BHOPAL: the bad dream continues
Bhopal is a metaphor for disaster, industrial and human. It has been the object of much speculation and typically endless litigation. A case study in regulatory law, it could serve as wonderful …
Disaster: 40 tonnes of MIC leaked
Area: 20 sq km
Dead: 3,000 within a week, 20,000 till 1992, when official counting stopped
Victims: 5,00,000 chronically ill, 40 visit hospital every hour
Treatment: Not known
Reason: composition of chemical compounds released not known
Long-term effects: ICMR refuses to divulge its studies
Compensation: maximum rs one lakh for the dead and chronically ill
rehabilitation: Centre as well as state refuses to foot the bill. only 450 rehabilitated
Punishment: Case still in the lower court. May take two more decades
Bhopal is the name of the place where, once upon a time, a vast plume of poison burst upon 5,20,000 people. But that happened 20 years ago.
Now Bhopal is a metaphor for disaster, industrial and human. It has been the object of much speculation and typically endless litigation. A case study in regulatory law, it could serve as wonderful proof in an argument to uphold the precautionary principle. Reams of paper — research unpublished or not undertaken — and crores of cash — money unspent, or non-funding — facilitate the entry of a new generation of the city’s residents into the 21st century, and death by unknown illness.
This is the Bhopal Down To Earth reporters RICHARD MAHAPATRA, VIBHA VARSHNEY and KUSHAL P S YADAV prefer to focus upon:
• The abandoned Union Carbide factory: A stockpile of chemicals contaminates local water and soil. The poison leaching into the ground contains mercury, once not considered to be in use in the plant.
• Health: Treatment of the gas victims not known. Union Carbide refuses to divulge the composition of chemicals released into the atmosphere, citing trade secrecy. The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has withheld its research on the victims, limiting knowledge of the long-term effects of exposure to the gas. Read exclusive excerpts from ICMR’s findings.
• Compensation: The Centre and the state government have become the true victims of the methyl iso-cyanate gas leak — and heavy metals, and mercury. Each claims the unspent compensation money is theirs.
• Lessons learnt: India nurtures Asia’s second largest chemical industry. There is no doubt that Bhopal has been carefully nurtured — by official prescription, administrative dose by dose — to be where it is today. If Bhopal is not even a blip in your brain, don’t remember it. But you can’t forget it either.
Forty year old Ganga stays in a slum close to the derelict Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) plant in Bhopal. She came to the city long after the gas leak. But Ganga shows symptoms associated with victims of the leak, nevertheless -- a burning in the eyes, cough, breathlessness, recurrent fevers, appetite loss, skin disorders, joint pains and anxiety attacks. Her children undergo similar agony. So do many others living in the vicinity of the plant: an unpublished study by a local non-governmental organisation (NGO), Sambhavna Trust confirms this. Ganga and people like her are victims of the UCIL plant's lethal chemical stockpile, amounting to 2000 metric tonnes (MT). Over the last 19 years, they have leached into the groundwater and contaminated the soil. At least 21 chemicals have been found in soil and water samples of five residential colonies close to the factory: J P Nagar, Kaindu Chola, Arif Nagar, New Arif Nagar and Atal Ayub Nagar, where 50,000 live today (see map: Areas most affected...). Chemicals have now entered the food chain; mothers feed toxic breast milk to their children. Nineteen years after it snuffed out 3,000 lives and crippled countless others, UCIL's Bhopal plant continues to maim and traumatise.
Down To Earth secured exclusive entry into the factory premises. We found heaps of chemicals lying all over. Evidently, this is not a post-1984 development. Testimonies of ex-company employees and studies by the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and Indian Institute of Chemical Technology (IICT) now show that UCIL dumped toxic waste outside the plant much before the 1984 tragedy. The exact names of the dumped chemicals and heavy metals were provided in 1997 by an ex-Union Carbide employee -- T R Chauhan -- to a New York district court. Mercury was among these metals (see table: Toxic junk).
Following a huge public outcry against the plant, the state government investigated it way back in 1994. 44 MT of tarry residue -- generated during manufacture of Sevin -- and 2.5 MT of alpha napthol were found. These hazardous wastes were subsequently shifted and stored in a covered area.
