Thirty years after India’s worst industrial disaster in Bhopal, contamination owing to the leakage of poisonous gas from the Union Carbide pesticide factory continues to affect residents.
The leak of 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate on the intervening night of December 2 and 3, 1984, killed thousands of people in its immediate aftermath and continued to kill people in the years that followed.
In 1984, the death toll was pegged at 3,787. However, in 2008 the Madhya Pradesh government’s Action Plan put the number at almost 16,000. The Claim courts which adjudicated on the payment of compensation put the total number of affected persons at 5.73 lakh approximately. Activists say the death toll has risen to 23,000 although the government stopped the death count in 1997.
Studies by several institutions over the years have revealed soil and groundwater contamination. The clean-up of the Union Carbide plant is still pending due to legal disputes. As a result groundwater contamination continues to increase. A study by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) in 2009 found the presence of pesticides, much higher than the national standard, in areas as far as three km from the 68-acre plant site. Subsequent testing has shown that the contamination is gradually increasing in the north-west direction.
A study by the Medico Friend Circle in 1990 found that spontaneous abortions had risen three-fold after the gas leak. Birth defects and increased cancer rates were noted in the affected population in the following years.
“Children even in the third generation are physically and mentally challenged, they suffer renal failures, eye ailments and other health problems. In areas near the factory, several people have cancer and a combination of many ailments. Entire savings of families have been wiped out, yet the documentation of ailments among the successive generations have still not been fully done,” rights activist Abdul Jabbar told this paper.
Amit Khurana of the CSE said the pollutants range from pesticides and other organic chemicals to heavy metals like mercury, lead and chromium. “After consultations with experts from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the Indian Institutes of Technology, civil society and other organisations, we came up with a time-bound action plan last year. This would involve local people and would be managed by the Central Pollution Control Board. Institutional logjam has not let this move forward.”
The plan suggests immediate, medium and long-term measures which would take up to five years. Immediate steps include fencing of the site and preventing rainwater runoff.
It also calls for a ban on construction of Solar Evaporation Pond sites which are contaminated. All contaminated and toxic material should be cleared in concert with locals under the supervision of the CPCB and combustible material should be incinerated at a suitable plant. The plan says this can be done in three to six months.