36 Years After the Gas Tragedy, Bhopal Survivors Still to Get Justice
Protests continue, governments indifferent
December 2-3 marks not just the 36th anniversary of one of the world’s worst industrial disasters—the Bhopal Gas Tragedy—but also over 35 years of the victims’ relentless struggle and continued wait for justice.
Survivors of the tragedy and various rights groups have been demanding better compensation, proper rehabilitation, adequate medical care for gas-victims, remediation of the contaminated site and of course, speedy trial and prosecution of the accused. However, organisations claim that little to no progress has been made even 36 years down the line.
In 1984, around 40 tonnes of a highly toxic gas—methyl isocyanate (MIC)—leaked into the air from a pesticide plant of Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL). UCIL was previously under the control of Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) which is currently owned by Dow Chemical Company, USA.
A 2019 report by the International Labour Organization (ILO) termed the tragedy one of the world’s “major industrial accidents” of the 20th century, adding that the gas leak affected 6,00,000 workers and nearby inhabitants. The official death toll was pegged at 3,787 whereas rights organisations claim that 25,000 people died over several years and almost 550,000 were injured to varying degrees. Future generations of affected families continue to face the long-term impact of exposure to the toxic chemical.
On December 3, 2020, victims and four organisations of survivors protested outside Union Carbide Corporation in Bhopal to mark the 36th anniversary of the disaster. They condemned the continued evasion of legal liabilities by Dow Chemical Company for the damage done to people’s health and contamination of soil and groundwater.
A commemoration ceremony was held, a human chain was formed and effigies were burnt as the survivors denounced the Centre and the Madhya Pradesh state government for failing to hold the corporation accountable, being unable to acquire adequate compensation for the victims as well as for denying survivors their rights to medical care and social support.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also had a drastic impact on the victims, with the four organisations claiming that the death toll due to the virus among survivors of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy has been significantly higher compared to the rest of the population. “With this pandemic, the death rate among gas-victims due to COVID-19 is 6.5 times more than the rest of the population,” Rachna Dhingra of Bhopal Group for Information and Action told The Citizen.
On December 2, the MP state government announced that 102 survivors of the industrial disaster had died due to COVID-19. However, Dhingra, in a statement, alleged that the government had downplayed the figures. “We dare the government officials to cite one instance in the last 36 years when we have stated something without factual and or scientific basis. This is nothing new, officials have been downplaying the figures of death and extent of health damage caused by Union Carbide and Dow ever since the morning of the disaster. The official figure of death is still five times lower than the actual and over 90% of those exposed to Union Carbide’s gases have been categorized as needing just one visit to the hospital,” she stated.
According to a press statement by Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan (BGPMUS) and Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti (BGPSSS), while surviving gas-victims constitute less than one-fourth of the current population of Bhopal, more than half the victims of COVID-19 in the city are suspected to be from among survivors.
The two organisations raised several issues that continue to plague gas-victims, including the curative petition filed in 2010 against the “unjust settlement” of 1989 which remains pending in the Supreme Court today.
In a detailed note on the tragedy, BGPMUS and BGPSSS explain that Rs. 705 crores were allotted as compensation in 1989, based on the assumption that the number of affected people were only 1,05,000, with the death toll at around 3000. However, by 2004, the official number of those affected rose to 5,73,588. As such, the compensation amount meant to be distributed among 1,05,000 people was finally distributed to over 573,000 gas-victims. Each survivor, therefore, received less than one-fifth of the allotted amount.
A curative petition was filed by the Union of India in 2010 as the earlier settlement was based on underestimated figures, of both the dead and the injured. The Union of India sought an additional Rs. 7728 crores. The petition has reportedly been admitted but has not been taken up for hearing yet.
“The victims continue to protest even 36 years after the disaster,” N.D. Jayaprakash, Co-Convener of BGPSSS told The Citizen. “If the government had done enough for the victims, they would not have been in this state. The basic facilities, health facilities are a crucial issue. The curative petition challenging the settlement is pending in the Supreme Court for the last ten years,” he said, adding that the petition remains pending even though the Government of India opposed the settlement.