The Madhya Pradesh (MP) government has other incriminating evidence against Union Carbide as well. Documents made available to Down To Earth by state officials in 1991 and 1996 (when UCCIL still owned the plant) reveal that the Madhya Pradesh Public Health Engineering department's State Research Laboratory tested 11 groundwater samples from the five worst affected colonies. The samples had chemical oxygen demand (COD) between 45 g/l and 98 g/l. (The World Health Organization (WHO) has fixed 6 g/l as the standard value of COD for natural water). Water samples from other parts of the city were also tested but no contamination was detected. Clearly, the UCIL plant has put paid to the groundwater quality in its environs. But, the government chose not to act on these results. They remained cocooned by the Official Secrets Act.
In 1996, the Central Bureau of Investigation investigated the plant. It directed an expert body from the Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board, NEERI and IICT clean up the plant premises. The experts stated unequivocally that wastewater spilt out of the plant, contaminating groundwater. But the government paid no heed to their warnings.
Down To Earth has studied documents that are part of the government's investigation process. They reveal Union Carbide was aware of the health hazards of its Bhopal plant as early as 1989. Carbide's own laboratory tests done that year revealed that soil and water samples collected from near the factory vicinity were toxic to fish. In 1994, Carbide commissioned NEERI to study soil and water contamination from the factory . The report noted 21 sites inside the plant to be highly polluted. Union Carbide has not acted on any of these reports.
While the plant continues to maim and kill, the center, the state government and Union Carbide hem and haw over who should do the clean-up. Litigation too has become a drag. A victims' group has demanded in the Supreme Court that Dow Chemicals, owner of Union Carbide since February 2001 clean up the plant. In 1999, a similar case was filed in a lower court in New York, USA. In August 2003 the Madhya Pradesh government jumped into this litigation to claim money from Dow. "The contaminants are highly specific in nature and decontamination cannot occur without Union Carbide's co-operation," stated a state government official in the US court.
Meanwhile the aftermath of Bhopal threatens to become deadlier than the night itself. The survivors drink poison everyday. What is this doing to their already blistered bodies? Who knows? Who cares?
As the Bhopal tragedy enters its twentieth year, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has identified the country's newest disease: the Bhopal Gas Disease. Down To Earth has exclusive access to an unpublished ICMR document which defines the disease as "a condition of ill-health due to exposure to Bhopal's toxic gases." About half a million people in Bhopal suffer from this disease, which has forty symptoms ranging from low backache to breathing difficulties. The treatment has merely served the symptoms. This is all ICMR has to show out of 10 years of research on 84,000 victims. After spending a further nine years in reviewing its work, ICMR has not published it.
"The exact causative agent of the Bhopal Toxic Gas Disease is unknown," says the unpublished ICMR document. How come? For one, the Union Carbide has used trade secrecy as a prerogative to withhold information on the exact composition of the leaked gases. This played a big part in styming research. Secondly, the ex- CSIR director Vardarajan committee report submitted after analysing the residues of tank 610 of UCIL remains the only guideline for research. The report -- submitted immediately after the disaster traced 12 different chemical components of MIC; another 11 elements were identified by the ICMR study.
In fact, according to a chemical engineer who has worked at UCIL, MIC reacting with water at high temperatures (what happened at Bhopal) may release up to 300 highly toxic chemicals. What little knowledge the world has about MIC's toxicity is based on exposure of pure MIC to animals. It is meagre; the Vardarajan commitee makes a helpless observation, "The main difficulty in making comparisons with other experimental studies on MIC is that these were based on animals' exposure to gas. But in Bhopal people were exposed to a number of gases, including MIC." That was in 1987. No further know-how has emerged.
In the aftermath of the gas leak the ICMR was asked to undertake 24 research projects on its long-term effects. But, all these, except the one to monitor cancer among gas victims, were summarily terminated in 1994. Rationalises, Sameer Khare, director, department of Bhopal gas relief and rehabilitation, government of MP, "With the gas not there in the atmosphere, there was no need to continue research."
The government belabours to prove all is normal. According to Khare, "Only five to seven per cent patients coming to hospitals suffer from exposure-related diseases." Belying this claim are figures which show that the incidence of common diseases in affected areas is double than that in non-affected areas. (see graph: People still suffer) The quantum of patients has also increased. In 1985, 2584 patients visited out patient department of government hospitals every day, going up up to 4,230 in 2002.
