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How Careless Dumping Of Radioactive Material In Delhi’s Mayapuri Has Damaged Lives

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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.

mayapuri scrap yard 2
Image source: Abhimanyu

What Really Happened In 2010

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.

mayapuri scrap yard 3
Image source: Abhimanyu

What Next?

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.

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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