Atal-Ayub Nagar
- a community that carries the name of the
Prime Minister of India and the toxic legacy of
Union Carbide Corporation, USA

Bhopal Group for Information and Action, January 2001


Atal-Ayub Nagar did not exist as a human settlement at the time of the disaster in December 1984. Today it is a community of about 2,000 people right behind the Union Carbide factory, along its northern wall. The majority of the approximately 450 families live in 15' x 15' mud huts arranged in three neat rows. The community is bounded by railway tracks to the north and has the communities of Shaktinagar and New Arif Nagar to its east and west respectively.

The first settlement
After the disaster and the closure of the factory, this empty stretch of government land behind the factory attracted survivors who could no longer afford to pay rent in the city. The settling of people on unused land (legally termed "encroachment') was led by a local activist survivor called Ayub Bhai who was also an organiser for the BJP - the party of the Prime Minister. Ayub Bhai, a staunch Muslim, active and strong in a party known for its Hindu supremacist ideology, put his own ideas forward for the distribution of plots - ideas that should make his party proud. He insisted that Hindus and Muslims (in equal numbers) built their huts so that a Hindu family had a Muslim family on either side and vice versa. Residents named the community Atal-Ayub Nagar in honour of their local leader and his inspiration.

Sharing with the PM
It is shameful that a settlement named after the Prime Minister of the country continues to be the community worst affected by the continuing toxic legacy of Union Carbide. Most of its residents were exposed to Union Carbide's gases and have since been forced to drink water contaminated with the company's toxic chemicals. While a temporary and uncertain arrangement for the provision of safer drinking water has recently been put in place (for this community only) by the Municipal Corporation, more than 5000 people in Annu Nagar, Blue Moon Colony, Nawab Colony, Krishna Nagar, Prem Nagar continue to be routinely poisoned.

Growth & resettlement
In 1986, there were just nine families here with a population of about 60. By 1991 the resident population had swelled to over 20 times this size, mostly with impoverished gas-affected people from the neighbouring communities. During the troubles of 1992 over the Ayodhya issue, Atal-Ayub Nagar was attacked by both Hindu and Muslim goons. A third of the settlers migrated, their place being taken by immigrants from outside the district. Pressures from all around caused a relocation of families within the community that brings to the mind the partition of the country in 1947. The Hindus moved to the half that housed their small temple and the Muslims moved to the other half around their mosque. Thankfully Ayub Bhai did not have to suffer the death of his dream - he had been dead 10 months when the troubles started.

Hindus and Muslims still live here in almost equal numbers and their harmony is evident from their resumed sharing of festivals and funerals. Among the adults, very few are educated although many are literate. Most men in the community work as daily wage labourers: pushing hand carts, carrying loads or doing petty trading, and earn between 1500 and 2000 rupees a month. Most of the women either roll bidis, work as domestic servants or run small shops, earning between 400 and 600 rupees a month. There are few Government employees or employees of private firms among the residents.

Health and health care
Two thirds of the resident families in Atal-Ayub Nagar have a history of exposure to Union Carbide's toxic gases. Because of their low income, people have little choice but to do hard physical labour and cannot afford to care about their deteriorating health. The symptoms that people in this, and other communities, associate with drinking contaminated water are: abdominal pain, skin lesions, dizziness, vomiting, constipation, indigestion, and burning sensations in the chest and stomach. The majority of children in this community are born seriously underweight, weak, with discolored skin, as well as suffering from other multi-systemic health problems. Women complain of suppression of lactation and some stop lactating within one month of giving birth. There is an open sewer stretching from one end of the railway tracks to the other and Union Carbide's chemical waste landfill is not very far away, making living conditions here extremely unhealthy. The air is thick with smoke from coalfires, which are used for cooking since people are too poor to buy gas. This, combined with the smoke from diesel locomotives that permanently hangs over the community, makes comfortable breathing difficult, and is often particularly unbearable in the evening.

The ongoing disaster
Within Atal-Ayub Nagar, 80% of the population go to non-qualified "doctors" (people without any formal training) because they charge fees that people can afford. Even then a person spends 25-50% of their daily income on medical treatment. The remaining 20% of the population cannot go for treatment due to pressures of work, lack of time, inability to pay the doctor's fees and physical weakness. People avoid going to the government hospitals and no one from the community goes to the clinics run by the Bhopal Memorial Hospital Trust. Treatment at government hospitals is commonly perceived as time consuming and ineffective. One third of Atal Ayub Nagar's population - those that have no history of gas exposure - are barred from local government hospitals as they treat gas victims only. However, many of them have been drinking and using contaminated water for several years and present a range of the complaints (described above) that are suffered by those exposed in December 1984. However, the local government hospitals do not see these people. At Sambhavna, residents of Atal-Ayub Nagar are treated as contamination- affected and are offered free medical care and other facilities.

A semblance of civic amenities in this community started with the installation of two hand-pumps in 1991 and ended with the installation of a third in 1993. In 1998 a road was built. There is no school in the community but it has three Anganwadis which offer nutritional supplements and vaccinations to children under five and to pregnant or lactating mothers. A small clinic run by a "doctor" without any formal training is the only medical facility for people in the community. There are no arrangements for toilets or garbage disposal.

The contaminated water
Up until 1991 people brought water from a long way away. Some used to carry water from a public tap in Kainchi Chhola, about a kilometre away. Others collected boiling hot water from the steam engines going past. The hand-pumps provided some respite but proved to be a curse in disguise. From the beginning the water tasted and smelled of chemicals. In 1995 the smell and taste got worse after, residents allege, a large tank containing ortho di chlorobenzene was poured onto the ground next to the wall between the factory and their community. In the summer the taste is so horrible that even people used to its stench cannot drink it. In 1997, they were informed by people from the Sambhavna Trust that samples of water from the community hand-pumps have shown the presence of toxic chemicals. A few stopped using water from the community hand-pumps and went back to carrying it from a long way away. The majority however, continued as usual.

The information given in 1997 spurred people into action. They put pressure on the civic authorities and as a result began to receive one to two tankers (capacity 10,000 litres) of water a day. However, it wasn't enough and nobody knew whether or not the tankers were going to come - the majority of the people had no choice but to continue to use water from the hand-pumps.

Sambhavna's health camps
In June 2000, health workers from Sambhavna started a door-to-door survey to collect information on the different uses and sources of water and health problems in the community. From July 15, 2000 Sambhavna started holding "Anaemia camps" to identify anaemic people, measure the haemoglobin content in their blood and provide necessary medication. In these camps discussions were held with people on the problems and possibilities regarding their contaminated water supply. By October 2000, over 300 people had been offered medical examination, blood tests and free medicines in the camps organised in this community.

Sambhavna's four community health workers started an intensive health education campaign on August 11, 2000. Armed with a comprehensive range of 12 posters, they initiated discussions on the genesis of the problem, the nature of the chemicals and their known health effects, the role of corporate and government agencies, and the ways in which communities can protect themselves from this routine poisoning. The health education meetings that were held twice a week drew larger and larger numbers of people. During these meetings people expressed much concern regarding the bio-accumulative and carcinogenic nature of the chemicals involved. The elders in the community took the initiative in organising people to pressure the local elected public official on an almost daily basis.

As a result of this community initiative, on September 9, 2000, six tanks of 10,000 litres capacity each were provided by the Municipal Corporation. Since then six to eight tankers bring relatively safer drinking water every day and fill the tanks installed in the community. The quantity is far from sufficient and about 20 % of the population still do not have access to tanker water. Meanwhile, the community's efforts to get a permanent piped water supply continue.