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Remnants of a tragedy

In their recently released book, Bhopal Gas Tragedy, After 30 Years, Sunita Narain and Chandra Bhushan reach the depths of India’s first tryst with an industrial tragedy and its lingering impacts that are experienced even three decades later. Excerpts:

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, 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.

Bhopal was struck by two tragedies: the one that happened immediately, and the other that unfolded in the years that followed.

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 reacting 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.

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.

Take the issue of decontamination. The case is being heard by the Supreme Court and the Madhya Pradesh high court, who issue regular directions in this regard. Then there is a task force for removal of toxic waste from the plant, headed by the secretary of the Department of Chemicals and Petrochemicals at the Centre. An Oversight Committee is coordinating and monitoring activities relating to waste disposal, decontamination and remediation. The minister of state for environment chairs this committee. At the bottom of the rung are the Central and state pollution control boards, that are supposed to monitor the site and provide technical support for the decontamination work. The institutional logjam is such that there is no one institution that can be held responsible and accountable for decontaminating the site.

Secondly, over time, most residents of the city have moved away and beyond the disaster. The civil society groups that remain are intensely committed and driven by the injustice and lack of action. But there is such deep distrust between the government and activists working in Bhopal that every action proposed is obstructed – mainly by taking the matter to court. As national and international media interest remains high in the case, each incident is played out and charges and counter-charges are made on television and in newspapers. The result is that everything has been left to the courts to decide; the state and the Central agencies have taken the backseat.

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 polarised 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. What stands out is that Indian institutions are incapable of resolving conflicts. But there is learning for activists and non-profits. In no way should the fight become an end in itself so that issues remain unresolved.

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