The parents of Birju in the dense Kainchi Chhola area of Bhopal do not know why the four-year-old cannot walk or speak. Birju's parents are wary of providing their son's health details. They do not want him to be tagged a gas victim. On the intervening night of December 2-3, 1984, methyl-isocyanate escaped from the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, converting the city into a lethal gas chamber. The US multinational Union Carbide Corp was not prepared to deal with an industrial disaster on this scale. And 31 years later, neither are the state or central governments.
Several children, according to the initial findings of Sambhavna clinic, an independent health facility in the gas-affected area of the city, are born with cerebral palsy and microphthalmus. Neither the Madhya Pradesh government nor central health agencies have studied if a third generation of the Bhopal gas disaster victims is also vulnerable. Preliminary findings by Sambhavna clinic suggest the incidence of congenital disorders is higher among the population exposed to the toxic gas and contaminated groundwater.
The Indian Council for Medical Research has conducted 24 studies over the years and reported high incidence of pulmonary and ophthalmic disorders in Bhopal's affected areas. Most of these studies, say NGOs, were discontinued. Recently, the National Institute for Research in Environmental Health, decided to undertake a morbidity study to figure out whether methyl-isocyanate is affecting a third generation.
The institute will study 35,000 people, including those who have not been exposed to methyl-isocyanate, newborns and those who have shifted to other parts of Bhopal. Sambhavna clinic has conducted a months-long study of 25,000 families for the effects of exposure to gas and contaminated groundwater. "Primary findings reveal genetic disorders in the next generation," says Satinath Sarangi, chief activist at Sambhavna clinic.
The Madhya Pradesh government had earlier asked the Gandhi Medical College in Bhopal to study groundwater contamination. "There is no evidence to suggest the groundwater has become toxic due to percolation of toxicants from the Union Carbide disposal area," it had reported.
Water, at a price
Hazira Bi, 59, a resident of JP Nagar, the locality described as among the worst affected, was among a group of activists that walked 800 km in 2006 to Delhi to request then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to ensure safe drinking water to 22 gas-affected localities of Bhopal.
"They (the government) provided piped drinking water after 23 years and now the Bhopal Municipal Corporation wants us to pay fat bills," says the activist, who lost her husband to the disaster and has a bed-ridden son.
Around 25,000 families in the 22 localities near the derelict Union Carbide factory are protesting against bills for piped drinking water that was made available in 2011. "We earn Rs 3,000-4,000 a month, we cannot pay Rs 10,000 a year for water. We will soon have the piped water supply disconnected," says Phulwati Prajapati of Preet Nagar, who has to pay a water bill of Rs 9,882. The people of Preet Nagar have been drinking contaminated water for 20 years. They were promised piped water at Rs 30 a month and free connections. But they claim they were charged Rs 900 lump sum and are required to pay Rs 180 a month.
NGOs point out residents of the affected communities have higher incidence of gastro-intestinal and respiratory diseases. "If they snap their water connections there is a risk they will start drinking contaminated water again," says Balkrishna Namdev, an activist.
The Madhya Pradesh government had disbursed Rs 64 crore for water supply connections in the affected localities. Survivors are demanding the water supplied should be free. "Why should they be charged after drinking contaminated groundwater for 23 years?" asks Rachna Dhingra, an activist with the Bhopal Group for Action and Information.
No free medicine too
Life is becoming difficult for Manmohan Prajapati, 49. He came to Bhopal with his younger brother Suresh from a nearby village in 1983 in search of a job. One year later, he became a victim of the gas tragedy. He can now barely can see. Suresh has a brain disorder. "He is silent most of the time," says Manmohan. "We cannot afford private clinics or hospitals. Bhopal Memorial Hospital cannot restore my eyesight." Most of Bhopal's victims either live with disease or die in oblivion, although medical facilities are free at eight medical facilities owned by the Madhya Pradesh government. "There are hardly 35 super specialists in town," says a well-placed government source.
A burning question
Toxic waste is still lying inside the Union Carbide factory. The state and central pollution control boards in September incinerated 10 tonnes of the waste at a facility in Pithampur, 250 km from Bhopal.
"We are awaiting further directives from the Supreme Court. The state does not have a major role, the Central Pollution Control Board has to monitor the incineration," says Gauri Singh, principal secretary, Bhopal gas tragedy relief and rehabilitation department.
Emissions from the trial incineration were within permissible limits but the location of the incinerator has been challenged by environmentalists. "The facility run by the Ramky Group is near a village. We know it spew carcinogenic dioxins," says Rachna Dhingra, an activist with the Bhopal Group for Action and Information. Activists have also condemned Centre's move to reject the United Nations Environmental Programme offer for a comprehensive assessment of the site. "It was necessary for a proper clean-up. The government has a simple programme of transporting the waste from the plant to the incinerator. It will expose workers to toxic waste," says Sarangi.