37 years of Bhopal gas tragedy: High Covid-19 fatality rate shows health impact of victims wasn't 'temporary'

Age-old questions resurface along with new ones in a novel campaign for justice

By Preetha Banerjee
Published: Thursday 02 December 2021

“Every year, around the anniversary of the Bhopal gas tragedy, I get asked: What is new this time? That is the saddest question,” said Rachna Dhingra, who has been campaigning for justice, compensation and answers for the thousands of victims of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy for 19 years.

It has been 37 years since the pesticide factory by Union Carbide India Ltd started spewing methyl isocyanate (MIC) on the intervening night of December 2-3, 1984, turning the city into a gas chamber and killing at least 3,000 people immediately and 16,000 more in the following years. 

As many as 500,000 people were exposed to toxic levels of the gas. But very little has changed for the sufferers, said Dhingra. 

On October 26, the Bhopal survivors’ organisations at the forefront of the fight for justice, launched a campaign to ask the same questions they have been asking for over three decades to jog the public memory and yet again, seek answers. 

Read more: Bhopal gas tragedy: A continuing disaster

They have been asking one question a day for the last 37 days on the microblogging platform Twitter, addressed to the Union government, the Government of Madhya Pradesh — specifically the department of Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation. 

Dhingra, member of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, listed out some of the questions they have tweeted out: 

  • Why hasn’t any organisation been held accountable in so many years since the tragedy and why does the Government of India let Dow Chemicals, which acquired Union Carbide in 2001, invest in the country? 
  • Why have research agencies such as the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) suppressed data on the extent and nature of health problems that the survivors have suffered? Why hasn’t specific information regarding the birth defects in children born to victims been made public? 
  • Why is there still no treatment protocol for these victims? 
  • Several crores were allotted by the Union Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers in 2010 for providing employment, social support and medical funding to the victims. Why are they still lying unused? 

“These questions are not new,” she reiterated, “but the least we want from the authorities is to be accountable.” 

The questions were posed by International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, an umbrella body mainly comprising members of four groups: Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmchari Sangh, Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Purush Sangharsh Morcha, Bhopal Group for Information and Action and Children Against Dow Carbide. 

Years of government apathy towards the crisis has led to obfuscation of the toxicological data of the accident — the company held back vital information under the garb of ‘trade secrets’ and the government did not fight for it, the activist said. 

The result: There is no treatment protocol for the victims even 37 years after the fateful day.

ICMR recognises that the gas victims have multisystemic damage and yet, they are only given symptomatic medication, even psychotropic drugs for their conditions, Dhingra said. 

“The tragedy was a windfall for the pharmaceutical companies and private healthcare sector,” she added. “At one point, Bhopal had more hospital beds than any city in the United States.”

Read more: The chemistry of living death

One of the most common side-effects of the consistent use of symptomatic medication is kidney damage in the gas victims. The Government of India has compensated at least 2,000 gas victims for complete renal failure, Dhingra shared. The cancer prevalence in the district of Bhopal is 10 times the national average. Patients who were exposed to the toxic gas in 1984 still turn up at hospitals with nervous system damage and mental illnesses.

The rickety health infrastructure of the district, however, is not indicative of such widespread health crisis, Dhingra pointed out. “The district hospital does not have a single pulmonologist, nephrologist or any other specialist.” 

A call to Jai Prakash District Hospital in the city confirmed the claim.

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) had a disproportionate impact on this population, Dhingra shared. “The first 15 COVID-19 deaths in the city of Bhopal were gas victims.” 

Of a total of 970 deaths due to the infection in the district, around 500 were from affected group, according to Dhingra. “This is significant, considering the population share of gas victims in the district’s overall population is a little over 13 per cent.”

The state government has not taken any specific measure to protect this extremely vulnerable group, which suffers from several comorbidities, from contagion, despite being warned by scientists as early as in March 2020, she added.

To top it all off, the only hospital dedicated for the treatment of the gas leak survivors was turned into a COVID-19 facility last year, depriving several patients without crucial treatment for at least 20 days. 

The grim situation, however, proved that the health problems caused due to exposure to toxic levels of MIC were not temporary, as the government has maintained, said Dhingra. She added: 

Out of the official tally of 574,000 people who were exposed to the gas, the government classified 525,000 to have suffered ‘minor injuries’. That is 93 per cent of the impacted population who received a paltry compensation of Rs 25,000 each.

The high COVID-19 fatality rate and caseload among the gas victims show that a much larger population was severely impacted than the government will have us believe. 

The ‘37 years, 37 questions’ campaign has generated six responses so far from the Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation department of the state government. “The answers were ridiculous and shows that the government doesn’t want to meaningfully address the problems,” said Dhingra.

