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Bhopal disaster: So, how many died? 32 years on, no one sure

Thirty-two years since Bhopal gas tragedy, there is no clarity on the number of dead and those affected, say activists who peg the death figures between 20,000 and 25,000 while the government lists 5,295 deaths.

bhopal Updated: Dec 03, 2016 10:30 IST
Gas-affected people take part in a torch rally on the eve of 32nd anniversary of the disaster in Bhopal on Friday.
Gas-affected people take part in a torch rally on the eve of 32nd anniversary of the disaster in Bhopal on Friday. (Mujeeb Faruqui/HT photo)

Thirty-two years since Bhopal gas tragedy, there is no clarity on the number of dead and those affected, say activists who peg the death figures between 20,000 and 25,000 while the government lists 5,295 deaths.

The gas leak from US firm Union Carbide’s pesticide plant in 1984 had killed over 20,000 people, says gas activist Abdul Jabbar. “But according to the record of the Bhopal gas welfare commissioner, 15,342 people were provided compensation under death category,” he said.

Jabbar, who has been fighting several cases on various aspects of the tragedy, said although the gas leak and its after-effects continue to affect people, the death registration of gas victims was stopped in 1997. “Does it mean there is no one left who is suffering from gas tragedy now?” he asked.

Rachna Dhingra, of Bhopal Group for Information and Action, recalled that in a letter to then Prime Minister (Manmohan Singh) in 2011, chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan had also presented the same number, 15,342, as the number of dead in the Bhopal gas tragedy.

However, the Central government, in a curative petition filed in SC in 2010, had sought compensation for “5,295 deaths” and 5,27,894 affected from the US firm, now owned by Dow Chemicals.

ND Jayaprakash, co-convener of the Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti (BGPSSS) told HT that BGPSSS and Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udyog Sanghathan (BGPMUS) had serious differences with Centre’s stand on the number of dead.

“The stand of BGPMUS and BGPSSS regarding the number of dead (20,000+) and seriously injured (150,000+) has already been explained our 2010 Special Leave Petition (SLP) that is pending before the Supreme Court,” he said.

He also said it is astonishing that the Centre had made no attempt to place the relevant Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) reports before the Claim Courts to enable them to assess fairly the types and gravity of injuries suffered by the Bhopal gas victims.

“In the absence of proper health booklets, which the ICMR and the State Government had failed to provide to each gas-victim, circumstantial evidence would have been very valuable in determining the likely degree of injury suffered by a gas-victim,” he said.

The 2015-16 report of Bhopal gas relief and rehabilitation department, the latest by the state government, states that 5,474 death claims have been accepted out of the 22,151 claims made so far. The report also states that 5.74 lakh claims of those affected out of a total 10.29 lakh have been accepted so far.

‘Will do everything to help affected people’

When asked about the confusion, minister of state for Bhopal gas relief and rehabilitation Vishwas Sarang said they are trying to find a solution.

“There are many complex issues related to the Bhopal disaster. We will do everything possible to provide succour to all affected people,” he said.

Another activist Satinath Sarangi, who arrived in Bhopal a day after the tragedy, said death figures mentioned in the curative petition filed in 2010 by the Central government is also at odds with MP government’s Action Plan 2008, according to which 16,000 people had died in the tragedy.

“The death and injury figures have been downplayed. The categorisation of injuries of over 90% of gas-affected has been listed as ‘temporary injuries’. It is due to flawed system of medical categorisation,” he said.

Sarangi also noted that under the procedure set for medical categorisation, the three main tests—pulmonary function test, exercise tolerance test and urinary thiocyanate test—were carried out on less than 18% of the claimants.

“Many affected people couldn’t provide required medical records and documents during their categorisation,” he said.

‘Toxic waste a blot on Swachh Bharat’

The non-disposal of toxic waste lying in the heart of India, in the state capital, will be a blot on the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, says activist Abdul Jabbar.

“How can we have Swachh Bharat, if thousands of tonnes of toxic waste stored and buried in and around Union Carbide, remains lying in Bhopal,” he questions.

A toxic story

Over the last three decades, there have been over 16 studies on toxic waste, soil and groundwater contamination.

Set up to manufacture pesticides, the Union Carbide plant ended up killing and maiming thousands

1969: Union Carbide sets up pesticide plant in Bhopal. Hazardous waste routinely dumped in factory premises

1977: Solar evaporation ponds built on 32 acres for dumping of hazardous wastes

December 2-3, 1984: Poisonous gas leak from Union Carbide pesticides factory

1990: Citizen’s Environmental Laboratory in Boston identifies toxic materials in the soil and water surrounding the plant

1991: State Research Laboratory of PHE department reports chemical contamination in samples taken from 11 tubewells in the area

1994: NEERI reports that over one-fifth of the factory site had been used for dumping hazardous waste

1996: State Research Laboratory of PHE department again reports chemical contamination in samples taken from 11 tubewells in the area

1999: Greenpeace International conducts a study that finds Carbide plant area to be high in mercury and 12 volatile organochlorine compounds (VOCs)

January 2002: A scientific report finds lead and mercury in the breast milk of nursing mothers in communities around the plant

August 14, 2015: 10 tonnes of toxic waste incinerated at the treatment storage disposal facility (TDSF) in Pithampur on a trial basis, three years after Supreme Court order

December 2015: Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) forwards report of trial runs of toxic waste disposal to Union environment ministry.