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
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
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.