Gas-hit Bhopal colony remains a living tomb (25 years after Bhopal gas leak)

Bhopal, Nov 29 (  A quarter century after a packed shantytown turned into a hell hole following the Bhopal gas disaster, JP Nagar’s perennially poor residents are still paying the price for a multinational’s folly.

The road in front of the now shuttered Union Carbide pesticide plant has been paved and widened. Most of JP Nagar now boasts of brick and mortar houses, in place of the earlier ugly mud-and-polythene dwellings.

But nothing has changed in the lives of JP Nagar’s mass of poor. They lead as pathetic an existence as they did when tonnes of toxic gas leaked from the Carbide plant on the night of Dec 2-3, 1984.

If anything, life is now a burden.

“What has not changed is our fate,” laments Aziza Sultan, a survivor who lives next to the site of the world’s worst industrial disaster.

The leak of methyl isocyanite (MIC) gas killed more than 3,000 people instantly in Bhopal, many in JP Nagar, and thousands more over the years. It also maimed many more, leaving them to suffer for many long years.

Leelabai Ahirwar, a 45-year-old mother of four in JP Nagar, echoed a popular view: “Those who survived the gas are the unlucky ones. The lucky are those who died that night.

“I am still affected by the gas. I suffer from chest pains and often feel I’m about to die. My children are worse off. My daughter is anaemic and her body swells up mysteriously. My son Jagdish had retarded growth and he looks like a 14-15-year-old though he is almost 24.”

Almost every house in JP Nagar has a similar tale.

Residents say women here reach menopause at age 30, children are born with deformities, girls do not menstruate until they are 18 and women don’t lactate properly.

Abdominal pain, dizziness, vomiting, constipation, indigestion and growth retardation are widespread.

“The water they drink is laced with 12 deadly chemicals,” says Satinath Sarangi, an activist who has worked among the Bhopal victims almost from the first days after the disaster.

Sarangi is director of the Sambhavna Clinic, which treats victims using a mixture of Western and traditional Indian ayurvedic medicine.

Aziza Sultan can never forget the nightmare of that night.

“Soon a dense fog formed which rolled across the road into our slums. Here, the ill-built houses with badly-fitted doors and windows were packed with people during that winter night,” she recalled.

“Those within were roused in darkness to the sound of screams of people. My baby started coughing badly at about 30 minutes past midnight. My room was filled with a white cloud. Soon I also started coughing. My eyes were burning.”

This is no isolated story.

Said another survivor, Babu Khan, 53: “It felt like somebody had filled our bodies with red chillies. The coughing was such that people were writhing in pain. Some just got up and ran in whatever they were wearing — underclothes and some not even those. People were only concerned about their lives. They just ran, many falling over one another.”

Khan was a scrap dealer. Over the past 25 years, he has not been able to do any work due to various gas-related ailments including breathlessness.

He went on: “Those who fell while running were not picked up by anybody. They were trampled on by others. People were dying.

“Some vomited uncontrollably, went into convulsions and fell dead while others were choked to death. Many were crushed in stampedes in the narrow lanes of JP Nagar.”

Some lost eyesight — some became partially blind.

When dawn broke over the city, thousands of bodies lay in heaps on the streets, even far from the factory. Families and entire communities were wiped out, leaving no one to identify them.

Another veteran activist Abdul Jabbar says: “JP Nagar took the worst hit that night. The people hit by the poisonous gases continue to suffer. Death continues to stalk them even as the survivors wait in vain for cure for their ailments and a just compensation.

“But the misery and death in Bhopal is no longer news. Outsiders think all is well in this city. The reality is quite different,” Jabbar said.