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My chemical reaction

I had just woken up in the sleeper compartment of my train on December 4, 1984, when my eyes focused on a newspaper with screaming headlines about the industrial disaster at Bhopal. Vanita Shrivastava elaborates.

india Updated: Dec 03, 2009 20:48 IST
Vanita Shrivastava

I had just woken up in the sleeper compartment of my train on December 4, 1984, when my eyes focused on a newspaper with screaming headlines about the industrial disaster at Bhopal. At that point, I was not even remotely connected with Bhopal. But methyl isocyanate (MIC) was something that instantly caught my attention as just two days before, I had mugged upon how to prepare it for my upcoming chemistry exam.

That an innocuous reaction could produce something so deadly was all that I could think while travelling back. As expected, our chemistry paper that year was flooded with questions on MIC, its manufacture and how it reacts with different compounds. I scored exceptionally well.

Twenty-five years down the line, I have forgotten the organic reaction that churns out the compound. But having lived in Bhopal for more than a decade, I have grasped its toxic power, something that I could never have understood through a simple chemical equation written in a textbook.

The toxicity of the gas still resides in the people of Bhopal — in the form of failing vision, reproductive disorders, congenital malformations and respiratory diseases. There are children who want to study but can’t because of blurred vision; children who want to lead a normal life like others but can’t because of congenital diseases; women grappling with cancer and abortions; men still coming to terms with their breathing problems; families still consuming contaminated water.

Since 1984, non-governmental organisations have mushroomed, research centres have been established, hospitals for gas
victims have been built and compensations disbursed. But the morbidity of the whole affair lingers.

Money flowed, but so did corruption. People with no connection to the tragedy walked off with compensation. Some even called their relatives from outside Bhopal to get their names included in the victims’ list.

There is no point in having discussions and seminars on the Bhopal tragedy. What is required is a genuine effort to arrest the genetic disorders caused by the gas. The next generation of gas victims must be saved.

For this, serious research work is needed — certainly not the type that’s being done at Bhopal now with inadequate funds and poor infrastructure. The research should be targeted on producing drugs to treat the change in the genetic structure caused by MIC.

Countless number of dharnas and protests have taken place in the last 25 years. Endless reports have been made on the prevailing contamination. A number of warrants have been issued against the-then Union Carbide Chairman Warren Anderson.

But the ghost of the disaster continues to haunt and it probably will even 50 years down the line. Meanwhile, I took out my tattered organic chemistry book yesterday to look up the chemical reaction that I had mugged 25 years ago. I understood its toxicity this time.