems to be widening. The medical and environmental legacies of the disaster remain highly disputed, and none of the dozens of studies done on them has addressed the issue with any degree of finality.
Thus, while Dhingra insists that instances of respiratory diseases, cancer, heart problems and congenital defects can be “found in every second house in some areas”, Nalok Banerjee, officer in charge at the Centre for Rehabilitation Studies of the state government, claims that not a single study done by government hospitals in Bhopal has shown a greater than normal incidence of medical problems in the 36 gas-affected wards.
The problem is that the government’s studies, by Banerjee’s own admission, are “small”. “It’s impossible for us to be certain of the medical impact till a large scale study is done with a control population,” he adds. The last major study, conducted by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), was wrapped up in 1994. Banerjee accuses ICMR of abandoning the studies abruptly. “The state government,” he says, “just does not have the resources to do a study of this scale on its own.”
Lasting effects: Seven-year-old Kushi Verma lies on her mother’s lap at the rehabilitation centre for gas victims run by Chingari Trust in Bhopal. Madhu Kapparath / Mint
Government doctors Mint spoke to at Kamala Nehru Hospital, a so-called “super-speciality” hospital for gas victims, agree that the only way to examine correlations between current medical problems and the gas tragedy would be through a larger study on the lines of the ICMR one.
In rebuttal, V.M. Katoch, director general, ICMR, says the studies were meant to span the decade from 1984 to 1994. “No major problems were apparent in those studies,” he says. “Therefore, they were not extended.” The results of those studies are, however, only now being made public. Katoch has no explanation for the delay, only that it shouldn’t have happened and there were “too many committees” involved.
ICMR, he claims, is now making an effort to restart its studies. They’ve asked for research proposals, but Katoch says that in the past six months, ICMR has received only two. The effort seems half-hearted, and Katoch almost admits as much. “There’s no point in reopening these studies,” he says. “Bhopal should look at the future.”
Public health expert Srinath Reddy of the Public Health Foundation of India is sympathetic to the suffering of the victims of the tragedy, but warns that after 25 years, it is very difficult to establish a direct relationship between their problems and the disaster. A number of factors complicate the situation including, says Reddy, “the possibility (given the circumstances) of a number of psychosomatic illnesses”.
A similar state of confusion prevails on the environmental impact of the gas tragedy.
Tota Ram Chauhan, who was the chemical plant operator at the Union Carbide factory, is an angry man. “The contamination at the site continues,” he says. “On a hot summer day, you still won’t able to stand for more than 10 minutes at the spots (inside the plant) where Union Carbide dumped toxic chemicals.”
Activists maintain there are at least a dozen such sites within the plant premises that still have high concentrations of heavy metals, chemical benzene hexachloride and Sevin (the fertilizer that Union Carbide was manufacturing). In addition, they say waste from what were once the effluent solar evaporation ponds of the factory continues to poison groundwater in the area.
Arif Nagar basti is sprawled around the solar evaporation ponds of the factory, and abuts its broken wall. For many years, residents here consumed water from hand pumps. The result, they say, is that they suffer from skin and respiratory problems, and the growth of children in the area is stunted.
A few years ago, the state government, on a directive from the Supreme Court, removed the hand pumps and laid water pipes to supply clean water. Residents here, however, complain that the supply is erratic and the water they get is discoloured.
Officials of the Madhya Pradesh government disagree. They point to studies conducted by the Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board and the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (Neeri) as proof that neither the site nor the groundwater in the area is polluted. They admit that 346 of the 386 tonnes of toxic soil and chemicals that were collected from the factory a few years ago remain in storage in a warehouse on the premises, but insist this material is secure. Other than this, there is no contaminated material at the site, they say.
The Neeri reports, which the Madhya Pradesh government extensively quotes, only claim that no overground contaminants remain at the site, says acting director Tapan Chakrabarti. “The question of buried contaminants remains open.”
The most recent water and soil sampling was done by the Central Pollution Control Board a little over a fortnight ago. The results of the as yet unreleased report were shared with Mint by its chairman S.P. Gautam. It indicates high levels of copper, zinc and manganese in groundwater taken from locations around the factory. Chloroform levels at Atal Ayub Nagar, located along its boundary, were “high”.
The government’s claims and conflicting reports have left residents befuddled. They know that not everything is fine at Union Carbide, but nobody is sure what exactly is wrong.
The tragedy has not ended.