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Children Still Bear Bhopal Burden

Crawling painfully on her hands and knees, Shakira Ehsan moved awkwardly to the doorway of her dim two-room shanty, located just across the street from an abandoned pesticide plant.

In 1984 — two years before Shakira was even born — that plant was the site of the world's worst industrial disaster.

Twenty years later, she is one of the thousands of child victims who have carried its toxic burden long past their childhoods.

Years after her mother was exposed to the cloud of lethal gas which leaked from the Union Carbide plant, Shakira's spindly legs are too weak to carry her body. Her mind has the abilities of a child.

"From the time she was born, she's been in and out of the hospital," sighed her mother, Nadira Begum, as 18-year old Shakira stared vacantly away.

On the night of Dec. 3, 1984, as the residents of the central Indian city of Bhopal slept, nearly 40 tons of methyl isocyanate leaked from the Union Carbide pesticide plant. Around 10,000 people died from the leak, Indian officials say, and more than half a million people were affected by the poisonous fumes that spewed out. However, the exact number of victims has never been clear.

Most vulnerable were the children.

Within a few days of the accident, thousands of children were dead.

Many women who pregnant at the time of the leak suffered spontaneous miscarriages, and many who managed to give birth had babies with severe mental and physical problems, said Satinath Sarangi, who runs a local health clinic that has treated thousands of survivors.

"Even today, mothers in the affected areas of Bhopal have been found to have carcinogenic elements in their breast milk," said Champa Devi Shukla, 52, a survivor who heads a women's self-help group.

Around here, Shakira is just one among many.

Two streets away from her live Jagdish and Renu Aherwar. From a distance, the brother and sister look as if they might be in grammar school.

But Renu was nearly a year old when the leak savaged Bhopal. Her mother, Leelaben Aherwar, says she grabbed her sleeping baby — who had showed no signs of problems until then — and fled their tin-roofed hut near the pesticide factory.

After the leak, Renu's growth, both physical and mental, slowed dramatically. Jagdish, born two years later, has similar troubles. Both children have also been diagnosed with diabetes, and Jagdish needs daily insulin injections to keep his sugar levels normal.

The two have stopped attending school, unable to keep up with the lessons and with illiterate parents who can't help. They have no access to special schools or classes that could ease their problems.

Twenty years of scrounging for medical help has left Leelaben wasted.

"Sometimes I think those died that night were the lucky ones. We are the ones who are the living dead," she said.

In compensation, the Indian government has paid Leelaben 16,000 rupees (about $330), a sum which vanished with a few medical bills.

While money was set aside for victims — Union Carbide paid $470 million in compensation under a settlement with India's government in 1989 — large amounts have been tied up in bureaucratic and legal knots.

Years later, rusted pipes and pesticide storage tanks have collapsed or ruptured in the abandoned plant. The state government took over legal responsibility of the site in 1998, but it has done little to clean up the mess.

Activists insist the area remains a danger, leaching dangerous chemicals into the soil and groundwater, but the company says state studies indicated that the groundwater around the plant was free of toxins and any water contamination was due to improper drainage and other pollution, not Union Carbide chemicals.

Today, the troubles of the survivors range across the spectrum: respiratory illness, poor eyesight, sensitivity to bright lights.

Many are still visited by the terrors of that night, complaining of panic attacks, fatigue, sleep disorders and bouts of depression.

Then there's the social stigma of being born on the wrong side of the side of town.

"Earlier, any young man who had a job at Union Carbide was viewed as a catch. Today, people don't want their daughters to marry boys from our neighborhood. Nor can we find grooms for our daughters," said Shukla.

People are afraid, residents say, that the children of Bhopal will carry their toxic legacy to still more generations.

By Nirmala George