37 questions, 7 answers:

  1. Out of the official total of 5,295 gas-related deaths, are 5,000 widows because the gas only killed married men? 
  2. Why hasn’t the owner of the land contaminated by Union Carbide / Dow Chemical, the MP government, ever sought compensation for environmental damage?
  3. Why in the last 11 years has the MP government not filed a single application for urgent hearing of the curative petition?
  4. Why are there still no treatment protocols for the proper treatment of gas victims, who as a result get only symptomatic treatments that often harm them?
  5. In hospitals run by the government for gas victims why, for last 10 years, are 40% of Doctors’ posts and 56% of Specialists’ post left vacant?
  6. Why has the PM not found time to meet the gas victims or talk about the victims of the world’s worst industrial disaster in any of his 5 visits to Bhopal?
  7. Why has the MP government failed to provide employment to any gas victims or their children while it was sitting on 85 crore ($11.6 million) amount of money for last 10 years? 
  8. Doctors and Medical Researchers of BMHRC responsible for carrying out drug trials for multinationals without informed consent, resulting in at least 13 deaths in 13 trials, are not being prosecuted. Why? 
  1. Why are reports by official scientific agencies concerning soil and groundwater contamination by Union Carbide/Dow Chemical in Bhopal being ignored by the MP government?  
  1. Why has the MP government not made any efforts to monitor the spread of groundwater contamination , a scientific fact verified by IITR, Lucknow?
  1. Why has the prosecution, CBI, not made any attempt so far to extradite the legal representative of Union Carbide and make him appear in the criminal case on the disaster?
  1. Why doesn’t the Bhopal Memorial Hospital & Research Centre (BMHRC) have a Gynaecology, Paediatrics, General Medicine departments till today?
  2. Why does the Gas Relief Minister plan to pour concrete over land poisoned with chemicals which persist in toxicity for 100 years, that the concrete will not stop from spreading, and that Dow Chemical is legally obliged to clean up?
  3. Why has the Chief Minister not fulfilled any of its promises made on 03/12/2011 till today?
  4. Why is the MP government presenting two different figures of death – 5295 and 15242 caused by the disaster to the Supreme Court? 
  5. Why is the MP government lying in the curative petition before the Supreme Court of India that 93% of gas survivors are only temporarily injured by gas exposure?
  6. Why are 7 yoga centres built at the cost of 4crores lying vacant and unused for last 9 years?
  7. What has been done to improve upon the 2017 NIREH (National Institute for Research in Environmental Health) study that showed almost 9 times more congenital malformations in children born to gas exposed parents?
  8. Why has NIREH stopped carrying out research on health impact of Bhopal Gas Disaster & environmental contamination when it was created for this sole purpose in 2011?
  9. Why are there no doctors for mental illnesses in the state government hospitals meant for the gas exposed population
  10. Why has the Ministry of Environment Forests & Climate Change not accepted UNEP’s offer to carry out a scientific assessment of soil and groundwater contamination in and around the Union Carbide factory?
  1. Why has the MP government taken no steps to prevent a mass public poisoning due to the cultivation of fish and water chestnuts in the pond contaminated by Union Carbide? 
  1. Despite recommendations by two senior medical experts, why hasn’t the MP government included Yoga as part of healthcare provided to gas victims ?
  1. Why are more than 500 women widowed by the Bhopal Gas Disaster being denied their pension that was promised by the CM?
  1. Why is the MP government sitting on 45 Crores ($6million) meant to provide social support to Bhopal victims for the last YY years?
  1. Why for the last 3 years has the Department of Bhopal Gas Tragedy, Relief & Rehabilitation not had a single IAS official who wasn’t dedicated to another department?
  1. Why are people with chronic exposure to  bio-accumulative organochlorines and persistent organic pollutants in contaminated groundwater denied free medical care in gas relief hospitals?
  1. Why has the Supreme Court of India ignored the central and state governments’ non-compliance with its 1991 order mandating medical insurance coverage to “at least 100,000 children of gas victims born after the disaster?
  1. Why no victim of the Union Carbide disaster has received any compensation for mental illnesses caused due to toxic exposure despite scientific evidence of 30% of excess mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety disorder, insomnia and others? 
  1. Why has the MP Government failed to address almost all of the concerns raised by the Supreme Court appointed Monitoring Committee for Medical Rehabilitation of Gas Victims since the committee’s inception in 2004?
  1. Why has the CBI failed to make Dow Chemicals appear in the ongoing criminal proceedings on the disaster in the Bhopal District Court despite six summons issued by the Court since 2014?
  1. Why has the MP government failed to fulfil its 2010 promise to initiate a fast trial of the accused corporations and executives in the Bhopal criminal case?
  1.   When it is officially acknowledged that the prolonged use of painkillers has contributed to kidney damage, and when close to 2,000 gas victims have been compensated for kidney damage, why has the use of kidney-damaging medicines in gas relief hospitals not been reviewed, or minimised?
  1. Covid mortality among gas victims is more than 5 times that of the Bhopal District population, official records show. Why is the MP government not presenting this clear proof of long-term morbidity in the Supreme Court to support its claim for additional compensation from Union Carbide and Dow Chemical
  1. Why has the MP government done nothing to uphold the rights of children of gas victims, whom scientific evidence and official acknowledgements confirm are suffering health damage due to their parents’ exposure, which Union Carbide/Dow Chemical are legally bound to compensate?
  1. When it has refused to respond to six summonses issued by the Bhopal District Court since 2014, why do the central and MP state governments allow the outlaw Dow Chemical to freely do business in India and MP state?
  2. What happened to Rs 40 crores allocated in 2010 for houses for 2500 families residing near Union Carbide factory affected by groundwater contamination? 

Some answers the survivors received were to questions on the unused funds and government apathy.

“We have given jobs earlier and will give again” was the response to the question on why the Madhya Pradesh government has been sitting on the large sum of money received 10 years ago to secure jobs for the victim. 

The group tweeted out a question why MP has not moved an application in the Supreme Court for early hearing of the petition for which they are interveners? To this, the department answered that the petition does not concern them and was filed by the Government of India. 

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