Birth defects remain high in Bhopal gas survivors 35 years after disaster

An unpublished ICMR report found 9 per cent newborns of gas victims had birth defects as against 1.3 per cent newborns of non-victims

By Manish Chandra Mishra
Published: Thursday 28 November 2019
Photo: Vikas Choudhary

On December 2, it will be 35 years since the Bhopal gas tragedy, the world’s worst industrial disaster. The impact of the event, however, continues to be felt.

Four organisations of the Bhopal gas victims released the unpublished report at a joint press conference in the city, while demanding for better compensation and justice. They used the Right to Information to gain access to the study conducted by the Indian Council of Medical Research, India’s apex medical research body.

The study found congenital malformations in 9 per cent of the 1,048 babies born to mothers who had inhaled the poisonous methyl isocyanate gas leaked by the industrial disaster. In contrast, just 1.3 per cent of the 1,247 babies born to mothers not exposed to the poisonous gas had congenital malformations.

The study, which had a budget of Rs 48 lakh, was carried out between January 2016 and June 2017, was carried out on behalf of the Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC), set up by the ICMR in 2016 to study the impact of the disaster.

However, the SAC, during its 7th meeting in December 2017, decided to not publish the findings after its members “expressed concern on the high incidence of malformed children recorded in the present study and raised several queries related to quality control of data.” The committee instead decided to get the study reviewed by an expert group.

The four-member expert group, which met on April 4, 2018, “strongly recommended that this data, due to its inherent flaws, should not be put in public domain and shared at any platform”.

They found “inherent flaws” with the study due to “various methodological issues, problems of invalidated data and outcome assessment bias”. The SAC, which met the eighth time in October 2018, upheld the recommendations of the expert committee and dismissed the findings.

“The government chose not to publish the results of the study that clearly highlights how the disaster still impacts the life of the victims,” alleged Rachna Dhingra, member of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, at the press conference.

“We are now losing faith in our scientists and scientific institutions. If the study methodology was flawed, it should have been corrected during the meetings that gave it a go-ahead. Also, why a fresh study was never conducted?” asked Rashida Bee, president of Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmchari Sangh.

The oraganisations alleged lack of intent when they said that on the one hand, the government agencies shied away from releasing its own data and on the other its lawyers use lack of data as an excuse against increasing the compensation to the survivors.

“It is ironical that at a recent meeting held at the Supreme Court on the curative petition we have filed for the enhancement of compensation for the gas disaster, the opposing advocate sought corroborative data that shows offspring of the victims are impacted by the disaster,” says Nawab Khan, president of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Purush Sangharsh Morcha.

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