Bhopal gas tragedy: 36 years on, survivors still await justice

The wait for justice for the survivors of one of the world’s biggest industrial catastrophe–Bhopal gas tragedy—continues on the 36th anniversary of the disaster with subsequent governments having given up on the cause, says the organisations fighting for their rights.

Several rights organisations have been, for decades, demanding harsh and exemplary punishment to those responsible for the tragedy, adequate compensation to the victims, a proper rehabilitation plan and adequate medical facilities for survivors and removal of toxic chemicals lying on the plant premises among other things.

As per a state government affidavit filed in the court in the year 2006, the tragedy had killed 3,787 people and affected more than 5.58 lakh in the state capital after toxic gas leaked from erstwhile Union Carbide factory which was closed after the tragedy on the intervening night of December 2 and 3 in 1984. However, the organisations fighting for the victims claim the tragedy has killed at least 25,000 people.

A report released in April, 2019, by International Labour Organisation (ILO) dubbed the 1984 Bhopal Gas Tragedy as one among the world’s ‘major industrial accidents’ of the 20th century. The report stated that at least 30 tons of methyl isocyanate gas, released from the Union Carbide pesticide plant, had affected more than 600,000 workers and nearby inhabitants.

The highly toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas can cause death within minutes of inhalation if its concentration exceeds 21 PPM (parts per million). That was the reason for so many deaths and the crippling after effects on hundreds of thousands of survivors for decades, as per organisations.

Eight accused in the tragedy case were awarded two-year imprisonment and a fine of Rs 1.7 lakh each by a Bhopal court in the first week of June in 2010 which, the survivors organisation say, was a mockery of justice in such a big tragedy. The accused were granted bail too.

The main accused in the case, Warren Anderson, who was given a safe passage after his visit to Bhopal by the then Congress governments in the state and at the Centre, died in Florida, United States in September 2014 without facing any trial in Indian courts.

“Nothing has changed for the survivors irrespective of the political party in power whether it’s in Madhya Pradesh or at the Centre. It’s always been the interest of the erstwhile Union Carbide and now Dow Chemical, and not the interest of the gas tragedy victims, which has dictated the policies of the governments,” said Rachna Dhingra, founder member of Bhopal group of information and action.

Dhingra says whether it’s the case of compensation, rehabilitation, medical treatment for survivors, punishment to the guilty or shifting of toxic chemicals from the plant premises, the governments have been found to be woefully short and continue to ignore the adverse impact of gas on the next generations of the victims.

“The National Library of Medicine, USA has recently collated health effects of MIC and diseases caused as a result of exposure to MIC. They have established that Hyperglycaemia (Diabetes), Uremia (kidney diseases), Pulmonary fibrosis, lung diseases & acidosis are associated with the long term damage caused by it,” Dhingra said.

She says that various documents state that the injuries caused by exposure to Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) are permanent in nature, yet more than 90% of the exposed victims have been paid only 500 US dollars as compensation for ‘temporary’ injuries.

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Sadhna Karnik, the convener of another rights organisation–Bhopal Gas Peedit Sangharsh Sahyog Samiti—who has been fighting for the victims, says that governments are making no efforts to mitigate the effects of the toxic case even today.

“The gas leaked from the plant continues to affect people in a vast area of the city but there is no effort on the part of the central or state governments to address the issue. Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre (BMHRC), the hospital meant for treatment of the survivors is in shambles but there is no effort to improve the facilities over there,” said Karnik.

A banker Jagdish Dubey, one of the victims of the tragedy said, “Observing Bhopal Gas Tragedy anniversary has become a ritual for us as well as the government. There is lip service by the authorities that they would look into our problems and then nothing happens. Then, there is another anniversary next year.”

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“The gas survivors have been demanding extra compensation for the long term injuries and vulnerabilities caused by the exposure to gas. This was evidenced during the ongoing Covid 19 pandemic. According to the health department official record, the Covid-19 death rate is 6.5 times higher among the gas exposed population of the Bhopal district,” said Nawab Khan, president of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Purush Sangharsh Morcha.

Minister for Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation, Vishwas Sarang said, “The matter of compensation is pending before the apex court. Hence, I can’t comment on it. Our government in the state is making all out efforts to provide best medical facilities to the gas survivors. Bhopal has a dedicated hospital for the gas survivors.”

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