According to an affidavit submitted by the ICMR in the Supreme Court, the decision to terminate the research was taken after an evaluation of the results. But contends S Sriramachari, former director, Institute of Pathology, ICMR, "The decision was administrative and not based on researchers' advice." Says V R Dhara of the Emory Eastside Occupational Health Center, Snellville, Georgia, USA, "If ICMR had problems in analysing data, it could have consulted international bodies such as the WHO. Dhara, who has worked extensively on the victims says, "It is quite possible that the ICMR might not even be willing to publish the results as it was under pressure."
After the projects were terminated, the ICMR abdicated all responsibility of research to the MP government's Centre for Rehabilitation Studies (CRS). CRS has so far done only epidemological studies which compare morbidity in affected areas with that in non-affected areas. Says N Banerjee, officer in charge, CRS, "The CRS data is useless unless used for future research." "What we have are observations, and not scientific studies that pin-point reasons for health problems," says Rachna Pandey, former ICMR investigator. Since the ICMR data is not freely available, there is a complete divergnce between research and the treatment. According to activists such as Abdul Jabbar of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan, the government has forgotten the basics of health care. "How can good treatment be provided unless a proper classification of diseases is done?" questions Jabbar.
While the ICMR has washed its hands off Bhopal's victims, the few studies done by independent agencies indicate that Bhopal is in severe health crisis. In October this year, a study, carried out by the NGO Sambhavana Trust compared adolescents exposed to the gas with ones who had not been exposed: the former had lower anthropometric features such as height, weight and body mass index.
The same organisation carried out research on girls aged 13-19 during 1999-2000. 64.19 per cent of respondents had menstrual problems. Another study by the International Medical Commission-Bhopal (IMC) -- a committee of 14 experts from different countries -- in 1996 showed that fever episodes, adverse outcomes of pregnancy and respiratory, neurological, psychiatric and ophthalmic problems were higher in those exposed to the gas.
Cancer is very common amongst the affected. But the government prefers to links it to habits such as smoking. Contends, Shyam Agrawal, director, Navodaya Oncology Centre, Bhopal, "Bhopal has the highest incidence of lung cancer among Indian cities. This can be linked to lung injury scars developing into cancerous tissue. The proof is there but the government denies it for then it would have to pay compensation." The government claims to provide free treatment for cancer to those below the poverty line. But to receive this largesse, victims must pass an administrative process. This is so long drawn-out that patients who come to the hospital at the first stage of cancer, usually deteriorate to the third stage by the time they are certified as worthy of treatment.
Seven hospitals, five dispensaries, two polyclinics and nine units of traditional medicine have come up in Bhopal after the tragedy. The number of beds in the city today is twice than what is recommended by the World Bank. Till October 2002, Rs 219.08 crores was spent on expanding the bed capacity of Bhopal's hospitals. However, a 2001 survey by three gas victim groups revealed that the hospitals are understaffed and do not even have basic equipments. For example, pathological facilities such as those for testing sputum are not there in hospitals for gas victims.
Even the much-acclaimed Bhopal Memorial Trust Hospital (BMTH) has not helped much. The hospital was built in 1998 from sale of UCIL shares. The IMC opposed its construction, arguing the city did not require more beds for treatment. They argued that local community clinics were a much better option. The hospital has 14 super-speciality clinics. But only customers who can afford to pay avail of its facilities. The gas affected also require smart cards to get treated in BMTH. They get these cards only after producing proper court documents.
A study by Atanu Sarkar of the Catholic Health Association of India shows that most doctors of government hospital practice privately. And, only patients who consulted them privately can hope for treatment. Only 41 out of the 87 positions for doctors in these hospitals have been filled up. 250 private nursing homes have mushroomed all over the city and a multitude of private practitioners and registered medical practitioners thrive on the woes of the gas-affected.
India has failed to use this tragedy to develop a long-term healthcare strategy. The Disaster Management Institute set up in the city has enough expertise in this field. But the governnment has not consulted it. The International Medical Commission identifies Bhopal as a negative model in disaster management. But the authorities could be least bothered.
Meanwhile the victims make the rounds of the hospitals, insistently, maniacally. Until their money runs out.
