Troubled Waters: Residents Face Health Crisis as Toxic Wastes Persist Decades After Gas Tragedy - A Ground Report

Subsequent examinations of the water in these affected areas have yielded disturbing findings – the presence of a chemical known as organochlorine in the groundwater of these colonies.
Water from tube wells on the street in polluted settlements.
Water from tube wells on the street in polluted settlements.Image- Ankit Pachauri/The Mooknayak

Bhopal- "We drank the water from the tube well (boring) installed here for 15 years. Later we found out that this water was poisonous. But by then it was too late" - Shamsad Bibi, a 40-year-old resident of Nawab Colony in Bhopal, shares a harrowing tale of living with the consequences of groundwater pollution for 25 years.

Having unknowingly consumed poisonous water from a tube well for over a decade, she discovered the contamination only when health issues arose. Shamsad battled breast cancer, underwent surgery, and now faces kidney problems. The plight of her family, like many others in the area, reflects the lingering impact of the Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984, where toxic waste from the Union Carbide factory has seeped into the groundwater of 42 colonies.

Shamshad Bi narrating her plight to The Mooknayak team
Shamshad Bi narrating her plight to The Mooknayak teamImage- Ankit Pachauri/The Mooknayak

The incident of the Bhopal gas tragedy in 1984 remains etched in the collective memory, with the poisonous air from the Union Carbide factory claiming thousands of lives that fateful night. Yet, even 39 years later, the groundwater in 42 colonies in the vicinity, including Ibrahimganj, Bafna Colony, Gautam Nagar, PGBT College, Arif Nagar, Nishatpura, and Radhakrishna Nagar, has been contaminated by toxic waste buried in the Union Carbide factory complex's ground and the pond nearby. Organochlorine has permeated the groundwater, rendering it unfit for consumption.

In 2012, the Supreme Court issued directives to ensure the provision of clean drinking water. However, by then, considerable damage had been done. Not a single family in these affected settlements has been spared from the clutches of various diseases. Seeking to comprehend the challenges faced by those afflicted by water-related issues, The Mooknayak team ventured into these colonies. Some areas have benefitted from the Narmada Tap Water Scheme, providing pure water, while temporary tanks supply drinking water in other colonies. Astonishingly, one settlement remains devoid of any arrangement for potable water.

Sheeba Khan with her son.
Sheeba Khan with her son.Image- Ankit Pachauri/The Mooknayak

The Mooknayak team found broken pipelines and leakages in Bluemoon Colony, allowing dirty water to flow from taps. Chhote Khan, an octogenarian resident of the area, recounted the distressing ordeal of having consumed poisonous water in the past. Presently, the residents are compelled to ingest contaminated water flowing from drains, further exacerbating their dire situation.

Upon reaching Annu Nagar, a neighborhood grappling with water-related issues, we encountered Sheeba Khan, a 30-year-old resident. Tragically, her two-year-old son has been handicapped since birth due to exposure to toxic groundwater. The young child faces the heart-wrenching challenge of non-functional legs. Sheeba shared the grim reality that their family had been unknowingly consuming this hazardous water. The revelation about the groundwater's toxicity emerged later, leaving no household untouched by the devastating health consequences. From children to the elderly, residents in this groundwater-polluted enclave find themselves ensnared by various ailments, painting a stark picture of the pervasive health crisis.

The polluted water in a bucket
The polluted water in a bucketImage- Ankit Pachauri/The Mooknayak

Annu Nagar, another affected area, reveals stories of severe health issues, such as children born with disabilities due to contaminated water.

Rachna Dhingra, Director of Bhopal Group for Information and Action, points out that despite clear Supreme Court orders in 2012 and 2018, residents continue to be subjected to poisonous groundwater. The Municipal Corporation's failure to comply with the court's directive to provide free pure drinking water connections to every household, as ordered by the Supreme Court, amounts to contempt of court.

The inmates of Brij Vihar colony are compelled to consume the contaminated water.
The inmates of Brij Vihar colony are compelled to consume the contaminated water.Image- Ankit Pachauri/The Mooknayak

The residents of Brij Vihar Colony in Nishatpura continue to grapple with the absence of clean water. The inhabitants of this colony find themselves compelled to consume poisonous water, triggering a cascade of health issues. The severity of the situation is evident in the fact that 15 families have been forced to abandon their homes due to the hazardous water, and nearly every household is grappling with sickness. The Municipal Corporation's failure to deliver clean tap water to Brij Bihar Colony not only constitutes a grave injustice to its residents but also amounts to a blatant contempt of the Supreme Court's mandate.

Mayank Pal, a resident of Brij Vihar Colony, sheds light on the distressing reality. He stress that the Supreme Court, in its 2018 ruling, explicitly directed the Municipal Corporation to provide pure drinking water through tap connections. However, the Corporation has blatantly disregarded this legal mandate. Even the Madhya Pradesh State Legal Services Authority, responding to the court's decision, issued orders for the provision of pure water. Shockingly, these directives have been flouted with impunity by the Municipal Corporation.

