125 shanties gutted at Ayub Nagar
Carbides Factory in Bhopal:
Nagar: still drinking poison -
BGIA, January 2001
Echoes of the 1984 Union Carbide disaster in 2001
Wednesday 21st March 2001: Atal Ayub Nagar is located along the outside of the eastern wall of the former UCC factory. There are two rows of houses, then a sealed road with a water pipe running along one side. The settlement is enclosed by train tracks on its east side and the factory wall to the west.
Residents of Atal Ayub Nagar say fire broke out within the former factory at about 3.30pm on Wednesday. There was widespread panic as the flames and debris were blown by an easterly wind onto the settlement (immediately adjacent to the UCC wall). Some report smelling burning chillies. Others say they wanted to scream but couldn't because they were overcome with the fumes and were coughing, choking and running.
We arrived the next morning at about 7.45am to take photos documenting the damage. We were lead by the residents into around 12 family dwellings in all, mostly first row (from the factory wall) houses that back out onto a 1m wide sewer/ditch that lies between the settlement and the factory wall.
Some people were clearly still in shock. We saw one house that was completely burnt to the ground apart from the four walls, which looked as though they would crumble with the slightest pressure or movement. The door came away as we opened it. The residents' belongings (the few that they had) were barely recognisable in the ashes. When we took this family's photo, the little boy was holding a small box in which he had been collecting buttons and beads (we don't know whether he had found these from the wreckage of his own house or from somewhere else). He dropped the box while tripping over bits of wood that previously had been part of the roof.
A second home that was severely damaged was a second row dwelling - the fire and debris had damaged the back room of the house - three walls of which were still standing. The fire had totally consumed the roof. Everything in this room was either ashes or damaged beyond repair - the family were clearly very distressed as we took the photos although silent. The flames had spread from this room to the neighbours' roof - the alley running alongside was full of burnt debris.
Neighbours and onlookers were also silent - a sharp contrast to peoples' usual intense and sometimes overwhelming reaction to a foreigner visiting such a community. We had no trouble asking for just the families to be in the photos that we took of the damaged houses, a situation that would normally be almost impossible.
The most consistent fire damage was to a row of about seven or eight houses that backed out onto the sewer and the wall of the factory. Damage ranged from singed roofs (bricks, tiles, wood, sacking, plastic sheeting, corrugated iron) and burnt outer walls to completely blackened inner rooms and burnt belongings, including furniture, carts, books, clothes, plants, bedding, pots and food. The trees and bushes hanging over the factory wall were also burnt - many smaller trees had been reduced to blackened stumps.
We spent about ten minutes of the two and a half hours at Atal Ayub Nagar within the factory itself. Situated within the large area of burnt grass were four or five storage drums that had also been burnt - it was hard to tell whether they had been damaged considerably by the fire itself or whether they had been very damaged and just left to rot even further before the fire took place.
It became clear when viewing the damage to the houses from inside the factory that there were very few places where the fire had spread along the ground into the community. From residents' reports it seems that most of the damage was done by flames and debris that were blown across the wall, through and above the trees.
This is the third sizeable fire that has happened in the former UCC factory since the disaster in 1984. It is not known at this point exactly how it started. The site is severely contaminated with dumped chemicals. It is quite possible that some of these spontaneously combusted in the rising heat (it is now about 35 degrees celcius in Bhopal - last year the temperature rose to almost 44 degrees at the height of summer) and caught fire.
Community healthworkers from the nearby Sambhavna Clinic carried out a house to house survey of the damage the morning after (Thursday 22nd) - they reported partial and total damage to 32 houses in all affecting almost 200 people. As yet no government representatives have taken control of the situation either by giving emergency food or shelter or by investigating the real cause and source of the fire. The few local news reports have exaggerated the extent of the fire and heaped praise on firefighters and individual government employees who "rushed to the spot and helped in rescue operations" - neglecting to mention that the fire was probably caused, or at least helped by the presence of highly inflammable dumped chemicals (the responsibility of UCC and now The Dow Chemical Company since the two merged on February 6th, 2001) inside the factory.
The majority of the breadwinners from these damaged homes are employed as daily wage labourers and load carriers.