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The Unenviable Fate of the Bhopal Gas Victims

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The Bhopal disaster occurred on the night of 02/03 December 1984 when about 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate (MIC), a highly toxic chemical that was stored in a tank in the pesticide plant of Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), got contaminated with water and other impurities and caused exothermic reactions. The resulting high temperature and pressure forced out the safety valve of the MIC storage tank and spewed the toxic mixture through the non-operating flare-tower into the surrounding areas in vapourous form. UCIL was a subsidiary of Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), USA, in which UCC (currently owned by the Dow Chemical Company, USA) had held controlling interests. According to a preliminary estimate made by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), approximately two-thirds of Bhopal’s then population of about 900,000 people was exposed to the toxic gases. The reaction products of MIC included hydrogen cyanide (HCN), carbon monoxide (CO) and other toxic gases. 

Double Standards

It may be recalled that in the 1960s, UCC used to claim that its aim was to “help make a better life for all of us”. [1] In addition, when it began marketing its pesticide products in India, through its subsidiary, UCIL, its slogan was “Science helps build a new India”. [2] UCIL started manufacturing pesticides at its Bhopal plant in 1969 by first importing the highly toxic MIC from the U.S. Subsequently, in 1978, UCIL began manufacturing MIC at its Bhopal plant. All the while, UCC had assured workers at the plant that “safety at all costs” was its policyIn fact, it preached that: “People Are Our Most Important Asset, Their Safety and Health Our Greatest Responsibility”. [3] However, these claims and assurances turned out to be empty rhetoric.

In the guise of helping build a new India, UCC actually transferred sub-standard technology to India despite having sufficient knowledge and experience about building safer plants like the far bigger and safer MIC unit it had built at its Institute plant in West Virginia, USA, in 1966. UCC violated its own prescribed safety norms by under-designing the safety systems at its Bhopal plant as a cost-cutting measure despite the fact that it was to manufacture and store in large quantities (over 80+ tonnes) of the highly toxic MIC in two storage tanks for long periods. Moreover, even the under-designed safety systems – refrigeration system, scrubber and flare – were often not operated to their full potential and were shut off from time to time as further cost-cutting measures, which posed constant threat to the lives of workers at the plant and to the population in the surrounding areas. A disaster, which was inevitable under the circumstances, finally occurred on 02/03.12.1984.

Initial Reaction

While Carbide officials tried to mislead the administration about the likely impact of the disaster and about possible remedial measures, the administration too, strangely enough, was more concerned about under-playing the magnitude and grievousness of the disaster than in properly assessing all its ramifications.[4] There was obvious harmony of interests between Carbide officials and the Indian Establishment. The most telling instance in this regard relates to the denial of sodium thiosulphate (NaTS) therapy to gas-victims. Initially, local Carbide officials kept insisting, “MIC was only an irritant and not lethal”. They were also desperate to hide the presence of HCN, which was well known as a highly poisonous chemical. To their discomfiture, Dr.Heeresh Chandra, Head of Department of Forensic Medicine & Toxicology at Gandhi Medical College, who was conducting autopsies, suspected that death in many cases might have been caused due to cyanide poisoning. Dr.Max Daunderer, a toxicologist who was sent to India on 04 Dec.1984 by the German Foreign Office to assist with the relief work, confirmed Dr.Chandra’s suspicion. Dr.Daunderer, who had foreseen the possibility of cyanide poisoning since he was familiar with the characteristics of MIC, prescribed sodium thiosulphate (NaTS) as an antidote. However, the pro-UCC lobby in Bhopal and Delhi was so powerful that Dr.Daunderer was deported from India on 07 Dec. 1984 in order to prevent him from further damaging UCC’s interests. Later, Dr.Sriramachari of ICMR and his team carried out necessary studies to confirm that NaTS was a safe antidote for treating gas-victims.[5]However, even the ICMR could not prevent the State Govt. from formally banning the use of NaTS to treat gas-victims although timely administration of NaTS would have saved many lives and reduced adverse effects on the survivors.

Response of the State

The Central Government appointed a scientific commission to study and report on the scientific and technical aspects of the disaster. The Report of the Commission submitted on 20.12.1985 did point to the defects in design, operation, and maintenance of the plant that led to the disaster. Although, the State Government constituted a judicial commission under a sitting judge of the Madhya Pradesh High Court, Justice N.K.Singh, to enquire into the circumstances leading to the disaster, its impact, and for fixing the onus of responsibility, it was unceremoniously wound up a year later, thereby, pre-empting the inquiry. Thus, to this day, the circumstances leading to the disaster, its onus, and its after effects have not been thoroughly investigated.

