Bhopal Gas Tragedy - Whose Problem is it Now?

Although several stories questioning if justice had been done to the victims of the worst industrial disaster in Bhopal on 3rd Dec 1984 keep coming up, it is unclear if people reporting these understand the real problems. Perhaps there is no accurate numbers on the magnitude of damage. Different sources quote different figures. Perhaps it's not the numbers that matter now, it's the fact that even today - 30 years later the ghost of the tragedy haunts the residents of the city - mentally, physically and financially.

Bhopal gas tragedy really comes in news only if there are any updates in the trial proceedings. A few families got a small compensation amount. Many more are yet to get even that. The then chairman of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson died 2 months ago in the United States. He was said to have absconded and never really faced trial. Even with all this, is the future secure?

A leading Indian weekly magazine claims that cases of babies born with severe birth defects are on rise. According to the activists and organisations working for the welfare of the Bhopal gas tragedy victims, the reason behind the birth of children with defects is due to their families' exposure to toxic chemicals that poisoned the entire area and contaminated groundwater. 30 years is an entire generation. Are we really so helpless? Films and documentaries have been made, rehabilitation centres have been set-up, dedicated groups have come together to counsel and work with families but the danger still looms.

What is a little shocking to know is that toxic waste still lies dumped in the open in a SEP (Solar evaporation pond). Soil sample tests in 2004 revealed that unless this is disposed of scientifically the threat will live on forever. The SEPs are surrounded by 3 big slums in the city. The toxic waste dump has formed a small hill near the slums and is often a play area for children. With the arrival of monsoon every year, the dumped waste seeps into the soil and reaches groundwater. However, borewells in the area are the only source of drinking water to these people. Is it then not a surprise that more than 1000 children have been born with severe disabilities since the tragedy? Adding to the problems is the poor sewage system and mosquitoes.

In 2004 a NGO filed a petition that the waste must be disposed off scientifically. Replying to a PIL, the Madhya Pradesh High Court ordered for it to be disposed at Pithampur. Local NGO's at Pithampur objected. It was then decided to do so at Gujarat's Ankleshwar incinerator. Local NGOs in Gujarat protested and this plan too got stalled. For years different proposals were made and all of them hit the same fate - a German firm too came forward to take responsibility to dump the waste in Europe. European social groups raised a storm. Later, the Supreme Court directed that the waste should be incinerated at the Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) facility near Nagpur. But, NGOs protested again in Maharashtra following which the state government expressed its unwillingness in court on the issue. After several years, the apex court again directed that the waste be incinerated at Pithampur, and in a prelude 25-30 metric tonnes should be disposed on an experimental basis. In June 2010, INR 315 crore was also sanctioned. Reports claim no work has started. Consequently the waste lies dumped there, as a part of Bhopal - as though it is destined to be there and contribute bit by bit in worsening the lives of generations to come.

Does the child that plays on the hill even know Warren Anderson and Union Carbide? Perhaps Bhopal Gas Tragedy will live on... forever. The question that haunts is - whose problem is it now?

References: 1. India Today, Indian Express, Deccan Herald and readings from "It was 5 past midnight in Bhopal" - a book on the tragedy
Patrika Section