Mayank further emphasizes the discriminatory treatment meted out to Brij Bihar Colony. Despite the presence of the Narmada tap line running through their settlement and the availability of pure water in neighboring colonies, the Corporation has neglected the needs of Brij Bihar residents. This neglect is aggravated by the fact that the colony is deemed private, raising concerns about biased practices and a lack of accountability within the Municipal Corporation.

No household remains untouched by the devastating health consequences.
No household remains untouched by the devastating health consequences.Image- Ankit Pachauri/The Mooknayak

The Supreme Court, recognizing the gravity of the situation, mandated an inspection to assess the extent of the crisis. Manoj Singh, the Joint Secretary of the Madhya Pradesh District Legal Authority, took proactive steps by instructing the Chairman of the Bhopal District Legal Case to conduct a thorough examination of the affected area and obtain groundwater samples. In the presence of committee members, the Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board and Public Engineering Department diligently collected samples from five locations within the colony. All these measures were undertaken under the purview of the Chairman of the District Legal Services Authority.

Upon analyzing the reports generated from these efforts, a disconcerting revelation emerged – the contamination of groundwater was persistently spreading, underscoring the urgent need for intervention to curb the escalating crisis.

The alarming increase in the risk of cancer is directly attributed to the consumption of contaminated drinking water. The toxic waste buried in the vicinity of the Union Carbide factory continues to leach into the groundwater, compelling the residents to ingest this hazardous water. Earlier groundwater investigations brought to light the contamination of water with substantial quantities of chemicals due to Union Carbide's toxic waste. Experts unequivocally warn that consuming such water poses severe health threats, including the development of serious ailments like cancer and kidney disease. Recent statistics corroborate these concerns, revealing a noticeable uptick in the number of individuals afflicted with cancer and kidney-related issues in the affected area.

A woman suffering skin disease
A woman suffering skin diseaseImage- Ankit Pachauri/The Mooknayak

Subsequent examinations of the water in these affected areas have yielded disturbing findings – the presence of a chemical known as organochlorine in the groundwater of these colonies. Organochlorine is a hazardous substance known to pose severe health risks, including the potential to induce cancer, congenital deformities, brain and kidney damage, and adverse effects on immunity, reproduction, and various other bodily functions. This dire situation has emerged due to the prolonged existence of untreated toxic waste within the Union Carbide factory premises.

In discussions with The Mooknayak, Alok Saxena, a member of the Madhya Pradesh Pollution Board, shed light on the gravity of the situation. He informed that the committee established by the Supreme Court had recently received complaints concerning groundwater pollution in the area. In response, the committee conducted an inspection, extracting groundwater samples from five different locations within the affected colony. The true extent of the contamination and its potential impact will only be ascertained once the comprehensive test report has been diligently examined in the sample laboratory.

The congtaminated pond located near Union Carbide.
The congtaminated pond located near Union Carbide.Image- Ankit Pachauri/The Mooknayak

The contamination originated from the Union Carbide ponds, a critical factor in the widespread pollution affecting the area. Union Carbide had initially constructed three small ponds in close proximity to the plant. These ponds were fortified with concrete, and prior to that, polythene was used as an additional layer. These reservoirs served as the receptacles for wastewater discharged from the Union Carbide plant through pipes.

At present, only one of the three ponds remains, as the settlement of Annu Nagar has been developed over one of the ponds. To facilitate this development, a bridge, valued at crores, was constructed on the other side. However, reports suggest that the concrete beneath the pond might have ruptured, leading to the contamination of the groundwater in the surrounding area.

Approximately 45 tons of deadly methyl isocyanate gas leaked from the Union Carbide plant claiming the lives of thousands of unsuspecting people in their sleep.
Approximately 45 tons of deadly methyl isocyanate gas leaked from the Union Carbide plant claiming the lives of thousands of unsuspecting people in their sleep. Image- Ankit Pachauri/The Mooknayak

In the fateful night of December 2nd and 3rd, 1984, the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal unleashed a catastrophic event, releasing poisonous gas into the air. Approximately 45 tons of deadly methyl isocyanate gas leaked from a pesticide plant, claiming the lives of thousands of unsuspecting people in their sleep. This industrial disaster was attributed to the Indian subsidiary of the American corporation Union Carbide.

The aftermath of the gas leak was devastating, with reports indicating that over 16,000 people lost their lives, though official government figures suggest a lower number of 3,000 casualties. The gas permeated the densely populated surrounding areas, leaving an indelible mark on the community.

The severity of the leaked gas's impact was evident in the suffering of approximately five lakh survivors who, while escaping immediate death, faced persistent health issues such as breathing problems, eye irritation, and even blindness. Pregnant women bore the brunt of the tragedy, experiencing adverse effects, while children grappled with congenital diseases.

Regrettably, even after 39 years have passed since the Union Carbide Bhopal gas tragedy, the repercussions persist as toxic waste continues to seep into the groundwater. Despite the undeniable and enduring environmental impact, the government has failed to implement concrete measures to address and remediate the long-lasting effects of this tragedy.

Translated by Geetha Sunil Pillai

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