Moreover, nothing was done to properly assess the number of dead or to identify the injured and to provide adequate medical treatment to them. A voluntary attempt by nearly 500 student and teachers from various schools of social work across India to carry out a house-to-house survey in collaboration with the State Government was not only stopped abruptly after the teams had covered nearly one-fourth of the affected population but also the Administration confiscated all the data that had been laboriously collated. A vital opportunity to collect comprehensive data about the impact of the disaster was thus lost. Instead, victims were asked to file individual claims.

The Unjust Settlement

Between September 1985 and February 1989, nearly 600,000 claims were filed for compensation. However, even before the claims were processed and adjudicated, a Supreme Court assisted settlement took place between the Union of India and UCC on 14/15.02.1989 without taking the victims into confidence. There was an underlying reason for the abrupt settlement. The U.S. Justice Department’s decision on 14.02.1989 to grant permission to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to visit the United States in response to a Letter of Request sent by the Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM), Bhopal, did rattle the UCC. The said Letter of Request had been sent to the U.S. Administration earlier on 06.07.1988 urging it to permit the CBI, the premier criminal investigation agency in India, to carry out a comparative study of the safety systems of the MIC units at the Bhopal and Institute (West Virginia) plants for verifying the safety standards. If the CBI had managed to carry out the comparative study, the truth about the adoption of double standards in installation of safety systems at the Institute and Bhopal plants would have been out in the open. UCC was intent on preventing any such possibility.

The terms of the settlement were equally staggering. The settlement for a paltry sum of 470 million dollars (then about Rupees 7150 million) was premised on the withdrawal of all criminal charges against UCC and all its officials for all time to come. The settlement was also based on the assumption that only 3000 victims had died and another 102,000 had suffered injuries in varying degree. These were merely imaginary figures of dead and injured since the 600,000 claims that had been filed until then had neither been processed nor categorized. Fifteen years later, in 2004, after adjudicating all the claims (including another 400,000 claims that were filed between 1989 and 1996), the Claim Courts concluded that the dead and injured gas-victims numbered nearly 573,000, i.e., a figure that was FIVE times greater than the one that formed the basis of the settlement!  However, the Claim Courts too had underestimated the total number of dead (which actually was well over 20,000) & seriously injured in the absence of health records.  Thus, all that the gas victims (including next of kin of the dead) got was a pittance from the Settlement Fund – on an average, just about $820 each (instead of $4476 each even as per the unjust Settlement)!

Denial of the Right to Information

Medical documentation is in an abysmal state.[6] Even thirty years after the disaster, gas-victims are still waging a determined struggle to procure a hard copy of their complete medical record that would enable them to demand appropriate medical care as well as seek higher compensation based on the gravity of their injury. Eligibility for seeking enhancement of compensation is based on proof of injury; but the very authorities, who demand such proof, deny the gas-victims the means to procure such proof! Gas-victims have suffered damage to their eyes, lungs, nervous system and gastro-intestinal system. Even in 2010, the morbidity rate among gas-victims continued to be around 20 per cent when among the control group it was below 9 per cent. [7] The state of the mental health of some victims is alarming.[8] Moreover, genetic effects are also suspected. About 6000 gas-victims still seek medical treatment every day. Thus, the ICMR, which had discontinued disaster-related medical research in 1994, was forced to restart it in 2010.

Every victim of a disaster has a right to his/her complete medical record. Unfortunately, as far as the Bhopal gas-victims were concerned, the ICMR and the State Government have failed to take sufficient steps to maintain proper medical records. Thus, while the ICMR and the State Government were directed repeatedly by the Supreme Court of India since 2001 to computerize and network the medical records of all hospitals and clinics treating gas-victims [9], they have done little in this regard. As a result, gas-victims have been denied a copy of his/her complete medical record, which effectively prevents gas-victims from not only getting appropriate treatment but also higher compensation in terms of the gravity of injury. It is high time that this gross injustice is set right without further delay.

Some other Outstanding Issues

* It may be noted that little headway has been made as far as bring the guilty in the Bhopal disaster case to justice was concerned. The lackadaisical manner in which the CBI is pursuing the criminal cases against the guilty provides ample proof that it is so easy for the State to turn the criminal judicial system into a farce as and when the State does not intend to pursue a case seriously. That Warren Anderson, the then Chairperson of UCC and accused No.1 in the criminal case, went unpunished during his lifetime provides a classic example in this regard.

