Asks Centre and Madhya Pradesh government to implement standard treatment protocols, and make public studies on the disaster-affected people
The Supreme Court has directed the Centre and the Madhya Pradesh government to immediately act to improve the dismal healthcare facilities provided to the survivors of the 1984 gas leak in Bhopal.
Disposing a 14-year-old writ petition, the court brought to the fore a neglected aspect of the gas disaster, the continuing ill effects of which have been passed on from one generation to the next.
The petition filed by Bhopal Group for Information and Action and Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan in 1998 had said that the survivors were entitled to free and proper medical assistance from the Union of India and state of Madhya Pradesh. It asked the court to act on Article 21 of the Indian Constitution (protection of life and personal liberty), which they claimed the concerned authorities had been denying. Later, applications were added to this petition, making it an umbrella petition for all health-related matters of the Bhopal gas leak victims.
In its order on August 9, the three-member bench headed by chief justice S H Kapadia asked the authorities to implement standard treatment protocols and scientific categorisation of exposure-related injuries and make public all former studies carried out on the people exposed to 42 tonnes of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas that had leaked from the Union Carbide factory on the intervening night of December 3 and 4 in 1984, killing thousands.
“With the passage of time, this disaster has attained wider dimensions and greater concerns, which require discharge of higher responsibilities by all the agencies. All the gas victims are entitled to greater multi-dimensional healthcare, as their sufferings are in no way, directly or indirectly, attributable to them. It was, primarily and undoubtedly, the negligence on the part of the Union Carbide Ltd that resulted in leakage of the MIC gas, causing irreversible damage to the health of not only the persons affected but even the children who were still to be born,” the order further stated.
The court also took notice of the ongoing case on toxic waste and asked all concerned authorities to meet within a month and finalise the proposal to dispose of this waste.
It was on May 15, 1988, that the court first directed the state to constitute Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre (BMHRC) and Bhopal Memorial Hospital Trust (BMHT) to look after the health of the affected gas victims. But both these organisations have been criticised for corruption, lack of facilities and resources. “This hospital has been ridden with corruption,” says Rashida Bi of Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmchari Sangh. She adds that doctors prefer other patients because they can be charged money and the gas victims are ignored.
The hospital is now under the control of Union ministry of health and family welfare and still does not have the required facilities and treatment needed for the victims.
The court in its latest order noted that there are large number of vacancies of doctors and supporting staff in the hospitals and allied departments. In the Bhopal gas tragedy relief and rehabilitation department, over 80 per cent posts of specialists and 30 per cent posts of doctors are lying vacant. Some posts are also lying vacant in the fourth grade staff. “We direct the concerned authorities not only fill these vacancies, but also to provide infrastructure and facilities,” the bench added.
The court also brought the BMHRC within the purview of the monitoring committee constituted by it earlier to oversee and suggest the healthcare facilities being provided to the 1984 gas victims and directed its accounts be audited by the principal accountant general, Madhya Pradesh.
The apex court constituted a monitoring committee and advisory committee in 2004. These committees were to oversee and suggest the healthcare facilities provided to the gas victims. Both the committees have now been given additional powers, including penal action against officials who do not follow their directions.
“The fact that the court has given powers to monitoring committee will ensure that officials and the concerned authorities take action on the court directives. The monitoring committee has submitted seven reports between the years 2004-08, all of which reiterate the need for proper medical care and the authorities took no action. Now, the committee has the power to take the erring officials to court after a reminder and this gives us hope that action will be taken in favour of the suffering victims,” says Rachna Dhingra of Bhopal Group for Information and Action.
The bench also asked the state government to issue health booklets and smart cards to gas victims and computerise health records of the patients. The report on computerisation of health records needs to be submitted to the Madhya Pradesh High Court within three months.
Hope for survivors
The survivors' organisations of the gas disaster have also welcomed the decision. They say the order offers significant hope to survivors who continue to battle chronic illnesses. “We ourselves have carried out inspections at the hospitals and clinics treating Bhopal gas victims and the conditions are very bad. Now there is a chance that things will improve,” says Nawab Khan of Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Purush Sangharsh Morcha. He adds that they were particularly happy that the order provides petitioner organisations and other survivors with legal remedies and continuing judicial supervision over the matter.