By Abhimanyu Kumar for Youth Ki Awaaz:
Six years ago, an incident occurred in Delhi which has had hardly any precedence in India, except the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, which was similar but not the same.
In 2010, a most curious – and in hindsight rather dangerous under the circumstances – object made its way to Mayapuri in Delhi. Mayapuri, often called Asia’s biggest scrap market, has around 200 shops dealing in all kinds of scrap. A large number of shopkeepers are from the minority Sikh community, with many Muslims and Hindus as well. The labourers, like in other industrial areas in Delhi and nearby, are from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
Initially, no one knew the provenance of the mysterious object which later turned out to be Cobalt-60. A radioactive substance, it is used to treat cancer, among other things. It would later transpire that it was auctioned by Delhi University (DU), allegedly, in contravention of norms. In fact, it wasn’t before five people fell ill from the effects of the radiation – leading to the death of a labourer who had come in contact, and grave injuries to three shopkeepers – was it known what it was: a radioactive substance capable of causing major damage, due to the completely wrong way it was being handled.
YKA conducted an investigation and found out that the victims of the radiation from the substance continue to suffer from physical infirmities like dizziness in the sun, general weakness and others they contracted through their contact with Cobalt-60, as per their claims. They told YKA that the compensation they received was hardly satisfactory and did little to alleviate their difficulties. They received Rs. four lakh each. The labourer who died received monetary compensation of a few lakhs as well and his wife was given a government job on compassionate grounds.
Not only that, neither the state nor the central government has put in place any mechanism to prevent a reoccurrence of the tragedy, YKA learnt. Everything continues as it was and a repeat may happen anytime, putting in danger a large labour force and sundry shopkeepers.
Kamal Bansal has been fighting the case filed by Ajay Jain and Deepak Jain – who suffered due to radiation – in Delhi High Court pro-bono. He told me that since an occurrence like this was unprecedented, it was necessary to put in place a system which will address it in the future.
Bansal told me, on the basis of the court documents, that the Gamma Cell Irradiator which contained Cobalt-60 was bought and brought to Mayapuri in the last week of February 2010. It was dismantled in the first week of March the same year in the Mayapuri scrap yard.
“It was bought in 1968 from Canada through the University Grants Commission for professor B.K.Sharma’s research which was about the effect of Gamma rays on compressed cyanide,” he told me. The GCI was lying unused since 1985 when professor Sharma retired.
In February 2010, a committee consisting of eight DU professors from the science department, among others, decided to auction the GCI. This was done without following the Atomic Energy Act, alleged Bansal.
The auction was held on February 26 and one Harcharan Singh bought it for Rs. 1.5 lakh.
The GCI was dismantled in the Mayapuri scrap yard. The radioactive isotopes of Cobalt-60 were inside a shield of lead which was broken; the shields were necessary to contain the radiation.
“Everyone who saw the isotopes thought they were made of some mysterious and precious metal which will bring them a fortune,” Bansal told me.
Some of these isotopes found their way to Deepak Jain and Ajay Jain, two scrap dealers of Mayapuri. Deepak put it in an almirah in his shop while Ajay put it in his wallet. In a month or so, they started losing hair, and had burns on their body parts due to radiation. This was accompanied by vomiting and fever. Deepak’s nephew Himanshu Jain was also affected by the radiation and was hospitalised for two months. While he declined to be interviewed, a source close to him said that his mother expired during that period,possibly due to the stress and fear.
I met Ajay Jain, also known as Bunty Jain, outside his shop in Mayapuri on a hot May afternoon. It was impossible to make out by looking at him that he had to undergo 11 operations during a span of almost a year when he was admitted in the Gangaram Hospital in New Delhi, due to his stoic air. “I had an operation every two to three months, sometimes more,” he told me, his voice betraying no sign of how he felt about it. It cost him Rs. 17 lakh to save his leg, affected due to the radiation.
“The government’s response was pathetic. They did not seem bothered at all. They sponsored my stay at the Army Hospital in Dhaula Kuan but the doctors there were more interested in conducting research on my condition than actually treating me,” he alleged.
The next hearing of the case is in November when final arguments are likely to be heard. The defendants are the central government, and DU, as well as the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. Both Ajay and Deepak Jain have claimed “exemplary damages” and sought money to pay for “latent injuries” they might suffer in future.
The head of Department of Chemistry at the Delhi University was not available for comments when I visited and called later. Professor V.S.Parmar, who was the HoD when the auction took place was also not available for comments either, despite attempts to meet in person and speak over the phone. Five other professors were also charged in the case.
Kishan Gupta, the current president of the Mayapuri Market Association said that a disaster like what happened in 2010 could happen anytime again. “No security measures have been put in place. We can face a similar situation any time,” he told me over phone.
A study conducted by Greenpeace found high levels of radiation in Mayapuri some years ago, despite the government ruling it out.
By refusing to learn from past mistakes, the government is bound to make them again, sooner than later. While the authorities need to make sure that this never happens again, it almost seems like it will take a sustained campaign to make them rise up from their slumber and act. Or maybe a favourable judgment in November can do that.