* The utter callousness with which UCC treated the environment is also alarming. Much after the disaster, it became known that pre-disaster dumping of toxic waste in and around the Bhopal plant had resulted in contamination of soil and ground water over a large area. Intake of contaminated groundwater has created new victims According to a preliminary study in 2010, over 1,100,000 metric tonnes of contaminated soil alone require remediation.[10]Remediation of the contaminated soil and groundwater in and around the Bhopal plant is essential to safeguard the health of the people of Bhopal. The undue delay in de-contaminating Bhopal’s environment is inexplicable. The requisite technical know-how and the wherewithal for remediating Bhopal’ contaminated environment is available with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). It is the responsibility of the Government of India to seek UNEP’s assistance for the cleanup. Conversely, the UNEP can also convey to the Government of India its expertise in undertaking such tasks. As far as the costs of remediation is concerned, the ‘polluter pays’ principle will of course apply. However, concerning the urgency of the cleanup, the Government of India should first meet the costs and subsequently recover the entire expense for the cleanup from the Dow Chemical Company, USA, which presently owns UCC. Health & safety of people as well as environment should be prime concerns.

* The only way to prevent future Bhopals is by ensuring that TNC’s (as well as domestic industries) are barred from adopting double standards in installation of safety-systems; every effort should be made to ensure that stringent universal safety-standards for each category of industry are adopted and strictly observed. In this regard, it is disheartening to note that the efforts made in this direction by the United Nations more than three decades ago have not yet fructified.The proposal, for example, that “Transnational corporations shall also perform their activities with due regard to relevant international standards, so that they do not cause injury to the health or endanger the safety of consumers…”[11] was a remarkable one. If this Code had been in place before 1984, perhaps a disaster like the one in Bhopal may not have occurred.

* The fact that the Code of Conduct for Transnational Corporations that was drafted in 1983 has not yet secured the requisite support in the UN General Assembly is very unfortunate. The TNCs and their supporters alone may not be at fault for this undue delay; opposition from domestic industries in the developing world, who are averse to upgrading safety standards to the requisite levels, may also be creating major obstacles. Only concerted efforts by concerned people both in the developed as well as developing world can overcome this unwarranted resistance. It is hoped that the UN would adopt the Code of Conduct for Transnational Corporations at the earliest. Domestic industries in the developing world, especially those handling hazardous substances, should also be covered by a similar code. A universal emergency response protocol is required as well and it should include plans for proper documentation and medical surveillance of those affected by disasters.

NO MORE BHOPALS!

N.D. Jayaprakash is Joint Secretary, Delhi Science Forum and Co-Convenor, Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti (Coalition for supporting the Cause of the Bhopal Gas Victims).

Notes.

[1] Kim Fortun, Advocacy After Bhopal: Environmentalism, Disaster, New Global Orders, University of Chicago Press, 2009, p.96

[2] Ibid., p.97

[3] Safety Manual, Union Carbide Eastern, INC., Hong Kong, 1981

[4] For more details, please see Delhi Science Forum’s Report on the Bhopal Gas Tragedy at http://www.jstor.org/stable/3517242 (Social ScientistVol. 13, No. 1, Jan., 1985) and article titled “The Crime of Union Carbide” at: http://www.counterpunch.org/2010/09/07/the-crime-of-union-carbide/

[5] Dr.S.Sriramachari, The Bhopal gas tragedy: An environmental disaster, Current ScienceVol. 86, no. 7, 10 April 2004 at: http://icmr.nic.in/final/bhopal_gas.pdf

[6] For more details, please see article titled “Victims of Apathy” [MFC Bulletin Nos.361-362, Mar.-Dec. 2014) at http://www.mfcindia.org/curissue.pdf

[7] National Institute for Research in Environmental Health (NIREH, ICMR), Technical Report on Population Based Long Term Epidemiological Studies Part II (1996-2010), Bhopal, 2013, p.24

[8] A.R. Basu & R.S.Murthy, Disaster and Mental Health: Revisiting BhopalEconomic and Political Weekly , Vol. 38, No. 11, Mar. 15-21, 2003, at:http://www.jstor.org/stable/i400287.

See also: http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/every-fifth-gas-victim-has-psychiatric-problem/article1-968227.aspx

[9] The latest detailed Order in this regard was issued by the Supreme Court on 09.08.2012 in Writ Petition (C) No.50 of 1998. It is at http://judis.nic.in/supremecourt/chejudis.asp.

[10] National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI, Nagpur, India), “Assessment and Remediation of Hazardous Waste Contaminated Areas in and around M/s Union Carbide India Ltd., Bhopal”, June 2010 at:

http://envfor.nic.in/sites/default/files/Neeri%20report-1.pdf, p.68

[11] Article 37 of the Draft Code of Conduct for Transnational Corporations at: http://unctc.unctad.org/data/e90iia11k.pdf

N.D. Jayaprakash is Joint Secretary, Delhi Science Forum and Co-Convenor, Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti (Coalition for supporting the Cause of the Bhopal Gas Victims).

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