They were not born at the time but hundreds of children live the horrors of that intervening night of December 2-3, 1984, every minute of every day — their bodies trapped forever in congenital disabilities such as blindness and cerebral palsy.
Thirty-seven years and some three generations later, the darkness of that night when 40 tonnes of lethal methyl isocyanate leaked out of the Union Carbide plant hangs like an impenetrable cloud over the lives of untold thousands, including children as young as three whose parents were exposed to the toxin when they themselves were children.
What did help was therapy and special education lessons. That has been impacted with the Covid pandemic and the months of lockdown that followed. As the world marks another anniversary, those that were left behind count their losses.
The official number of deaths from what has come to be known as the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, among the world’s worst industrial disasters ever, was 2,259 but activists estimate the number could be well over 20,000, maybe double that.
The effects were devastating for those who survived, and for the generations that followed. Adding to the long-term effects of those who inhaled the gas was the slow poisoning of the groundwater. Those exposed passed the effects on, leading to many children born with disabilities, including Down's syndrome, muscular dystrophy and attention-deficit disorders.
Alfez is 11, Umair 13, Isha 19, Mohsin 25… Just some of the many who live their lives confined to their beds and inside their homes, helpless and totally dependent for their everyday needs. While studies continue and much is still to be known, the chain from that night 37 years ago is clear, said experts. And it is going on still.
Azaan is only four years old. He has cerebral palsy, a debilitating, genetic condition that probably goes back to his grandparents who were exposed to MIC. “I was eight months pregnant when the gas tragedy happened. My daughter was born with nasal related complications though not severe,” said his grandmother.
Azaan’s seizures have increased in the last six months, probably because he didn’t get regular therapy due to the lockdown. Help has come in the form of therapists from the Chingari Trust, a rehab centre, doing weekly home visits and video calls.
Eleven-year-old Alfez, who suffers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), leads a lonely life with few people to understand him. His mother Tarannum recalls taking him to a doctor when he wasn’t even a year old and being asked whether anyone in the family was affected in the gas tragedy.
It finally turned out that his father Sajid, who was then just a year-and-a-half, had inhaled the gas. Decades down the line, when he had a child, the impact was passed on. And the doctor told Tarannum, “Alfez’s medical condition is congenital.” “The lockdown interrupted Alfez’s regular therapy [which includes speech, occupational and special education at Chingari Rehab Centre]. His behaviour has changed. With regular therapy, Alfez had started to speak a bit. That has stopped and now he can’t even tell us when he needs to go the toilet and soils himself.” The behavioural problems of 13-year-old Umair Ahmed, who was born with Down’s Syndrome, have also exacerbated. Much loved by his family, he has started hitting out when someone comes too close because no therapy sessions have been happening. And his attention span has decreased, Umair’s father was just four in December 1984 when he was exposed to the poisonous gas. There could be other reasons for Umair’s medical conditions and research on genotoxic and long-term effects of MIC gas are still going on.
The cases are many. Hidden in the bylanes of Bhopal, each story of despair lined with the silver of a loving family which looks after their children with care and empathy.
Like 19-year-old Isha Ansari, who has spastic cerebral palsy, and doesn’t have use of her hands but like any other teenager loves listening to music, watching videos and playing on her mobile — operating it all with her toes.
In her case, her mother Jainab was exposed to MIC. And both parents drank the contaminated groundwater for years.
Amaan (13), whose parents were exposed to the gas, also has cerebral palsy. He can’t eat himself but loves good clothes and good food, and even tries to do some writing.
The lockdown has been tough.
According to his family, Amaan was doing better with regular therapy but his condition has deteriorated now. He is not able to squat as he was earlier. He had also started articulating his words but has regressed to communicating through signals.
Sixteen-year-old Zoya Khan, who has an intellectual disability with a wrist drop, holds her grandmother tight when she sleeps. “She looks for me,” the fond ‘dadi’, Asha Bi, said. A few months ago, Asha Bi lost her husband. The entire family — Asha Bi, her husband and her son — were affected by the gas leak.
While Zoya’s father died a few years ago, the mother doesn’t keep well.
Then there is the ever smiling Nida Khan, a 13-year-old who has Down’s Syndrome with alopecia, partial or complete lack of hair. Her mother Shabana Bi was seven when she inhaled the gas.
Nida loves playing with her cousin, good clothes — shorts and dresses but not salwar kurta — and her favourite film is “Chennai Express”.
The progress made over the years has been hindered by no therapy. She is struggling with her speech. Four months ago, her father passed away. Though she hasn’t been told about it, she senses his absence and sometimes looks out of the window to say, ‘Abbu hain wahan’ [father is standing there]”.
Not far away, Ayushi’s mother Jyoti kissed her on her forehead and said, “My daughter needs only two things; continuous love and regular therapy.” One is ever present for the child who has cerebral palsy and an intellectual disability, the other not so much because of the pandemic.
Before the lockdown, Ayushi, also 13, had learnt to sit better, started signalling when she was hungry or when she needed to go to the toilet, said Jyoti, who was five when she breathed in MIC.
Her brother’s child also has medical complications like Ayushi. There could be other reasons for Ayushi’s and her cousin’s medical conditions but there are researches on genotoxic and long-term effects of MIC gas.
Mohsin is older, 25 and confined to his bed. He would earlier talk and walk but fell 13 years ago and his cerebral palsy worsened.
“Mohsin understands almost everything. He knows when guests come home. He recognizes us and he plays with me and his siblings. He smiles at us when he is happy”, his mother, who was three in 1984, said.
And so it goes on — lives whose destinies were written that cold winter night when poison spread through the air and the water.
When will it end? Experts are still looking for answers.