BHOPAL, India — Jyoti is one of many Indian women whose dreams of a glittering wedding were shattered after the Bhopal gas disaster killed thousands 25 years ago this week and left many more ill from exposure.
Having endured the lethal billow of methyl isocyanate gas which seeped from the Union Carbide plant on December 3, 1984, Jyoti and her contemporaries then suffered the stigma of being survivors.
"No one would marry her," said her mother Sheela. "They looked at her health and saw how sick she was, and that she was always going for treatment for her kidney and respiratory problems."
At just 39, Jyoti is practically a spinster by Indian standards, where despite increased educational and career opportunities, women are still pressured to marry young and reproduce soon after.
But the chances of a childless marriage or spending a fortune treating children with birth defects turned many Bhopal women into pariahs.
Research conducted by the state-run Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) until 1994 showed that 25,000 people had died from the consequences of gas exposure -- in addition to the 8,000 to 10,000 people who were killed within the first three days.
Government statistics compiled after 1994 concluded that at least 100,000 people living near the factory in central Madhya Pradesh state were chronically sick, with more than 30,000 residing in areas with contaminated water.
According to the ICMR, the number of still births and miscarriages increased immediately after the disaster, and activists say more than 350 tonnes of toxic waste strewn around the site still pollute soil and groundwater in the area, leading to hormonal and fertility disorders and other illnesses.
"My daughter has been married for more than five years and she still has no children," lamented 60-year-old Savra Bi, who lives in a crude row of shacks close to the plant, in the old part of Bhopal which was worst hit.
"After 1984, for 10 years no girl had a good marriage," agreed Champa Devi Shukla, a managing trustee with the Chingari Trust, which provides medical care to children with gas-related congenital deformities.
"Men thought they might miscarry. Even men in the new part of the city refused to marry them. So many just ended up marrying late," she said.
Some so-called "Bhopal brides" found that men from outside Bhopal took a keen interest in them only for the compensation cheques handed out after a 1989 settlement between Union Carbide and the Indian government.
But Sanjay, who lugs his two children everywhere because both were born unable to walk, had no qualms about marrying his wife Sarda.
"It's no secret that many women here have health problems. If you think that way then no one will ever get married," he said.
Jyoti studied until grade 11 and tried to find a job, but now she spends her days at home, helping her mother with housework.
Her mother Sheela, like many Indian parents, was frustrated by the lack of offers.
"We even tried looking outside as far as Punjab, but they knew she was a gas survivor. I'm glad she's with me but worried that she's not married."
Clad in a pink sari, Jyoti was philosophical about her status as she sat on a woven mat on the hard floor of her tiny home in J.P. Nagar, a shantytown in front of the factory grounds.
"I'm happy even though I'm not married," she said. "The girls who did marry were always worried that their husbands would leave them if they were sick."
That is what happened to Rani, 31, who works for the Chingari Trust and said she was married at 19 to an abusive husband from outside the city.
As a survivor, she received a meagre pay-out of 400 rupees (eight dollars) a month and then a lump sum of 7,000 rupees.
"The gas compensation finished quickly, but I stayed sick," she said.
Although Rani said she had never experienced infertility problems like other female survivors, her husband eventually abandoned her.
"For one year he would come and go. Then one day he left for good and never came back. I was fortunate to be able to move back in with my parents," she said.
Like Jyoti, she is resigned to her future but confident of remaining independent.
"In my heart there's no desire to remarry."
Copyright © 2013 AFP. All rights reserved. More »