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Bhopal gas tragedy, three decades on

Bhopal gas tragedy, three decades on
It was on the night of December 2, 1984, when Bhopal died a million deaths. The chemical, methyl isocyanate (MIC), that spilled out from Union Carbide India Ltd’s (UCIL’s) pesticide factory turned the city into a vast gas chamber. People ran on the streets, vomiting and dying. The city ran out of cremation grounds. It was India’s first (and so far, the only) major industrial disaster. Till then, governments had handled floods, cyclones and even earthquakes. They had no clue how to respond in this case. The US-based multinational company, Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), which owned the plant through its subsidiary UCIL, did little to help deal with the human tragedy. Thirty years later, there is no closure. Not because of what happened that fateful night, but because our response has been incompetent and callous.

The problem was nobody knew much about the toxin or its antidote. Within weeks of the accident many claimed that the worst was over—that people were suffering from common ailments of the poor, such as tuberculosis and anaemia. But till date nobody knows the health impacts of MIC and how to treat patients exposed to the gas. The health burden is compounded by two more variables—one, children born after the disaster are also its victims because of exposure to the deadly gas while they were in their mothers’ wombs; two, chemical wastes remain dumped in and around the premises of UCIL factory, contaminating the water that people drink.

All this could have been managed if the government had information about the chemical and treatment for it. But even in 2014, all that the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) in Delhi can say is the “exact causative agent of the Bhopal Gas Disease is unknown”. Why?

Union Carbide used trade secrecy as a prerogative to withhold information on the exact composition of the leaked gases. Though it was known that MIC, when reacts with water at high temperatures, could release as many as 300 highly toxic chemicals, research was carried out only to check the toxicity of pure MIC—that also on animals. So, the treatment has been symptomatic. This is criminal negligence. In the first few days, there was evidence that people could be suffering from cyanide poisoning—intravenous injections of sodium thiosulphate, an antidote, was found to be working on the patients. But soon, it was discontinued, many say, under pressure from UCC and its team of lawyers.

The diseases could also have been managed had the government conducted medical research to understand the long-term impacts of the gas. The responsibility was given to ICMR, which had initiated 24 studies.Some of the studies had found high incidence of lung, eye disease and morbidity in the victims. But the studies were summarily discontinued in 1994. All research work was left to Madhya Pradesh government’s Centre for Rehabilitation Studies, which did some uninspired research. Meanwhile, some independent studies had also pointed to serious health crises, from cancer and mental problems to birth defects. But since there is no epidemiological study, it is easy to dismiss these as ailments caused by poverty and lack of hygiene. This is when the Supreme Court has repeatedly asked for the patient records to be computerised and for studies to determine health impacts of this toxic exposure.

Ongoing struggle for relief
In 1989, UCC paid some US $470 million (worth Rs 750 crore that year. Then the rupee devalued. This, along with interest, swelled to Rs 3,058.40 crore by 2009) as compensation for the disaster—one-seventh of the original demand from the Indian government. In return, under the Supreme Court brokered deal, all civil and criminal cases against the company were terminated. The apex court also laid down guidelines for the money—the family of the dead were to be given Rs 1-3 lakh, which was three times higher than compensation for deaths in motor vehicle accident cases, said the court. In addition, fully or partially disabled were to get Rs 50,000-2 lakh and those with temporary injury, Rs 25,000-1 lakh.

When the case began, the government said there were some 3,000 deaths and 30,000 cases of injury. Later, it was realised that many more were suffering from exposure to the poisonous gas. So, when the case was decided, compensation was doled out to virtually the entire city. Some 573,588 people got money as “affected” by the gas leakage—many times above the number of claims filed, and representing some 70 per cent of the city population in 1980. Of them, 5,295 were death cases, in which families of the victims got a paltry Rs 2-3 lakh as compensation. The rest—568,293—were classified as injured. As the government deducted what was paid over six years as interim relief, the final settlement was less than Rs 15,000 per victim.

This meant nothing to the victims whose medical bills have continued to mount. They say many deaths have not been counted. But courts and governments have continued to dismiss their plea to reopen the case of compensation settlement. Then in 2010, the Group of Ministers (GoM) on the Bhopal gas tragedy decided that it would only agree to enhance payments to the already counted victims. It agreed to an additional compensation of Rs 10 lakh in the 5,295 cases of death and Rs 1 lakh-5 lakh in the cases of disability, renal failure and cancer. But it added that the amount already paid should be deducted. The affected who have lost their lives and livelihoods say the GoM only rubbed salt in their wound— paid compensation to people who are not affected and neglected the many who suffer every day as they are not listed among those with serious and permanent disability.

