Growing up in the shadow of Bhopal

Business Standard, April 22, 2008
Thirty-eight days of walking from Bhopal to New Delhi and 18 days of sitting in dharna at Jantar Mantar have not fatigued the people of Bhopal who have been camping in New Delhi to seek justice 24 years after the country’s worst industrial disaster at the Union Carbide chemicals plant ravaged their lives on the night of December 3, 1984.
The civil society groups which have been formed out of the victims’ projected the plight of the children of Bhopal last week to the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The appeal also drew attention to the absence of any studies or measures to quantify the impact of the leak on people’s health.
The civil society groups describe the children of Bhopal as victims of two disasters. While the first one was the gas leak itself, the other is the continuing contamination of the ground water near the Carbide plant site.
“While more than 500,000 people were exposed to the poisonous gases, at least 25,000 – many of whom are not gas victims – are being poisoned by the contaminated groundwater,” says Rachna Dhingra of the International Campaign for Bhopal, which is among the agitating groups.
The twin demands being made by the victims are the setting up of a commission dedicated to the rehabilitation and fixing the liability for the disaster on Dow Chemicals, which bought over assets of Union Carbide.
In 1991, the Indian Council for Medical Research abruptly terminated research on the health issues faced by children born to affected parents after the disaster. This was despite the fact that the research’s prinicipal investigator recommended continued monitoring on the basis of findings that confirmed substantial deficits in physical and mental development among children born to the victims, says Dhingra.
Recognising the spate of birth defects, and physical and mental development disorders among second generation victims, the Supreme Court had, in 1991, ordered that at least 100,000 children born after the disaster should be brought under medical insurance cover.
Till date, not a single child has been covered. No schemes exist to extend social support to families with children requiring special care. Between 1992 and 1997, fourteen children received official assistance for heart surgery and thirteen for diagnosis of congenital brain anomalies, under a program called SPARC (Special Assistance to At Risk Children). The programme was terminated in 1997 citing financial constraints.
Of the 65 children examined in a medical camp in December 2006 by Matthew Varghese of St. Stephens Hospital, New Delhi, 31 were found to be suffering from brain damage. Most were residents of contamination-affected areas and brought to the medical camp organised by Chingari Trust.
“The government has categorically refused to extend social pension to families with children requiring special care,” says Rashida Bee, who is also the president of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationary Karmachari Sangh.

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