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The Continuing Legacy of Bhopal

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The Bhopal disaster was one of the worst in industrial history. I’ve written about it here and discussed it at some length in Out of Sight. The thing about a disaster like this is that it doesn’t go away. People still live there and they have to deal with the consequences of a terrible thing that an American corporation did to them. And it ain’t good.

In the decades since, many other sites of industrial waste—in New Jersey, Missouri, Ohio—have been cleaned up. But this 70-acre site in Bhopal has, apart from the riotous jungle basil, remained mostly unchanged. Union Carbide Corporation (UCC); its former Indian subsidiary; its current owner, DowDuPont; the state government of Madhya Pradesh; and the central Indian government have all played an endless game of pass the buck. While this charade plays on, and people continue to think of Bhopal’s tragedy as one horrific night in 1984, the site still hosts hundreds of tons of contaminated waste. The Bhopal disaster is, in fact, still unfolding.

From the wooden bed outside her two-room house, Munni bi, the grande dame of Annu Nagar, has a wide lens on the devastation. Munni bi’s bed is less than 200 feet from a massive pit that UCC filled with toxic sludge, close enough to witness the damage the ganda pani—dirty water—has wrought.

Right next door is 15-year-old Fiza, who didn’t speak for the first five years of her life, and still has heart palpitations, dizzy spells, and headaches. The young woman who grew up two doors down, Tabassum, now has a toddler who doesn’t eat much or speak or cry and has seizures. Down the street is Obais, a spindly legged 13-year-old with black pustules all over his body—so painful and grotesque that he rarely leaves the house. Across the street from him is 12-year-old Tauseeb, who is intellectually disabled. And there’s Najma, the sweet, young woman who lost her mother to tongue cancer and now sits in front of her house all day, smiling and occasionally shouting out guttural gibberish to passersby. And then there is the house where one daughter has fused bones in her legs, and another has a hole in her heart.

If people were to paint a red cross on every door that harbors illness, as they did during the bubonic plague in England, few doors in Annu Nagar, a small slum in Bhopal, would remain unmarked. The houses of Munni bi’s two sons would each display a cross—in the house behind her bed is Bushra, her 14-year-old granddaughter, who is “not quite right” and whose “eyes hurt.” Across the street, her grandson, Anees, was born with skin that looked burned and limbs that lay flaccid and useless; he died five years ago at age 4, never having spoken a word. Three years ago, Munni bi was diagnosed with bladder cancer, a common complaint in these parts. When I visit her on a blisteringly hot day in March of last year, her cancer is temporarily under control, but the diabetic sores on her thighs keep her in bed, where she can do little but lie still, rail against fate, and survey the desolation.

“This is all because of the water,” Munni bi told me that day. “They have made us drink poison.”

Annu Nagar is one of 22 communities where the groundwater has been known for nearly 20 years to contain toxic levels of chlorinated solvents. Six years ago, responding to relentless efforts from activists, the Indian Supreme Court ordered the city to install pipes that bring in clean water from the Narmada River. But the pipes coming into some houses run right through sewers, and on rainy days, filth and feces mingle with the clean water. In the meantime, each monsoon may be carrying this toxic plume farther. The most recent survey suggests there are 20 more communities where the water is contaminated. In March of this year, the Supreme Court ordered that the city ensure clean water to these areas, too—and that it undertake a project to lay down sewage and drainage networks for the entire city.

The entire thing is well worth reading. It’s a powerful piece of journalism, one of the rare excellent pieces these days from the ruins of The Atlantic. It will not make you feel good about the world.

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