Asha, 24, visits the Bhopal Memorial Trust Hospital once every 2 days. She has a hole in her heart. But the hospital won't operate her, because she has overshot the hospital quota of Rs two lakh per victim. She cannot get herself operated privately. "I have spent the compensation of Rs 10,600 long ago," she says.
Asha received this paltry amount in 1989. The same year, sea otters affected by an oil spill in Alaska got US $40,000 each and a daily ration of lobster worth US $500. While the rehabilitation programme for the otters continues, developments till September this year show the Union and MP governments have done away with the compensation programme, officially turning half a million people like Asha into non-entities.
Initially the Indian government had demanded US $3.5 billion dollars as compensation; as time went by, it seemed more eager to jump off the moral high ground. As more time passed and the case got bogged down in the litigation process, the government looked ready to collect whatever loose change was thrown its way. In 1989 UCC obliged, parting happily with US $470 (about one-seventh of the amount originally asked for) as final settlement. The Supreme Court, guardian of the money now stashed away in a Reserve Bank of India dollar account, issued guidelines for the money to handed over to people. The dead were to be given Rs 1- 3 lakh; the fully or partially disabled were to receive Rs 50,000-Rs 2 lakh. For temporary injury, the apex court earmarked Rs 25,000-Rs 1 lakh. The MP government then cunningly fixed the amount to be actually disbursed. Apparently forgetting the court had mentioned a range, no doubt to be decided on a ase-to-case basis, the state government conveniently picked the lower limit and froze compensation at that level: Rs 25,000 for injury and Rs 1 lakh for death.
This was just the beginning of an intricate scam. In 1989, the money UCC had given was worth 750 crore in Indian currency. But then the rupee devalued. This, along with interest, swelled the value of the stash to about Rs 3000 crore. Of this amount, Rs 1360 crore remains unspent till date. So, how has the government spent money?
This is where the scam deepens. Originally, the number of compensation claims was about 2 lakh. Till last year, it had grown to about 1.29 million. According to the reports of the office of the welfare commission, Bhopal dated March 31, 2002, almost all claims filed by gas victims have been disposed off and over Rs 1,511 crore disbursed. According to the reports of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation Department, instead of the assumed figure of 3,000 claims on account of death (an 1989 estimate), over 15,000 cases have been cleared. Similarly, instead of an estimated 1,02,000 cases of compensation for injury, over 5,52,000 have been paid in this category. This means that five times the number of estimated claims have been settled, but using only half of the current compensation fund. Interestingly, another 16,000 fresh claims are pending in settlement courts. According to a welfare commission estimate, it would take another eight years to verify all of them.
Another way of putting it is to say that the money is safe with government. Indeed, the spiralling claims resulted in each victim receiving about one-tenth of the money earmarked for them. Compensation was finally disbursed by 1996, but not before the government deducted the Rs 480 crore it had spent on residents in 36 wards of the city for six years as interim relief. It deducted @ Rs 200 per month per claim, for six years. What victims, therefore, finally got was grossly negligible. People received as little as Rs 15, 000 as final settlement: just a few months of medical expenses.
Rehabilitation has become a football game between the Centre and the state government, says Satinath Sarangi of the Sambhavna Trust clinic. Both are more keen on fighting over money. In September-October this year, the Planning Commission received four memos from the ministry of chemicals and petroleum the nodal department for all Bhopal gas related issues to explain the different clauses and provisions on the financial arrangement between state and Centre.
It wasn't such a mess in 1985 when the Centre, responsible for finances, provided MP Rs 102 crore for rehabilitation work. In 1992 a five-year action plan was launched. With an outlay of Rs 163.10 crore, its major component was medical rehabilitation. But nothing moved on the ground: a July 1997 review found that many of the rehabilitation schemes health, infrastructure and income generation schemes were incomplete. So the powers-that-be pumped a further Rs 95 crore into the plan and extended it to September 1998.
In July 1999, the Centre's brittle generosity cracked. It would no longer fund the state government's equally delicate efforts to help victims. MP had to find money for itself, and was put in sole charge of the rehab initiative. The state government refused to take on such a huge task. It changed tack: now, it demanded the Centre evolve and fund a special programme for the victims.
