Crippled by uranium

Gethin Chamberlain, in Bathinda, India, for The Observer, Sunday 30 August 2009

Their heads are too large or too small, their limbs too short or too bent. For some, their brains never grew, speech never came and their lives are likely to be cut short: these are the children it appears that India would rather the world did not see, the victims of a scandal with potential implications far beyond the country’s borders.

Some sit mutely, staring into space, lost in a world of their own; others cry out, rocking backwards and forwards. Few have any real control over their own bodies. Their anxious parents fret over them, murmuring soft words of encouragement, hoping for some sort of miracle that will free them from a nightmare.

Health workers in the Punjabi cities of Bathinda and Faridkot knew something was terribly wrong when they saw a sharp increase in the number of birth defects, physical and mental abnormalities, and cancers. They suspected that children were being slowly poisoned.

But it was only when a visiting scientist arranged for tests to be carried out at a German laboratory that the true nature of their plight became clear. The results were unequivocal. The children had massive levels of uranium in their bodies, in one case more than 60 times the maximum safe limit.

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