At first glance, it’s just another pond, as big as four football fields taken together, but, like all city ponds, muddy, with garbage and sewage collected on the borders.
But this is often no ordinary pond: it’s a toxic reminder of the 1984 Bhopal Gas Tragedy that killed a minimum of 2,200 people (the toll remains disputed). And after 37 years, it’s another time making news for the incorrect reason. Water chestnuts are being grown within the pond, and there are fears that the produce might be toxic.
The 5.82-acre waterbody within the Chhola Road area of Bhopal, right next to the long time Colony, right next to the Union Carbide plant where the accident happened, was actually used as a “solar evaporation pond” by the corporate that’s believed to own dumped several tonnes of the methyl isocyanate — the chemical that leaked from the plant in gas form — into it from the 1970s until the intervening night of December 2 and three, 1984. That night, the gas leaked, killing a minimum of 2,259 people and affecting a minimum of 500,000 more. Since then, local people have cited the pond as “zehreela talaab (toxic pond)”.
Until the first 1990s, the pond was fenced off with six to eight guards keeping people away. It stands ashore owned by Atul Sharma, a cousin of the BJP MP from Jhansi, Anurag Sharma. Sharma, who gave the land on lease to Union Carbide (a joint stock company owned by the multinational of the identical name and also the authorities, which had a minority stake) fought a legal battle in court for 19 years until 2003 when the ownership was returned to him by a Bhopal court. By then, the ownership of Union Carbide had moved to Dow Chemical, which acquired the corporate in 2000.
A decade later, in 2013, Sharma tried to top off the pond and construct a housing colony thereon. But the survivors of the gas tragedy moved the Supreme Court, claiming thepond had been deemed poisonous and posed a permanent hazard to anyone living there. In an affidavit to the Supreme Court in 2013, the regime said that a subdivisional magistrate had prohibited Sharma from effecting any commercial activities on the land under Section 133 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. The matter remains pending before the court.
Yet, earlier this year, locals spotted two farmers visiting the pond regularly, sowing and tending to water chestnuts. They were identified as Satish Ricchariya and Deepak Raikwar. This month, 3,000kg of the produce was ready available across Bhopal, prompting local activists to approach the authorities who stopped the farming and therefore the harvest of the crop.
Mohammad Shafique, a resident of the age Colony, said the pond was “used as a chemical disposal tank by Union Carbide from 1977 to 1984 through pipes, with the factory only a kilometre and a half away”. “For the past four decades, we’ve always known that even drinking this water can be fatal, something repeated to us over and over by the authorities. There was once a boundary here, and guards. How can it suddenly be okay for farming?” Shafique asked
Other local people said that the authorities told them that groundwater in an exceedingly 3-km radius had turned poisonous because of the dumping of methyl isocyanate. “After the accident, the waste matter wasn’t disposed from the pond, and multiple tests have shown that hazardous effluents have entered groundwater in an exceedingly 3-km radius,” said another resident, Shahbaz Khan. “As those who live here, we only rely upon H2O. But we’ve seen precautions becoming lax over the years. First, some locals started fishing and water chestnut farming, but during a tiny area of the pond. This year, they’re doing it over the complete pond. this can be just dangerous.”
Ricchariya and Raikwar, involved within the buying and selling of land and contract farming in villages in and around Bhopal, said there’s “nothing wrong with the water”, and that they had taken the pond on rent from Sharma for ₹25,000 for a year. “Locals were doing fish farming within the pond after the monsoon and that they are fine. what’s the matter if we’ve got started doing it in an organised manner? most labor has gone into this. The locals didn’t say anything after we started the farming, but now that the chestnut is prepared available within the market, they’re raising issues,” said Ricchariya.
But concerns about health are very real. Activists said that this very pond has been the topic of as many as 17 toxicity studies conducted by, among others, the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, Indian Institute of Toxicology Research, Centre for Science and Environment, Greenpeace, Central Pollution instrument panel, and therefore the State Pollution instrument panel, which each revealed the presence of toxic chemicals in groundwater thanks to the dumped waste within the pond.
“The most up-to-date study conducted in 2017 by Indian Institute of Toxicology Research revealed that chemical oxygen demand (COD) was far beyond the permissible limit. COD test is finished to live the quantity of organic pollutants in water. the opposite studies revealed the presence of six persistent organic pollutants, heavy metals and toxic chemicals within the soil and groundwater. How then are these people being allowed to try and do farming at the most spot of toxic waste? they’re putting the lives of individuals in Bhopal in danger if the chestnut enters the market,” said Rachna Dhingra, convener, Bhopal Group for Information & Action, an NGO.
Raikwar said that after they were taking the pond on rent, they were assured that they may do “anything on the pond.” “Atul bhaiya assured us that we won’t face any difficulty,” Raikwar said. Despite repeated attempts, Atul Sharma, who lives in Jhansi in state, refused to treat the problem over phone. But Jhansi MP Anurag Sharma said, “My cousin features a pond in Bhopal and there’s a dispute there but i’m not alert to it.”
The district administration intervened on Saturday. “We have stopped them (the farmer) from farming and collecting nuts from the pond. we’ll clear all the fish and water chestnuts from the pond and can also founded fencing round the pond with a warning board to forestall any such activities within the future,” said Bhopal district collector Avinash Lavaniya.
But Ricchariya and Raikwar have said that they’re now in debt as Sharma has not entertained any request for a refund of the cash paid as rent and therefore the district administration has refused to supply them any compensation.
“We took a loan of ₹2 lakh from money-lenders as investment. What happens to us now? We took the pond on rent within the hope of earning some money at a time Covid-19 limited earning opportunities. We are BPL (below poverty line) card holders, and if they destroy the yield, how will we pay the debt?” Raikwar said.
The Bhopal Municipal Corporation has no answer to the present except that the liability rests with the owner of the land, who is soon to be served a notice. Municipal commissioner KVS Chaudhary said, “The one who has given the pond on rent should pay their debt because knowingly or not, they were putting the lives of people in danger. we are going to also serve a notice to the owner as all the commercial activities are strictly prohibited on this land.”