Commentary

The children of Bhopal still play

Cricket is a way to escape the squalor around them, but the fields have a deadly past

Updated: November 10, 2010, 1:45 AM ET
By David Picker | 'E:60'

Every Sunday morning, as the sun creeps over the horizon in the central Indian city of Bhopal, boys of all ages begin to buzz with anticipation. On their only day off from school, they can think about only one thing: cricket.

In the overcrowded slums on the north side of town, there aren't many open spaces. So the boys here make a pilgrimage from their mud homes to a nearby abandoned factory. They scale the wall or slip through holes to enter the sprawling site, which at first glance looks like an ideal setting for India's national pastime. It is surrounded by lush foliage and a large swath of sky.

"No matter what, children in India will always find a place to play," said Sanjay Subrahmanyam, the director of UCLA's Center for India and South Asia. "That's how much they love cricket."

Cricket in India is like baseball in America; millions of boys daydream of one day playing professionally. In Bhopal, a city of 1.8 million, the sport has a particularly large following.

The field of dreams over at the factory, however, has a deadly past.

[+] EnlargeUnion Carbide
Daniel Berehulak/Getty ImagesThe structure of the Union Carbide factory, more than two decades after an explosion caused a chemical release.

Twenty-six years ago, the American company Union Carbide produced pesticides at the site. Shortly after midnight Dec. 3, 1984, 40 tons of methyl isocyanate, a lethal gas, accidentally leaked into the atmosphere. A noxious plume floated over the city, killing whomever stood in its path. According to some estimates, the death toll reached between 15,000 and 25,000 people. It was the deadliest industrial disaster in history.

Twenty-six monsoon seasons have come and gone, and yet the factory has never been cleaned up. The remnants of several structures still stand, with bottles of chemicals strewn across the floors. Rusted pipes and corroded gas tanks pepper the site. A shed, which wasn't locked until a few years ago, stores some of the 400 tons of toxic waste here.

In 1989, Union Carbide settled with the Indian government for $470 million and claimed it was absolved of all liabilities, including the cleanup. Dow Chemical, which bought the company in 2001, said last month in a statement that it has "no relation to the tragedy or its aftermath."

Indian government officials have said the site is not harmful to people, yet environmental advocacy groups criticize the government and want more testing to support the safety claims.

"E:60" tested both fields for contaminants in an investigation that will air at 7 p.m. ET Tuesday on ESPN. The results revealed levels of a pesticide, HCH, that were 300 to 400 times greater than U.S. standards.

"It's not where kids should be playing," said T. Kumar of Amnesty International, who noted that guards at the site allow kids to roam around. He added: "The Indian government is becoming another government that doesn't care about the poor, weak and the needy."

Babulal Gaur, the regional minister of relief and rehabilitation, said in reference to people from the slums: "They are willingly living there. They don't care [about] their own life. Then what can I do?"

The boys who play here, however, showed plenty of life on a recent Sunday morning. Scores of them showed up at the two fields. Some girls from the neighborhood tagged along. They smiled and laughed together, swatting at balls as though they were Sachin Tendulkar, the great batsman who is by far India's most famous athlete -- think Peyton Manning, Derek Jeter and Kobe Bryant packed into a 5-foot-5 frame. The kids were unfazed when cows and goats wandered onto their pitch.

For these children, some of whom do not attend school, cricket is a source of joy that costs nearly nothing. They often play with tennis balls and use twigs as wickets during their Sunday games and on weekdays after school. Only the heat of summer, when temperatures soar to 120 degrees, and puddles from the rainy season can dampen their spirits.

It's terribly ironic that their escape from the slums is taking place on toxic soil. But many of the boys are simply unaware of the health risks -- which include seizures and possibly cancer -- as well as the history that unfolded here 26 years ago. Others are too young to fully comprehend them.

"I have been playing since I was a kid," said Saurabh Singh Tomar, a teenage boy who recently played cricket at the factory. "If nothing has happened to me so far, why would that happen now?"

Vicky Sahu, another teenage boy who has played at the fields, said he was aware the site was contaminated. Asked why he keeps playing there, he added, "There are no other playgrounds around."

[+] EnlargeSachin Kumar
Daniel Berehulak/Getty ImagesSachin Kumar plays cricket with his friends in a slum near the site of the deserted Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, India.

Why would parents allow their kids to play at the factory? Kumar pointed to the extreme poverty in the slums and noted that many other areas in Bhopal have been contaminated. He said people are coping with so many problems, they're not necessarily concerned with the risks of invisible chemicals.

Nothing, it seems, can separate the children of Bhopal from cricket.

Sachin Kumar, 15, who lives a mile from the factory, has an added hurdle. He has cerebral palsy and cannot walk. Doctors believe his condition resulted from his mother inhaling the gas. So he gets around in a rickety wheelchair and plays cricket from his knees.

"I like two things very much," he said. "One is bowling, and the other is wicket-keeping."

Sachin said he dreams of one day playing professional cricket so he can buy a house made of stone. It's a goal he will never attain. But his unbreakable hope gets him through the day.

"I like cricket because it also gives you a good name," he said, flashing a broad smile. "If I play well, no one can say anything wrong to me. And I like cricket a lot because I am a winner. Playing is fun, but winning, every captain wants his team to win."

David Picker is a producer for "E:60." Jeremy Schaap, an "E:60" correspondent, and Yaron Deskalo, an "E:60" producer, contributed to this report.