36 years on, Bhopal Gas tragedy survivors still await justice

Victims and survivors of disasters past have been shunned in the wake of Covid-19. Groups working for the interest of Bhopal-disaster victims remind the Indian government that a considerable number of people still await justice even decades later.

Image Courtesy:amarujala.com

Exactly 36 years have passed since the highly toxic chemical methyl isocyanate (MIC) leaked from a storage tank in Bhopal’s Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) plant killed around 25,000 people and injured nearly 550,000 people on December 3, 1984.

Three and a half decades later, the latter continues to demand justice from India’s judiciary and governance with the help of the Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udyog Sanghthan (BGMUS) and the Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti (BGPSSS.)

“The year 2020 has been an extremely traumatic period for Bhopal gas victims. The struggle for justice, which gas-victims had been relentlessly waging for the previous 35 years, was itself a testimony to the failure of the Indian State to mete out justice in all these years,” said a joint press statement released by the two groups.

Victims were hopeful of an appropriate conclusion to the whole ordeal following an order by the Madhya Pradesh High Court on December 18, 2019 directing the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare’s Secretary to assess measures taken by the central government towards victims’ health care and disaster-related medical research. However, instead of improved medical care, gas-victims were removed from the Bhopal Memorial Hospital & Research Centre (BMHRC) in 2020 to make room for potential Covid-19 victims.

“The Madhya Pradesh government took a decision to oust victims of a previous disaster from the hospital that was established exclusively to take care of their health needs in order to make way for potential victims of a new disaster, thereby, leaving the victims of the previous disaster in the lurch,” the groups’ statement said while pointing out that the state government had no jurisdiction to remove patients from a central-government hospital.

The BGPMUS and BGPSSS spent the better part of March and April fighting for the restoration of the BMHRC. However, despite their success, there was hardly any improvement in the quality of medical treatment for gas-victims, who are most vulnerable to an attack of coronavirus. Further, no efforts were made to upgrade the institution into a teaching hospital that would attract the requisite number of super-specialists or provide necessary equipment and medicines.

“According to available reports, while surviving gas-victims constitute less than one-fourth of the current population of Bhopal, more than half the COVID-19 victims in Bhopal are suspected to be from among gas-victims,” said the BGPMUS and the BGPSSS.

Groups condemned the central and state governments as well as the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) for their apathetic attitude towards victims’ gas-related ailments 36 years after the disaster. They also criticised the ICMR for failing to properly restart Bhopal-disaster-related research in 2010.

“Neither the ICMR nor the state government has any idea of the number of gas-victims suffering under each category of disease arising from respiratory, ophthalmic, gastrointestinal, neurological, psychiatric, and other problems. What is equally shocking is that even 36 years after the disaster, most of the gas-victims seeking treatment continue to be classed as suffering from temporary injury to deny them compensation for permanent injury. Increasing cases of cancer and genetic disorders are matters of grave concern,” they said.

Apart from the medical failures, the two groups also opposed the state government’s decision to stop monthly pension of Rs. 1,000 to widows of gas-victims from December 2019 onwards. President of the Gas Peedith Nirakshit Pension Bhogi Sangharsh Morcha Balkrishan Namdeo made representations to the Madhya Pradesh government and held dharnas to restore the pension to the 5000-odd widows.

Similarly, the BGPMUS and the BGPSSS filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) on July 31. The lack of pension is an especial blow to the BGPMUS established by activist Abdul Jabbar, who spent a lifetime demanding relief and justice for survivors and families of victims. Jabbar passed away last year.

Under Jabbar’s guidance, the organisation worked for the rehabilitation of victims. Having lost his mother and brother during the incident, Jabbar had written a petition seeking relief and advocated for prematurely discharged or rejected survivors at Gas Relief hospitals. Almost every person involved in the incident asked for his help for getting medicine or processing papers for compensation or pleading with a claims court judge who had flippantly rejected papers. 

Yet, the situation only seems to worsen for gas-victims as court cases regarding the incident remain pending. The curative petition filed by the Indian government on December 3, 2010 to challenge the unjust settlement of about Rs.705 crores in 1989 and to seek additional sum of Rs.7,728 crores as compensation has remained in limbo ever since January this year. This in turn also postponed the hearing of the Special Leave Petition (SLC) seeking enhancement of settlement sum by a factor of five considering the severity of the incident.

“Failure to dispose of the pending Curative Petition and the SLP has effectively denied the gas-victims several thousands of crores of additional compensation that they are legitimately entitled to for over a decade,” said the two groups.

Their final and most earnest request has been for safe drinking water and compensation to all victims of contaminated water and toxic waste. Due to administrative apathy, there is still no assessment of the total impact of the toxic waste leaked into Bhopal’s soil and water during UCIL’s operation from 1969 to 1984. However, a preliminary study “Assessment and Remediation of Hazardous Waste Contaminated Areas in and around M/s Union Carbide India Ltd., Bhopal” conducted by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) and the National Geophysical Research Institute (NGRI) shows that “the total quantum of contaminated soil requiring remediation amounts to 11,00,000 MT [metric tonnes.]”

Although petitions and cases have been filed regarding the matter, the subject of gas-victim grievances has been ignored by the Union and the people of India for far too long.

“On the thirty-six anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, the gas-victims still fervently hope that all those who have the power to render justice to the gas-victims will not be found wanting in fulfilling their obligations,” said the BGPMUS and the BGPSSS.


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