Rashid Khan, 60, remembers the cold winter night of December 2, 1984, vividly. Sitting around a fire with four friends, his eyes started to burn. People began to shout, “Gas nikal gayi he (the gas has leaked).”
Outside his current house in Devaki Nagar, about one km from the chemical company Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) factory premises, Mr. Khan is now worried about another threat: the groundwater that he and the people in the densely populated area around use. “I still get dizzy every two or three days, and it lasts for two to three minutes. I sweat and get anxious,” Mr. Khan said.
In what was one of the greatest tragedies of the previous century, a deadly methyl isocyanate leakage from the plant in 1984, killed 5,479 people, temporarily disabled 35,455, and injured over five lakh, as per government estimates. Over the years, studies have found groundwater in different residential areas outside the factory contaminated with heavy metals and other toxic substances, which could lead to cancer and other diseases. Now, experts say there are chances of the contamination spreading.
This is because hundreds of tonnes of toxic waste dumped by UCIL within their factory premises from 1969 to 1984 and 11 lakh tonnes of contaminated soil have not yet been cleared by authorities, despite court orders and warnings, officials confirmed. In this soil is about one tonne of mercury, as per a government-commissioned study in 2010. There is also nearly 150 tonnes of underground dumps.
The government has recommended funds only for the disposal of 337 tonnes of waste, collected 18 years ago and stored in a shed in the factory.
Mr. Khan’s area is not part of the 42 areas around the factory where a Supreme Court-appointed Monitoring Committee is looking into the drinking water supply after groundwater contamination was found.
Devaki Nagar started getting piped water from the Narmada river about a decade ago, but when they run out, they draw water from a borewell nearby. “We still use borewell water for bathing, washing utensils, cleaning, and all other purposes. The piped water comes once a day and that too only for 20 minutes. In summer, there are many days without piped water,” Mr. Khan said, adding that they are forced to drink water from the borewell when they run out of piped water. Many others had a similar story to tell.
With activists complaining to the Supreme Court of groundwater contamination spreading, the Madhya Pradesh government has, over the last 15 years, increased the number of areas around the factory that they provide safe drinking water to, from 14 to 18 to 22 to 42, following court orders and studies. The government has also sealed hand pumps and tube wells so that residents do not have access to contaminated water.
Professor Indumathi M. Nambi, in the civil engineering department at IIT Madras, was appointed by the Supreme Court to check the water contamination in the area. She tested 20 samples of water outside the factory premises in 2018 and told the court in an affidavit: “The ongoing contamination of soil and groundwater in Bhopal is a technologically challenging problem that calls for immediate attention. The problem involves contamination by an array of highly toxic chemicals and heavy metals that over several decades have seeped to great depths over a wide area.”
She told The Hindu that the groundwater contamination is most likely to spread, as long as the toxic waste in the factory premises is not removed.
A few government studies though, have not found any groundwater contamination outside the factory.
Dr. Suranjit Chatterjee, Senior Consultant (Internal Medicine), Indraprastha Apollo Hospital, Delhi, said that even in small quantities, drinking water containing heavy metals damages the nervous system, liver, kidney, and other organs. “Using water contaminated with heavy metals and other toxic materials, even for non-drinking purposes such as bathing or washing utensils, leads to them being absorbed by the skin and mucosa. Over a long period of time, it affects the same organs. Even vegetables grown in such water are very dangerous to health,” he added.
Sheela Sahu, 65, who currently lives in Kalyan Nagar, was eight months pregnant when the gas leak happened. “After the gas leak, we moved to a slum in Arif Nagar [next to the factory]. There we drank water from the hand pump for 25 years there. The water smelt, but we didn’t have any other option. Our slum was right next to the factory’s wall,” she said.
Kalyan Nagar is part of the 42 areas where the SC-appointed committee is monitoring the supply of drinking water. Here too, piped water supply is erratic. Ms. Sahu’s son died when we was 15. “He was not well since his birth and fell ill quite often,” she remembers.
Rachna Dhingra, a member of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, an NGO part of the SC’s Monitoring Committee, said, “The groundwater contamination is spreading to more areas and affecting people’s health and it is not even being documented, let alone the government doing something to solve it.”
In 2022, Sambhavna Trust Clinic in Bhopal, based on tests, claimed that apart from the 42 areas, groundwater is contaminated in 29 more residential areas in the vicinity of the UCIL plant, including Devaki Nagar.
“The polluter-pays principle is not being applied to Dow Chemical. They are not even being held accountable for the waste,” she said. After 39 years of the government’s “inaction and apathy”, “It is putting the next generation of children at risk.”