Rehabilitation has been been subsequently reduced to a politics of claims and counter-claims. MP makes a claim; the centre shoots it down, and vice-versa. On May 20, 2003 MP gas disaster minister Arif Akeel shot off a letter to Arun Jaitley, the chairperson of the Group Of Ministers (GOM) in charge of Bhopal. He demanded the GOM instruct the Planning Commission and the ministry of finance to make rehabilitation and relief work for Bhopal victims a separate centrally-funded sheme. "The government of India did not respond. It is no more sympathetic," says Akeel.
The state government is no better. It now wants the Rs 220 crore it spent on relief and rehabilitation since December 1984 to be reimbursed. It argues that according to the Bhopal Gas Rehabilitation Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act 1985, the Centre is responsible for all rehabilitation expenses. "This is one of the cruellest jokes on us," says Rashida Bee of the Bhopal Mahila Gas Peedith Udyog Sangathan. The MP government has also asked for a corpus of Rs 400 crore.
At the bottom of this new style of doing rehabilitation is the Rs 1,360 crore still unspent. Even as the fight over the rehab plan turned ugly, another front opened up: the unspent treasure each wants for itself.
The state government wants the apex court to release this money to it. It has presented a plethora of proposals, all shot down by the Centre. MP has asked for money to dispose off the toxic waste in the plant (or else it remains there). It proposed in 1999 a Rs 45 crore plan to supply drinking water to the city's 36 affected wards. This plan was junked, and re-presented more elaborately: MP revived an old plan it had to provide the entire city with potable water from the Narmada, a project costing Rs 726 crore, to come from the compensation fund. The real victims were jettisoned. Other grand proposals -- a memorial for the gas victim and a Life Science Institute in Bhopal -- show the government's intentions.
The victims have never figured anywhere in this venal grab for the Bhopal booty. Ever. They have sought the Supreme Court's intervention. But even after 30 hearings, this case hangs in (dis) balance.
And the future looks worse. In April, 2003 the GOM, that had in all the bickering among the Centre and the mp government tried to play the role of a referee, asked "the department of chemicals and petrochemicals to assist the Supreme Court in disbursing the surplus funds among the Bhopal gas victims on a pro-rata basis." It put forward another recommendation: the GOM should be disbanded. This means it will never meet again. This is a big blow to those still searching for, and hoping to find, ameliorative justice. For, such a move strips Bhopal's gas victims of their sole political platform, or intervening agency, in Delhi.
After the 1984 gas leak, a number of regulations and rules were enacted to stymie the kind of pollution Bhopal was witness to. In 1986 came the Environment (Protection) Act. The Factories Act of 1948 was amended in 1987 to introduce provisions related to the hazardous industrial processes. The manufacture, storage and import of hazardous chemicals rules were enacted in 1989 to deal with accidents from industrial activities involving hazardous chemicals. The Public Liability Insurance Act of 1991 aims to provide immediate relief to persons affected by accidents involving hazardous substances. Large industries need to get an Environmental Impact Assessment done before the government gives them consent to function. But, enforcing these laws remains a major problem. "The government lacks the motivation to make the industry fall in line. They openly the flout the norms knowing very well that they can bribe anyone," says Waghle.
While India paid short shrift to Bhopal, the US beefed up its regulatory mechanism. In 1986, it set up a fund called Superfund. Under it the liability for cleaning up a contaminated site rests with the offending corporation. Failure in adhering to this regulation means that government can clean up the premise and extract three times more money. The Tomas Mac Sheoin report of 1986 on the Union Carbide Corporation notes, "It is bitter irony that the major reformist effects of Bhopal were felt in Union Carbide's home country."
In 1986, the US introduced the Toxic Release Inventory system where every hazardous substance was accounted for by a regulator and the user company. Stricter monitoring standards were introduced and many compounds were reviewed for safety standards. Within five years, at least 70 chemical plants were relocated to safer areas and several suspended operations. Since policy and regulators move slowly in India, many of them shifted here.
And regulating the chemical industry in India is a major problem. With the chemical industry growing fast, safe guarding environment and public health will require great efforts. "What will help is raising the value of a Indian life," avers Dhara. "Today it is much cheaper to kill hundreds of Indians then to put in place control systems. In India the maximum dole under the Public Liability Insurance Act is Rs 37,500. In the US one life is worth a million dollars," he says. "If the costs of accidents are made more than that of technology and control systems, the industry will obviously opt for the cheaper option. This model has worked in the West and will work for us too," he adds.
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