A deceptive appearance of normality has returned to the central Indian city of Bhopal seven weeks after the Union Carbide pesticide plant spewed out clouds of deadly methyl isocyanate gas, killing at least 2,000 persons in the world's worst industrial disaster.
Alongside the high walls of the sprawling factory, in the desperately poor Jaiprakash Nagar and Chhola Road slums that were transformed into a landscape of death on Dec. 3, barefooted children play in the dirt alleys while men sit in tea stalls under the warm winter sun and watch the hectic traffic of sputtering scooter rickshaws and creaking farm carts drawn by bullocks.
Many of the low-slung jhuggies, or lean-to shanties fashioned out of scrap wood and tar paper, have been patched up with jute sacking scavenged from a huge makeshift screen built around the plant in mid-December, when engineers neutralized 23 tons of leftover liquid gas in the shut-down factory.
It is election time in Bhopal, where voting for the national Parliament was suspended last month because of the disaster. The sounds of gaily shrieking children riding on a wooden Ferris wheel mingle with Hindi campaign slogans blaring over loudspeakers.
But beneath the surface, Bhopal is slowly choking, even though the last traces of methyl isocyanate have been blown away long since by the wind and the area officially declared safe.
Grief has turned to anxiety and uncertainty over the future. Everywhere there is seething anger and bitterness, not only at Union Carbide India Ltd. and its U.S. parent company, Union Carbide Corp., for the accident itself, but at the government bureaucracy that is seen here as insensitive to the plight of destitute families whose misery has been compounded by the lingering aftereffects of the leak.
Most of all there is fear, an almost irrational fear that the deserted pesticides factory will once again begin spewing the chemical whose name even a 5-year-old child in Bhopal knows. Residents also fear that their bodies are saturated with poison that in the months and years to come will produce stillborn babies, unimaginable diseases and madness, and withered crops.
About 200,000 people were affected by inhaling the mist of methyl isocyanate that drifted over Bhopal from an underground storage tank on Dec. 3. Even though the state government of Madhya Pradesh periodically issues press releases declaring that the worst is over and that the effects of the gas are abating, the most common sound that can be heard these days in the teeming resettlement colonies surrounding the factory is violent coughing. The most common sight is men, women and children dabbing their watering eyes with rags.
Because so little is known about the long-term effects of exposure to methyl isocyanate, medical experts are unable to say what future complications are likely to arise. Some doctors, citing a study of 35 British firemen exposed to a similar compound, di-isocyanate, in 1967, warn of the possibility of memory loss, difficulty in concentration and depression. Others talk about possible carcinogenic effects or hereditary damage, but concede that there is scant medical literature on the subject.
What is known is the pattern of symptoms shown by the thousands of patients still undergoing treatment at Bhopal's two major hospitals, the two dozen outpatient clinics here and several makeshift dispensaries: visual impairment caused by watering of the eyes, and photophobia, or inability to see in the sunlight, as well as numerous respiratory complaints, including breathlessness, burning in the chest, sudden feelings of suffocation and "effort intolerance," or extreme fatigue following even mild physical exertion.
Patients interviewed also complained of dizziness, ataxia or imbalance while walking, stomach distention and loss of appetite. Although government doctors said they have recorded no significant increase in miscarriages, some women have reported changes in their menstrual cycles.
At a 30-bed government clinic near Jaiprakash, where several hundred coughing patients waited patiently in a long line for medicine for respiratory and eye ailments, Dr. M.M. Nanda, a government physician, said he was engaged in an uphill battle against recurring symptoms and could not begin to estimate the extent of permanent disability caused by the gas leak.
"We are surprised by the recurring symptoms," Nanda said. "The literature says that the symptoms should have stopped by now, but they [the patients] keep coming. There must be severe structural damage to the lungs." He said he is still treating 600 outpatients a day in that clinic alone, and that the number has not decreased in weeks. At a clinic near Chhola Road, Bhagan Das Ojha, 45, an itinerant carpenter who has a wife and two teen-aged children sickened by the gas, said that he has been unable to work since Dec. 3 because carrying heavy loads causes dizziness and breathlessness and that he suffers constant abdominal pain. Ojha normally supports his family on about $50 a month, but with that income cut off, he said, he now depends on the 24 pounds of wheat and rice, one pound of sugar and two pounds of cooking oil that are distributed each month to families qualifying for emergency relief.
Sitting on a stool in front of a government physician, his shoulders sagging in a loose-fitting and tattered dhoti, or wraparound loincloth, Ojha said, "How can I work? Life can never be normal if I can't breathe again. I have no future." Bhagi Rathi, 60, who used to make a living collecting groundnuts, said he cannot even walk to the nearby fields without struggling for breath. As he talked, his chest heaved in racking coughs, and his eyes watered continuously.
The uncertainty surrounding the future of Bhopal residents' health has been compounded by the environmental damage that is still evident in this city of 700,000 set amid rolling hills and glistening lakes.
