SLUMS SPRAWL IN SHADOW OF BHOPAL GAS LEAK INDIANS EKE OUT LIVING 12 YEARS AFTER DISASTER DESPITE SUSPECTED CONTAMINATION OF WATER, SOIL
Kenneth J. Cooper Washington Post Foreign Service June 27, 1996;
BHOPAL, INDIA -- The three visitors climbed atop the circular concrete rim, peered down and sniffed the deep dankness of the polluted well across the street from the closed Union Carbide plant. Almost immediately, voices cackling in Hindi interrupted the inspection. The visitors turned their heads toward a group of young boys who were lined up along a nearby wall. "This is the well of death," the boys said. They were laughing. This bit of macabre humor did not surprise the guide, an environmental activist who has frequented the Jayprakashnagar slum, where the accidental release of poisonous gas from the Union Carbide pesticide plant in 1984 continues to take lives. When slum children play house, one child ends the game by pretending to release noxious gas, causing the other participants to start coughing before they fall to the ground and lie still, as if dead. It is a morbid game for a morbid place. "How else do you cope with it?" asked Satinath Sarangi, the guide.
A dozen years after
a toxic tragedy killed more than 4,000 people in Bhopal and damaged the
health of 500,000 more, families still live just outside the barbed-wire
fence surrounding the plant, which shut down after the methyl isocyanate
gas was released. New slums have sprouted nearby on abandoned farmlands
whose yields dropped sharply in the aftermath of the accident. Sarangi
and other activists have been working to focus attention on suspected
contamination of the water and soil by toxic waste discharged from the
plant, which began operating in the 1970s. Potable municipal water does
flow from the taps in Jayprakashnagar each morning but for less than 30
minutes, according to residents. "There are so many water problems
here," said Begum Bee, 45. "We're helpless; we have to use water
from the well." Residents said they suspect two wells are polluted.
One is not used because the stone wall around it has collapsed, spilling
dirt into the bottom. But water is still drawn from "the well of
death." "It's not used for drinking; it's used for washing,"
said Babu Lal, a shopkeeper. "It has a foul smell." When other
water is not available, residents fill their pots at a distant well rather
than drink from the polluted one. "Why would we want to drink it?
We don't want to die," Lal said. Even washing with the well water,
Lal said, has caused minor health problems. While adults report a temporary
itching and burning sensation, blisters have appeared on the tender skin
Special correspondent Rama Lakshmi contributed to this report.
Cutline: In February 1985, two months after the gas leak that killed more than 4,000 people, a woman filled cans with water from a well in front of the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India.