It’s five past midnight on a cold December night. You wake up coughing, with eyes and throat scorching. Dimly you hear the panicked shouting of people, “run, run”. Gas is seeping through the makeshift doors and windows. You rush with your family from your home into the dark street. People and animals are dying on the streets; already bodies lie scattered on the road where half-blind people are stumbling over them to escape the lethal fumes. On the intervening night of December 2 and 3, 1984, approximately 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate, one of the most toxic gasses, leaked from the factory in Bhopal owned by the U.S. chemical giant Union Carbide Corporation (Union Carbide India was taken over by Dow Chemical, which recently merged with Dupont to create DowDupont).
Now, 34 years after the tragedy, the second and third generation of the survivors are battling a spectrum of disabilities on a scale not seen anywhere else in India. Cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, Down’s syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, blindness, learning difficulties and gross motor delay are rampant. Many of the young adults have multiple conditions. Many are immobile, needing help to wash, eat and even defecate.
Research studies indicate higher rates of congenital malformations among children born to parents exposed to the gas and contaminated water. Sixteen studies by government and non-governmental agencies show that the soil and groundwater in and around the abandoned factory is contaminated with toxic chemicals, even persistent organic pollutants and heavy metals.
In these years, the number of affected communities increased to 42 from the 12 initially. The groundwater contains toxic levels of chlorinated solvents. Six years ago, responding to relentless efforts from activists, the Supreme Court ordered the city to install pipes to supply clean water from the Narmada. But the pipes coming into some houses run right through sewers, and on rainy days, filth and faeces mingle with the clean water. Each monsoon may be carrying this toxic plume farther.
Rohit Jain is an independent New Delhi-based documentary photographer. Reporting for this piece was facilitated by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
On a short fuse: Rajni Panti, 21, a resident of one of the areas affected by the toxic gas leak in Bhopal, is always angry, earning the wrath of her neighbours who sometimes hit her back. Multiple disabilities have made this child of Bhopal gas leak survivors shy and irritable.
Living victims: Vikas Yadav, 19, and Aman Yadav, 17, brothers, have muscular dystrophy and are being cared for by their mother at their home. Affected by toxic waste which seeped into the groundwater, they will live short, painful lives.
Father-daughter dynamics: Aaliya, 14, who is mentally challenged and has muscular dystrophy, being carried by her father from the Chingari Rehabilitation Centre for Children. Aaliya’s mother, who was affected by the gas, died eight years ago. “Why don’t you keep her in a special institution,” her father is often asked. “No one else takes care of her as I can. She can’t live without me,” he replies.
Deep down: An abandoned hand pump at Atal Ayub Nagar, one of the areas most affected by the Bhopal tragedy. The leaked gas has contaminated groundwater, but residents here used to consume it till water supply started from the Narmada. According to reports, groundwater within a radius of 3.5 km of the factory has been contaminated.
Poison everywhere: Kausar, 16, along with her mother Haseena, stands next to one of the solar evaporation ponds Union Carbide left behind in Bhopal. Kausar has low IQ and used to attend a special school until last year. The toxic waste from the factory site piped into three such huge ponds were leaking into the soil and groundwater.
Skakey lives: Suraj Malam, 21, has cerebral palsy. He struggles to stand on his feet after losing his sister’s grip as she runs from him.
Brothers in distress: Umar Khan, 24, with his parents shows photos of his older brother Azhar who died last year. Azhar had muscular dystrophy as is Umar. Umar knows he will meet Azhar’s fate soon.
Shared fate: Hassan Khan, 23, and Nawab Khan, 20, brothers with cerebral palsy, struggle to cross a railway line on their way home. They were affected by the toxic waste which seeped into the groundwater.