Bhopal children are paying the price 30 years after India's massive disaster

Bhopal children are paying the price 30 years after India's massive disaster

On December 2, 1984, Bhopal in India suffered the world's worst industrial accident. A Union Carbide pesticide factory released tonnes of deadly gas. Many people who lived in the slums around the factory were killed, others were injured, but the legacy goes on . . .

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A girl who suffers from hearing and speech disorders reacts to the camera at a rehabilitation centre supported by Bhopal Medical Appeal.
A girl who suffers from hearing and speech disorders reacts to the camera at a rehabilitation centre supported by Bhopal Medical Appeal.
Photo: Reuters

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In this December, 1984 file photo, firemen use a hose to wet canvas screens at factory boundaries to prevent the spread of dangerous fumes at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India.
In this December, 1984 file photo, firemen use a hose to wet canvas screens at factory boundaries to prevent the spread of dangerous fumes at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India.
Photo: Associated Press

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In this Dec. 5, 1984 file photo, two men carry children blinded by the Union Carbide chemical pesticide leak to a hospital in Bhopal.
In this Dec. 5, 1984 file photo, two men carry children blinded by the Union Carbide chemical pesticide leak to a hospital in Bhopal.
Photo: Associated Press

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Sanjay Yadav (L), 41, stands next to his two teenage sons who both suffer from physical deformities and mental underdevelopment in Bhopal, central India, on Nov. 17, 2014.
Sanjay Yadav (L), 41, stands next to his two teenage sons who both suffer from physical deformities and mental underdevelopment in Bhopal, central India, on Nov. 17, 2014.
Photo: Kyoto

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Survivor Vishnu Bai listens to her taped audio testament at the Remember Bhopal museum in Bhopal on December 2, 2014. The oral history museum houses personal belongings of the victims and the deceased and is accompanied by an audio clip of their family.
Survivor Vishnu Bai listens to her taped audio testament at the Remember Bhopal museum in Bhopal on December 2, 2014. The oral history museum houses personal belongings of the victims and the deceased and is accompanied by an audio clip of their family.
Photo: Agence France-Presse

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Survivor Hazra Bee breaks down as she stands in front of an old photo of a friend she lost in the disaster at the Remember Bhopal Museum in Bhopal on December 2, 2014.
Survivor Hazra Bee breaks down as she stands in front of an old photo of a friend she lost in the disaster at the Remember Bhopal Museum in Bhopal on December 2, 2014.
Photo: Agence France-Presse

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Thick dust covers chemical bottles in a laboratory at the abandoned former Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal November 14, 2014.
Thick dust covers chemical bottles in a laboratory at the abandoned former Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal November 14, 2014.
Photo: Reuters

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A boy receives treatment at a rehabilitation centre supported by Bhopal Medical Appeal for children who were born with mental and physical disabilities in Bhopal November 11, 2014.
A boy receives treatment at a rehabilitation centre supported by Bhopal Medical Appeal for children who were born with mental and physical disabilities in Bhopal November 11, 2014.
Photo: Reuters

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Survivor, Narbadabai attends a protest rally in Bhopal on December 2, 2014. For decades, survivors have been fighting to have the site cleaned up, but they say the efforts were slowed when Michigan-based Dow Chemical took over Union Carbide in 2001.
Survivor, Narbadabai attends a protest rally in Bhopal on December 2, 2014. For decades, survivors have been fighting to have the site cleaned up, but they say the efforts were slowed when Michigan-based Dow Chemical took over Union Carbide in 2001.
Photo: Agence France-Presse

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An Indian resident feeds second-generation victim of the Bhopal Gas disaster Umar at the Chingari Trust, an organisation which helps the victims.
An Indian resident feeds second-generation victim of the Bhopal Gas disaster Umar at the Chingari Trust, an organisation which helps the victims.
Photo: Agence France-Presse

When Champa Devi Shukla’s granddaughter was born with serious facial deformities in the Indian city of Bhopal, she was not left short of advice.

"Many people said 'you should kill her'. They said she is of no use, 'you should stuff tobacco in her mouth," to suffocate her, said Devi Shukla.

"But I thought, I'm not going to let her die. I've already lost three sons to this tragedy so I'm not going to lose someone else."

When a cloud of highly toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas blew across Bhopal on the night of December 2, 1984, around 3,500 people were killed in the immediate aftermath and up to 25,000 are estimated to have died in the long-run.

The tragedy didn't end there for locals living around the Union Carbide chemical plant at the centre of the disaster, with many later giving birth to children with abnormalities.

Numbers are hard to find

While the exact numbers are impossible to pin down, the streets near the now abandoned factory are full of families whose children born post-1984 have either died prematurely or have major health problems.

But the government has not confirmed a link, which would have major implications in terms of compensation so far limited to people who were alive at the time of the world's deadliest industrial disaster.

Devi Shukla lost her husband and three sons on the night. One of her daughters, Vidya, was also left partially paralysed after inhaling fumes, although her condition improved after extensive physiotherapy.

The family was overjoyed when Vidya fell pregnant, but more pain was to come. Her first child, a son called Sushil, was stunted and is now less than 1.2 metres at the age of 18.

A second son, Sanjay, died after five months. And then Vidya gave birth to a daughter, Sapna.

"She was born with a cleft lip and palate. She has had three lots of operations so far" with one still to go to reconstruct her nose, Devi Shukla said.

Sapna, now a happy 13-year-old, says she wants to become a doctor when she is older.

Her own family's experience having convinced her of the link, Devi Shukla helped set up a clinic for children of survivors who have health problems.

The Chingari Trust has 705 students, many with conditions such as autism or deafness. The centre provides physical and speech therapy along with schooling and sports.

Poisoned water

Rasheda Bee, a co-trustee, says she believes most of the illnesses stem from “drinking poisonous water”.

Her determination to help began after she saw her sister and then her three nieces die of respiratory illnesses. It was fuelled by a trip to Japan, where she met children of victims of the 1945 Hiroshima nuclear bombing.

Although she is not a doctor, she was involved in tests on the breast milk of 20 mothers. Half were from neighbourhoods close to the factory and the others were on the other side of town.

"The figures for one half were normal but nine out of the 10 living near the plant had high levels of mercury in their milk," she said. Mercury stunts the development of foetuses.

A report a decade ago in the Journal of American Medical Association found boys born to families exposed to the gas were on average 3.9 centimetres shorter than those from other parts of the city.

The head of Amnesty International, which is campaigning for more compensation, says there is clear evidence of poisoning. "We are now dealing with inter-generational health problems which are being passed on from the parents to the next generation," Salil Shetty said while attending commemorations for the 30th anniversary of the disaster.

"There have been multiple studies over the years... It's very clear that water contamination has happened," said Shetty, adding some water and soil contamination from the plant happened even before the gas leak.

Devi Shukla said even now students “have a fear of the drinking water”, although the pipes have been changed.

Nothing 'established'

A doctor at a government-funded institute which has been studying child health in Bhopal says it is too early to draw a link between the plant and congenital illnesses.

"It has not been established, but it has not been denied either," the doctor said on condition of anonymity.

Shetty acknowledged the exact cause of some illnesses was contested, but said the onus was on the government.

"Why can't the government of India conduct proper medical research and study? It's not like India doesn't have the capacity to do this. Thirty years is too long for the victims to wait."

 

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