Old neem trees, whose twigs rural Indians use to clean their teeth and massage their gums, and flourishing bo trees have been transformed into leafless stalks.
Durga Prasad Kushwah, a farmer, walked a visitor a mile to his eight-acre plot of eggplant, radish and lettuce to display the stumps of defoliated plants that he said were destroyed by the gas cloud.
There have been persistent disputes over the long-range effects of the methyl isocyanate on vegetation, with R.L. Rajak, plant protection adviser for the Indian Ministry of Agriculture, advising just two days after the gas leak that there was no possibility of any toxic effects on plants because the gas reacts to moisture and breaks down into harmless substances.
Two days later, however, S.K. Mukherjee, an agrochemicals specialist in the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, said there had been no similar large-scale exposure of vegetation to methyl isocyanate before, and that severe exposure could penetrate to the roots of plants.
At Union Carbide's spacious and futuristically designed research and development laboratory on Shama Hill, company research director B.P. Shrivastava, who has been allowed to continue his operation despite the closing of the pesticides factory, challenged a reporter's observations that many trees in the vicinity of the plant had been defoliated.
"There may be some drying of leaves, because MIC reacts with water and takes away from the leaves. But there is no scientific basis for claiming long-term damage to vegetation," Shrivastava said.
His analysis has been disputed by Anil Sadgopal, a molecular biologist and member of the Regional Research Laboratory in Bhopal, who said that only a long-term study of vegetation growth can determine the effects of the gas cloud.
Sadgopal's entry into the thick of the controversy reflects the politicization of the debate over the residual effects of the gas leak.
Representing a newly formed protest group called Poison Gas Case Struggle Front, Sadgopal has drawn young environmental activists and college students from as far away as New Delhi to organize residents of stricken neighborhoods into pressing for adequate compensation and environmental relief programs.
Operating out of a garret in a rundown building on Chhola Road, the group has conducted demonstrations and hunger strikes to protest what it terms the callousness and indifference of state officials.
Besides distributing food rations to affected areas, the Madhya Pradesh government has announced a program of cash assistance grants in which dependents of Bhopal residents who died in the gas leak can receive 10,000 rupees, or $700; persons seriously disabled, $140, and partially disabled residents up to $70 in emergency assistance while awaiting the outcome of compensation suits filed against Union Carbide.
Jyotika Virdi, one of the protest organizers, charged that allotments of the 10,000-rupee cash grants have been rare and that state officials who are bogged down in red tape have been arbitrarily dispensing small amounts to partially disabled residents without adequately determining the extent of their illness.
The group also is protesting Union Carbide's alleged failure to advise residents of the slum colonies near the factory of the dangers of the stored methyl isocyanate gas, and of emergency procedures to follow in the event of a leak. Virdi said those few residents who closed themselves in their houses and covered their faces with wet towels survived, while the ones who panicked and ran outdoors inhaled large quantities of the gas and died.
Shrivastava, in an interview, agreed that wet cloths placed over the face could have saved many lives. When asked why the factory management had not issued such precautionary instructions to residents, Shrivastava replied, "Logically, I agree with you. I can't answer that question. I run research and development, not production."
Bhopal's district collector, Moti Singh, who is responsible for coordinating relief operations, said he is aware that many victims have become embittered at the slowness of the disbursements of cash grants, which he said had been allotted to only about 400 families of persons killed because of delays encountered when thousands of residents fled Bhopal during the four-day gas neutralizing operation. He also acknowledged that state officials, and not doctors, were in charge of determining the extent of disability payments, and that some inequities may have resulted.
Some medical specialists are considering the residents' plight in the months and years ahead, such as Hamidia Hospital psychiatric ward director B.S. Asthana, who in an interview said he was concerned about "indirect psychological dysfunction and vague types of symptoms not explained by any toxicological effects." S.R. Kamat, the director of the cardiovascular and thoracic center of Bombay's King Edward Memorial Hospital, said in an interview in Bombay that on the basis of an initial study of 60 severely affected patients referred to his hospital, he is worried about permanent neurological disorders.
Dr. Kamat, who said he was studying medicine in London in 1967 when the 35 British firemen were overcome with di-isocyanate gas, said, "Their recurring symptoms went on for four years. How long the Bhopal victims will experience problems, nobody knows. There is little empirical data."
To the mostly illiterate residents who still are clinging to their tiny huts in the shadow of the imposing pesticide factory in Bhopal, a study of empirical data is too abstract to understand.
Many of them know from the suffocating feeling they experience after the slightest exertion that they will never work again.
Iqbal Ghulam Khan, 14, said he knows whom to blame for the terrifying night of Dec. 3 -- "Union Carbide, I guess" -- but said he doesn't know whom to hold responsible for his own uncertain future. "I don't know what is ahead in my life," he said.