A saga of insensitivity
Posted June 30, 2009on:
No one resigned, no one offered to resign, and no heads rolled when a disaster, though of a different kind from the one in Mumbai but no less enormous in its gravity, struck Bhopal this day 24 years ago. The victims belonged to the lower-middle and lower strata of the society. They, more or less, accepted their “fate” stoically — or they did not have the means and resources to shake the establishment.
Pertinent in this regard is the observation of S.Varadarajan who, as the director-general of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), had done much to revive the faith of the survivors of the Bhopal MiC gas leak disaster of December 2-3, 1984 immediately after the tragedy had struck the unsuspecting residents. At a function in Bhopal on September 28, 1992, he paid handsome tributes to the Bhopal people for showing forbearance and patience in the wake of the disaster. Then he added, “The Bhopal people had behaved in a much civilised manner. Had even one person been killed, say, in Delhi, there would have been fires but the process of compensation would have been expedited with that”.
Those at the helm of affairs in the State as well as at the Centre fully exploited this “forbearance and patience” of the Bhopal people to: scuttle the inquiry into the causes of the disaster; wind up a project to compile data on the effects of the MiC gas inhalation on the survivors; ensure that the culprits are not punished; and agree on a compensation amount keeping in mind the interests of the US multinational rather than the interests of the poor Bhopal people.
Even after fighting prolonged battles in courts, mostly in the Supreme Court, the survivors have not so far received the compensation according to the norms prescribed by the Central government itself. As many as 15,274 persons have been officially admitted as having succumbed to the complications arising out of the inhalation of the MiC gas and nearly three lakh others are suffering from a host of ailments with varying intensities. No one has been punished for bringing such misery to lakhs of the people.
A proper treatment of the survivors was made difficult by the lack of information about exact contents of the cloud which had formed over Bhopal after the gas leak and which the residents had inhaled. The Union Carbide has the information but it has not released it so far. Dr Heeresh Chandra, one of the country’s foremost forensic experts, was of the opinion that the US multinational had experimented on the Indians some deadly chemical for use in a future biological warfare. Dr Chandra was involved in the investigations of post-mortem blood and tank residues. Phosgene and cyanide, the two most deadly chemicals, were also found in the blood of the victims, though these two chemicals had no business to be stored in the plant which was supposed to manufacture pesticides, according to the scientists who have studied the disaster.
If the Union Carbide refused to share information about the contents of the gas, the Indian authorities behaved like the paid agents of the Union Carbide, protecting the multinational’s interests at the cost of the people of the country. Here is a brief chronology of some important developments in the aftermath the tragedy.
The first major betrayal of the victims of the tragedy was the provision of safe passage in the government plane to Warren Anderson, chief executive of the Union Carbide, and main accused in the criminal case for causing the death of thousands of people. Later the warrants issued by the Bhopal court for extradition of Anderson were filed by the Ministry of External Affairs.
Faced with the countrywide horror, the Madhya Pradesh government ordered a judicial inquiry three days after the disaster. Justice N.K.Singh of the Madhya Pradesh High Court, who headed the one-member inquiry commission, directed the State government on March 26, 1985 to file its statement which the government did eight months later, on November 28. Another fortnight was taken by the government to file the list of documents relied upon. The Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), the subsidiary of the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), which was directly responsible for operating the pesticide plants in Bhopal, also filed its statement. However, the State government abruptly terminated the inquiry commission on December 17, 1985 – and thus scuttled the investigation of the magnitude and the ramifications of the Bhopal gas leak disaster.
Meanwhile, a project was undertaken to make a house-to-house survey of the affected people with a view to preparing their family profiles for their short-term and long-term rehabilitation. The Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Bombay, assisted by over 500 volunteers from various schools of social work in the country, assisted the government in carrying out this task. The detailed survey covering all the localities of 10 wards and a few localities in six other wards had been completed with 25,294 family interviews from January 1 to February 12, 1985 when the government abruptly wound up this project without assigning any reason. The TISS was not permitted to analyse the findings of the survey already completed as the State government had confiscated all the pro forma sheets.
The Government of India got the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act enacted by the Parliament on February 20,1985. However, it took more than seven months to frame and publish in the gazette the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Registration and Processing of Claims) Scheme, provided for in the Act. There was a further delay of over two years before the injured claimants were directed to go through the process of a separate medical examination for purposes of medical categorisation of claims based on the degree of injury suffered by each claimant. This exercise went on for nearly five years.
Finally, the Government of India arrived at a settlement with the Union Carbide under the aegis of the Supreme Court for an amount of 470 million US dollars towards payment of compensation to the victims and withdrawal of criminal cases which were instituted against 12 persons. It was calculated on the assumption that 3000 persons had died and around 1,02,000 others were injured. The settlement was accepted by the Government of India by ignoring the protests of some 30 all-India and Delhi-based organisations. Their allegation was that the figures of 3000 dead and 1,02,000 injured was arbitrary and not based on calculations. The Supreme Court later ruled that “if the settlement fund is found to be insufficient, the deficiency is to be made good by the Union of India”.
By now, the officially accepted figure of deaths is 15,274 while over three lakh persons are in the injured category. The settlement amount, accepted for 3000 dead and over one lakh injured, had to be distributed among nearly four times that figure and it came to an average of Rs 50,000 in several instalments. The process was completed only in 2006 – 22 years after the people were struck by the disaster. Now they are running from pillar to post for a semblance of a fair deal to them.