Bhopal disaster 2.0

People of Bhopal are suffering another legacy of UCIL. The factory used to manufacture three pesticides: carbaryl (trade name Sevin), aldicarb (trade name Temik) and a formulation of carbaryl and gamma-hexachlorocyclohexane (g-HCH), sold under the trade name, Sevidol. For 15 years till the disaster, it dumped process wastes, by-products, solvents, sub-standard products, wastes from machinery and polluted water at dump sites inside and outside the plant. Another 350 tonnes of waste has been kept in a leaking shed at the site. These wastes are still lying at the site, polluting soil and groundwater. This second legacy—Bhopal Disaster 2.0—now threatens even a larger number of people than the first one. Many of the chemicals degrade slowly and are likely to remain in the environment for hundreds of years. They will keep spreading unless they are taken out and the site is decontaminated.

The worst part is cleaning and decontamination of the site has got embroiled in legal wrangles of how to clean the site, what should be done with the wastes and who should pay for it— state governments, the Centre, successor buyer of the factory, Dow Chemical, waste disposal and incineration companies, research institutes or non-profits.

In the past few years, particularly since the release of a study by Delhi non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) and the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), another controversy has erupted—whether or not the contamination has spread through groundwater. Most studies found groundwater surrounding the UCIL site to be contaminated with chlorinated benzenes and HCH isomers. Carbaryl, aldicarb, carbon tetrachloride and chloroform were also detected in some studies. All these can be linked to the wastes dumped by UCIL plant.

But in a study in 2010 by two key government institutes—National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) and National Geophysical Research Institute (NGRI)—no groundwater contamination was found. These institutes only found isolated contamination, which they attributed to the annual surface runoff during monsoon. They concluded that due to extremely low permeability of the black and yellow silty clay, there is limited movement of contaminants towards the groundwater. Interestingly, this type of soil was only found at UCIL site. In surrounding areas, other studies have found far higher permeability. The implication of NEERI-NGRI study is huge. If the site is unique, and hence there is no groundwater contamination happening from the site, then the site can be cleaned-up easily and at a much lower cost. If that is not the case, then groundwater too will have to be decontaminated, which will be very expensive.

From the very beginning, UCC has shed its liability towards its Indian subsidiary, arguing that it had nothing to do with the disaster. As recently as August 2014, the US courts decided that UCC (and so Dow chemical) cannot be held responsible for the management of the Indian subsidiary. But one case still continues. In 2004, a resident of Bhopal, Alok Pratap Singh, filed a case in the Madhya Pradesh high court, demanding Dow be held responsible for the pollution. The Union government supported this position by filing an application in this case and asking Dow to deposit Rs 100 crore for environmental remediation. Dow has continued frantic lobbying to get the Indian government to withdraw its application—with everyone from industrialist Ratan Tata to former chairperson of the Planning Commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, and former finance minister, P Chidambaram, petitioning on behalf of the company.

But as of now, the high court has not deleted Dow from the list of respondents. So, maybe, in this case, the liability of the company, at least in terms of the hazardous waste it has left behind, will be established. The company will be required to pay for remediation or restoration at the very least. Then maybe, just maybe, the victims of Bhopal will get some closure. After 30 years.

Why No Closure
This is because everything that could have gone wrong in the initial years after the tragedy went wrong. After this, all that the people and activists have done is to try and reverse those fatally damaging actions—with little success.

The Indian judiciary succumbed, many would say, by agreeing to a paltry compensation and by settling all civil and criminal liability of the company. Then the company did everything to ensure that its complicity and responsibility was diluted. One such instance is of not informing doctors of the real toxicity of the chemicals released and the treatment for them. ICMR failed the victims by not completing the studies that would have established the cause of their ailments and suggesting treatment protocols. So, there is a name for the disease—Bhopal Gas Disease—but no identification of who the affected are or what their treatment status is.

The Union government, as a result, continues to argue that only 5,295 people died—in the first instance and never later—and 6,199 have been permanently disabled. It refuses to accept, without medical history, that the tragedy has been much more enormous and that death and disability stalk every house in the localities close to the factory. The state government put the final nail in their coffin by distributing the compensation amount so widely that it does not matter who is the actual victim and who is not.

But there are more reasons for the failure. First, there are too many institutions involved, and they have little interest in fixing the problem. In the case of medical relief, on paper, all has been provided to ensure that people get timely and best treatment. A super-speciality hospital has been set up. Treatment has been assured without payment. The Supreme Court even set up two committees—one to monitor the functioning of the medical system and the other to advise on what needs to be done for the best care of the victims. The state government has a separate department for gas relief and usually a senior minister is in charge of the department. Even at the Centre there is a clear mandate with the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers to oversee all affairs. Yet, medical care is abysmal. The victims continue to say they do not even have water to drink.

After the 1989 decision, which rewrote history of jurisprudence by absolving UCC of corporate criminal liability, the courts have given directions on relief and rehabilitation. But in the polar.ised and indifferent environment, even their directions have come to naught. This is partly because there is no clarity about what needs to be done and what can be done given the past mess-ups.

Down to Earth
Sunita Narain & Chandra Bhushan

Sunita Narain & Chandra Bhushan

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