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32 years on, Bhopal gas tragedy victims await case closure

For victims of the mishap, justice has been slow and scattered. In October, the court issued notice to former officials for letting Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson leave India

india Updated: Dec 02, 2016 10:24 IST
Hindustan Times
Bhopal Gas Tragedy,Union Carbide,Methyl IsoCyanate
Bhopal gas disaster survivors hold posters during a protest rally in Bhopal. (AFP File Photo)

Many people in Bhopal mourned when former Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson died at the age of 92 at a nursing home in the US in September 2014. Not at his death, but because they lost all hope of ever bringing him to justice.

Bhopal, after all, had a long and painful relationship with Anderson, one that began on the intervening night of December 2-3, 1984, when 40 tonnes of toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas was accidentally released from the Union Carbide plant in the city, killing thousands and causing grievous health damage to thousands more.

A long legal battle ensued but 32 years later, victims are yet to find justice.

Justice delayed and denied?
  • Forty tonnes of methyl isocyanate leaked from Union Carbide plant in Bhopal on Dec 2-3, 1984
  • Varying death tolls exist, but close to 5,000 people were killed in the gas disaster and more than 500,000 people were exposed to the toxic fumes
  • Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) chairman Warren Anderson escaped to US within hours of his arrest in Bhopal on December 7, 1984
  • Victims of the tragedy demand justice, compensation for the affected and punishment for Anderson and others responsible for the accident
  • Anderson died on September 29, 2015 at a nursing home in Florida at the age of 92. Bhopal Gas Tragedy victims mourn, not his death, but the ‘failure’ of the system to bring him to book
  • In October, court issued notice to former officials for letting Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson leave India

This October, the district magistrate’s court ruled that then Bhopal collector Moti Singh and superintendent of police in 1984, Swaraj Puri, should be questioned for letting Anderson leave India.

The court summoned them on December 8 to record their statements.

The order came on a 2010 petition filed by activists who have been fighting for the rights of the gas victims for over three decades.

“The decision to allow Anderson to leave came from seniors, but we don’t have proof to accuse anyone in court. When we found a photograph of these two escorting him, we filed a plea” says Abdul Jabbar, an activist

“Of course, Singh and Puri were just carrying out orders. The decision to allow Anderson to leave came from senior people, but we don’t have proof to accuse anyone in court. However, when we saw an old video footage of these two escorting Anderson to the airport, we filed a petition against them. Let them tell the court who ordered them to let Anderson leave,” said Abdul Jabbar, an activist. Jabbar said he has lost lost more than one member of his family as a result of the disaster.

It had been the same refrain of loss and angst in house after house in the bylanes around the ruins of the old Union Carbide plant.

“How do you expect us to move on? Was there ever any rehabilitation measure?” asked Rashida Bee, another activist and victim.

Bhopal gas tragedy victims stage demonstration outside a court during the long fight for justice. ( Mujeeb Faruqui/HT File Photo )

Fight for justice

For over three decades, life has been a series of court cases — to hold the company and its officials accountable for the disaster, to get them punished for negligence, and to get adequate compensation for all victims of the tragedy.

There have been small victories. In 2010, the chief judicial magistrate of Bhopal prosecuted a few Union Carbide officials, but restricted punishment to two years imprisonment.

That year, the government filed a curative petition in the Supreme Court to seek additional compensation for the victims. The original Bhopal Settlement of 1989 awarded the victims a total compensation of $470 million.

“Doctors are treating gas victims like any other patient. Prolonged use of drugs is leading to new health problems, such as kidney damage,” says Rachna Dhingra, activist

The victims, however, are demanding more compensation for all survivors and a correction of figures of death and the extent of injury in the curative petition.

“Adequate compensation is important since the health of many victims have been so weakened that they find it difficult to work,” Rashida said.

Activists alleged there is little systematic treatment of the victims even after 32 years.

“Doctors are treating gas victims like any other patient. Prolonged use of drugs is leading to new health problems, such as kidney damage,” said Rachna Dhingra, who moved to Bhopal to work for the rights of the gas victims 13 years ago.

Differently abled children from gas tragedy affected families wait with banners seeking PM's attention during his visit to Bhopal on Thursday. ( HT file photo )

Health hazards

In 2000, the Bhopal Medical Hospital and Research Centre (BMHRC) was set up under the Supreme Court’s directive.

Dr Subodh Varshney, a gastro-surgeon formerly attached to the BMRC said: “The most common immediate health issues were severe lung injury, often resulting in death, and corneal damage. Many lost their eyesight. One of the most common long-term impact has been fibrosis of the lung and respiratory crippling. Approximately 35,000 are still affected by this, of which 10,000 are suffering so badly that it is difficult for them to do any steady job.”

The problem, Varshney said, is that doctors are working with so many probables here.

“We have done a molecular study to see the effect of MIC on liver and pancreatic cells, to check whether it is carcinogenic. There is a possibility of cancer but we do not know what should be the extent of exposure for it to be carcinogenic. Also, studies have shown a higher incidence of oral and oesophageal cancer, and we don’t have any studies in that area. Also, these can be cause due to smoking or use of betel-nut.” The long-term and genetic impact of MIC exposure is a matter of debate but there is little doubt about the threat from the toxic chemical waste lying in the abandoned plant and solar evaporation ponds (SEP).

A joint study by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and Central Pollution Control Board in 2009 found contamination of soil and groundwater with heavy metals and chemicals.

A Belstein Test conducted in 2015 found the water from 240-foot-deep bore wells to be contaminated.

In October this year, the Madhya Pradesh government announced the construction of a Hiroshima-like memorial for the gas tragedy victims on the premises of the defunct factory.

Speaking on the occasion, minister of state for gas tragedy relief and rehabilitation Vishwas Sarang said: “The state government will request the Central Pollution Control Board for disposal of the toxic waste.”

The waste still lies there.

The victims’ best ally in their struggle for justice and rehabilitation is their own determination.

The battle to cleanse their lives of the chemical disaster and its residue has not weakened them. The new generation is as dedicated to the cause as the ones whose lives came to a standstill in December 1984.

First Published: Dec 02, 2016 09:25 IST