Surviving Toxic Tubewells- The Bhopal Legacy continues.

Feature story - March 10, 2004
BHOPAL, India — On a scorchingly hot day in March, a number of us have gathered at Atal Ayub Nagar, a basti in the shadow of the Carbide factory. We plan to walk through 12 bastis to hear first hand, the residents' woes, all of them victims of Dow-Carbide's toxic legacy. Members of the Press have been invited to join us in bearing witness to the reality of living in this poisoned neighbourhood.

Toxic Tubewells

The women of the basti quickly recognize Rasheeda Aapa and Champa Devi and begin to gather around us. The cameras and new faces are interesting enough to draw a number of bright eyed and curious kids to stand around and observe us with some interest. Rasheeda Aapa explains to the women that we are bringing media to their doorstep so their problems are reported and the inaction of the politicians highlighted. She urges them to call more women out of their homes saying, "Unless they step out of their houses to fight for their rights, they are never going to achieve anything." This catalyses some of the women into action and soon we are quite a sizeable gathering.

"We are always ill", says Ram Dulari, an elderly resident of Atal Ayub Nagar. The water issue is so emotive and the problem so acute that the women begin to speak almost simultaneously in charged voices, "We all suffer from breathlessness, stomach trouble, skin lesions, nausea and regular dizzy spells. We know it's the water from this pump, but what can we do? We have no other source of water but this tube well!" The tube well she is talking about is painted red to indicate that the water from it should not be consumed.

The Madhya Pradesh Government has marked this water source as contaminated but has failed to provide these people with an alternative source. The tankers that the Government claims it has arranged are neither regular nor sufficient for the entire basti.

"The Government doesn't care about us! We will not vote for anybody this time unless they do something about our water!" says Haseena Bee emphatically. All the others agree vehemently.

The water in the tube wells in 12 bastis situated around the Union Carbide factory have been established as having ground water that is so contaminated as to be unsuitable for drinking. This water is laced with poisonous chemicals, some of which are even known to accumulate in the body and cause life threatening diseases such as cancer. These findings have been established not only by private organizations such as Greenpeace, but by Government agencies as well. Women are known to have a number of gynaecological problems - including menstrual problems, early menopause (we met a women who had attained menopause at the age of 35; and there are cases of even younger women in menopause!) Recent studies have also found traces of mercury in samples of mothers' milk, which means that newborn children are being exposed to these poisons even as they enter this world - this is the legacy that Union Carbide has left behind.

Wherever we go, we are brought water from the local pumps and prompted to smell and taste the water. The water smells awful and tastes even worse. Most of the journalists are too scared to even sip at the water. The residents laughingly taunt them and say, "You are scared to try it even once; we drink this every day!"

The children, around us, on the face of it, appear to be as active and mischievous as any bunch of kids would. But once you being to ask them how they feel, you realize how many visitors have come and gone, how many stories about them written and read... Ask just a couple of questions, and the answers trip off 12 year-old Asad's tongue, "This water is poisoned because of the Carbide factory. All the problems we have are because of this water. Out here, you are considered lucky if you grow tall. I am 12, and am only so tall (he points to his head. FYI: Asad is little more than 3ft tall!), too short for my age, but I am still taller than some of the others..." this sets him pointing out to each of his friends, telling me how old and yet how short they are - a 6 year old girl as tall as my 3 year old nephew, a 16 year old boy who doesn't yet reach my shoulder. The list goes on. As soon as he realizes he has a willing audience, his imagination gets the better of him and he adds, "Every time Baaji (grandmother) drinks this water, woh paagal ho jaati hain. Hum sabko maarne lagti hai!" (She goes mad, starts beating us all!) I laugh readily, entertained by this glib charming boy. But in the end, apart from his obvious jokes, I am left with the sobering reality of what he has pointed out to me.

If I thought this was the worst I was going to see, I couldn't have been more mistaken. In Annu Nagar, we were taken to meet Iqbal, a 12 year old whose legs are no longer of use to him. He has to drag himself about and it all happened suddenly when he was 7. His mother spent all she could afford on medicines to make him better; to no avail. Then we were introduced to Rasheed and Zarina, both just entering their teens, and already debilitated. Rasheed is 13, and mentally challenged. Zarina, from the same basti, is 12, and is left with the use of only one of her legs. I shudder to think of what we will find if we actually do a house-to-house survey.

The women are angry and threaten to sit outside the Minister's house till he promises them clean water supplied through a pipeline. They are up against an apathetic Government that has done nothing to better their lot in the last 12 years and Dow Chemicals (who took over Union Carbide in 2001), the biggest chemical company in the world that accepts no responsibility for the contamination.

They know that more harsh times are ahead, they have to live through a blazing summer and worse still, a monsoon that will make their roads unnavigable so that no tanker can come to their basti. But as the Bhopali women say, "Hum Bhopal ki naari hain, hum phool nahi chingaari hain!" (We are the women of Bhopal; we are not flowers, we are flames!)

They are keyed up for a battle that will decide the future. For them, and perhaps more importantly, for their children. It will certainly be a summer of reckoning, in this, the 20th year of Bhopal's tragedy.

For further information, please contact:

Vinuta Gopal, Bhopal Campaigner, Greenpeace India: