What marks out JP Nagar slum from others in Bhopal is a modest memorial depicting a woman clutching a baby and shielding her burning eyes. Across the road a raised boundary wall hides from view the factory from which the poison gas leaked 27 years ago, killing thousands, infecting more than 200,000 people, and burdening generations with illness, death and suffering.
In another part of the world, Dow Chemicals, the new owners of this same unpunished, unrepentant company, have contributed $10 million to one of the most spectacular celebrations on the planet — the London Olympics. Games watchdog commissioner Meredith Alexander resigned from her position in protest, describing the donation as a ‘toxic legacy’ on the collective conscience. But the company’s contributions were welcomed as it would save taxpayers’ money. The $7 million decorative wrap over the stadium supplied by the firm would add light and colour to the festivities.
But light and colour elude JP Nagar. Its residents feel that they are like walking corpses. “Our mourning has dried up. All that is left is illnesses. It is hard to breathe. Our hearts beat like pumps. Our bodies ache. We continuously panic, are easily irritated, sleepless at night, and frightened,” they say.
In their small slum of 700 shanties, it is rare if there isn’t a burial or cremation in weeks mostly of women and men too young to die. According to locals, at least 15 young people have committed suicide. Everywhere among the dirt lanes and reeking open drains are wearied, defeated people with a dizzying encyclopaedia of maladies — enfeebled lungs, fading eyesight, shooting blood pressure, runaway diabetes, still-born or deformed babies and wounded minds.
The scene is no different in colonies near the ruins of the killer factory. At Noormahal Colony, we meet Lakshmi, consumed by dread even when she hears raised voices, or clashing vessels, or a burst tyre. Still haunted by memories of that dark night of terror 27 years ago, she finds it hard to sleep. She recalls a man desperate to escape, scrambling on to an over-crowded auto-rickshaw, when life abruptly abandoned him. The rickshaw drove away with his bent body half-in, half-out. She remembers bodies falling like flies all around her. She finds it hard to travel on a bus, or step out of her home alone.
A few houses away, Naseem recalls serving tea in a stall the morning after; a man sipped his tea, then just collapsed dead in a heap. He saw tens of people die that day. His mother recalls that of all her sons, he was the gentlest. After he witnessed the tragedy, his personality changed dramatically. These 27 years, he could not hold a job. He is continually anxious and irritable. He snaps at his mother, his wife and children. His brothers pool money every month to support his family. His face is lined with a permanent sadness and he cannot muster the energy to work, or to hope.
Another site of the same dense suffering is the Widow’s Colony, still under-served by all public services, clean water, internal roads, electricity and drainage. We hear echoes of the same afflictions: severe respiratory disorders, hypertension, cardiac afflictions, female reproductive disorders, birth defects, diabetes and cancer. In addition, there is widespread psycho-social breakdown — unemployment, broken marriages and poverty. They all speak of ‘ghabrahat’: a chronic sense of unease, anxiety, panic and vague fear.
These are typical symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, psychiatrist Srinivas Murthy explains to me. Victims or witnesses to every major catastrophe show consistently higher incidence of mental illnesses: chronic depression, anxiety and panic attacks. These ailments are even more intractable in human-made disasters, such as massacres or industrial accidents. These are treatable disorders, but require dedicated, sensitive, empathetic and accessible health services. Something consistently denied to the survivors of one of the world’s worst industrial disasters.
Compensation amounts awarded in the tortuous legal trajectory which followed the catastrophe were used in parts to create a formidable infrastructure of health services meant to serve the survivors. But doctors in most of these facilities have been permitted to simultaneously see private patients. Gas victims, mostly casual workers, report long waiting lines. Doctors see them cursorily; have no patience for their fears and often vague physical ailments, dismiss them quickly with a scribbled prescription of medicines, frequently not available in the official pharmacies, and sophisticated machines are imported but rarely used for the victims.
Murthy and pulmonary specialist Vijayan have voluntarily relocated themselves to Bhopal to lead a renewed effort to bring healing and relief to generations of gas survivors. Sadbhavana Trust, a hospital, led by activist Sathyu, is an oasis of care. But these are rare, iridescent exceptions.
And like the medical profession, the central and state administrations in India even much more than in London have long forgotten the survivors, and moved on to ‘higher’ priorities.
The doctors, including psychiatrists, are typically dismissive of the survivors as malingerers, wasters or parasites, living on free hand-outs. This view is widely shared by middle-class residents of the city. It is unfortunate that most victims of the tragedy are also casual workers, slum residents, Muslims or Dalits. Each of these stigmatised identities reinforces official and middle-class prejudice and indifference against them.
A survivor in JP Nagar, Bhopal, remarked: “I often think that the dead were more fortunate than those who survived.” Even as we celebrate the sullied ‘spirit’ of the Olympic Games, there’s still time to work for the uplift of the victims of Bhopal.
Harsh Mander is a member of the National Advisory Council
The views expressed by the author are personal