Dhingra too, raised the issue of compensation. “Survivors have not gotten adequate compensation despite petitions maintained in the Supreme Court for the last ten years because the government refuses to put the correct medical records of people to seek appropriate compensation for permanent damages from Carbide and Dow,” she told The Citizen.
Terming the medical care given to gas-victims as “abysmal”, the BGPMUS and BGPSSS too, claim in their statement that no proper medical records have been maintained. They further allege that symptomatic treatment, over-medication due to lack of proper monitoring and doling out sub-standard and spurious drugs has caused a spike in the number of renal failures among gas-victims.
“The fact is that neither the ICMR nor the State Government has any idea of the number of gas-victims suffering under each category of disease arising from respiratory, ophthalmic, gastro-intestinal, neurological, psychiatric, and other problems. What is equally shocking is that even 36 years after the disaster, most of the gas-victims seeking treatment continue to be classed as suffering from temporary injury in order to deny them compensation for permanent injury. Increasing cases of cancer and genetic disorders are matters of grave concern,” stated the press note.
Nawab Khan, President of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Purush Sangharsh Morcha, one of the four organisations that staged a demonstration outside UCC in Bhopal, said, ”In the last ten years officials of the state and central governments have promised in writing that they would revise the figures of death and health damage in the Curative Petition for additional compensation from the American corporations. These promises remain to be kept.”
“Meanwhile, all official research on long term health impact of the disaster has been stopped or suppressed, symptomatic medicines remain the mainstay of medical care of the survivors who receive no social support and there are no official plans to stop the ongoing contamination of soil and groundwater,” Khan added.
Addressing the decision of the MP government to stop pension to widows of gas-victims from December 2019, Jayaprakash told The Citizen, “5000 widowed women were getting a mere pension of Rs. 1000. It has been stopped for the last one year. This is the state of affairs.”
According to reports, MP Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, while announcing a memorial to commemorate those who lost their lives due to the industrial disaster, simultaneously declared the resumption of pension to widowed women yesterday.
BGPMUS and BGPSSS further pointed out the slow pace of criminal proceedings against the accused. “The pace at which the pending criminal cases against the perpetrators of the Bhopal disaster are concerned, there is not the faintest hope that they would ever be prosecuted in their lifetime since the whole process has become an almost complete farce,” they stated.
In 2010, a Bhopal trial court awarded imprisonment of two years and a fine of Rs. 1.7 lakh to the eight accused in the Bhopal Gas Tragedy case. Soon after, they were granted bail on a bond of Rs. 25,000. UCIL was also directed to pay a fine of Rs. 5 lakhs. The “minor” punishment was however, not received well by families of those affected and deceased due to the poisonous gas leak.
The prime accused, Warren Anderson, then CEO of the Union Carbide Corporation, was briefly arrested in Bhopal in the aftermath of the tragedy but quickly secured bail. He reportedly fled India with the help of the government in power at the time and died in 2014, managing to evade trial.
Rights organisations further claim that no adequate studies have been undertaken by the government to gauge the extent of damage done to the surrounding environment due to the dumping of toxic waste. Soil and water contamination has resulted in a host of health problems for not only the survivors, but also their future generations.
As per a research study at the Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre (BMHRC), the poisonous gas altered immune systems of children who were still in the womb at the time of the tragedy. A number of congenital disabilities have been reported among children of affected families.
The organisations also allege that no remedial action has been taken by the government to dispose of toxic waste and decontaminate resources.
“The effect of the Pandemic on the survivors in Bhopal and on people exposed to industrial pollution everywhere in the world has once again highlighted the urgent need for reigning in chemical corporations,” stated Nausheen Khan of the Children against Dow Carbide.
“In the last 36 years judicial institutions in India and USA have failed to make Union Carbide and Dow Chemical obey the laws of the land. As injustice and suffering continues in Bhopal, corporations are encouraged to continue committing crimes against humanity and the global environment,” Khan said.
With the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating issues relating to the health and livelihood of gas-victims, the survivors’ persistent struggles for relief, rehabilitation and remediation continue unabated.
Cover photograph by award winning photographer RAGHU RAI, taken at the time of the tragedy along with others that created international ripples.