Bhopal gas tragedy: 25 years of political mischief
Posted December 1, 2009on:
Bhopal is observing this year the 25th anniversary of the world’s biggest industrial disaster — when the massive MiC leak from Union Carbide’s pesticides factory played havoc on unsuspecting people. Whoever inhaled the gas died instantaneously in that horrendous night of December 2-3. The dead were lying on the roads, in the nullahs and in the open. There was no one to take down the number of the dead, even of those brought to the hospitals; nor was it possible. The system had collapsed.
Even then, over 20,000 are officially acknowledged as having died from the MiC-related complications so far. Those who were able to defy death — their number is over a hundred thousand — have been forced to live a miserable life for want of lack of concerted efforts to rehabilitate them medically, economically and socially. Enormous amounts of money have been shown as having been spent for providing succour to the gas victims. But what the politicians in power did, with the connivance of the bureaucrats, makes a shameful reading.
When then Madhya Pradesh labour minister Tarachand Viyogi assured the State Assembly in December 1982 that there was no danger to the people from the Union Carbide factory, it might have been on account of his ignorance, but without any selfish motives. But what then chief minister Arjun Singh did after the disaster had struck two years later was outright criminal. The first major betrayal of the victims of the tragedy by Arjun Singh was the provision of safe passage in the government plane to Warren Anderson, chief executive of the Union Carbide, and the main accused in the criminal case for causing the death of thousands of people.
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 pesticides plant in Bhopal, also filed its statement. However, the State government, headed by Arjun Singh, abruptly terminated the inquiry commission on December 17, 1985 – and thus scuttled the investigation of the cause, 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 Arjun Singh abruptly wound up this project without assigning any reason. The TISS was not even 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, headed by Rajiv Gandhi, got the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act enacted by 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 in the face of 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”. It has not.
Some projects to help the gas leak survivors were started by the Madhya Pradesh government after Motilal Vora had replaced Arjun Singh as the chief minister. Stitching centres were set up to provide employment to gas affected women. In October 1987, then Union minister of industries J.Vengal Rao laid the foundation stone of a “special industrial area”. The project envisaged setting up of small and medium scale industrial units over a 21-hectare piece of land. The industrialists were to be invited for setting up their units, which would not require heavy labour. The electronics industry and the diamond cutting industry were identified, to begin with, as suited to the requirement. It was announced at the time that 10,000 gas-affected persons would get direct employment in the units to be started in the first phase. Vora had also paid attention to the medical needs of the survivors.
Patwa’s hatred for victims
The BJP government of Sunderlal Patwa, which came to power in 1990, dismantled, one by one, all the projects started or envisaged for the rehabilitation of the gas leak survivors, including the stitching centres for the gas affected women. Patwa, and his colleagues, had an inveterate hatred for the gas victims. Babulal Gaur, minister of gas leak disaster relief and rehabilitation in the Patwa government, told the Assembly in 1991 that the gas affected people were quite well off and were no more in need of any assistance. The money released by the Centre for improving environment in the gas-affected localities was spent on beautification of the areas, far away from the gas affected localities. The medical services were in a shambles.
The Supreme Court directed the State government to insure the gas-affected children, numbering about one lakh. Disposing of a string of writ petitions on October 3,1991, a division bench of the apex court observed: “We are of the view that such contingencies shall be taken care of by obtaining an appropriate group insurance cover from the General Insurance Corporation of India or the Life Insurance Corporation of India for compensation to this contingent class of possible prospective victims”.
The judgement said: “The period of insurance cover should be a period of eight years in the future. The number of persons to be covered by this Group Insurance Scheme should be about and not less than one lakh of persons… as this figure broadly accords with the percentage of population of the affected wards… and the number of persons found to be affected by medical categorisation…The possible claimants fall into two categories: those who were in existence at the time of exposure; and those who were yet unborn and whose congenital defects are traceable to MiC toxicity inherited or derived congenitally”.
Digvijay’s dirty role
That Patwa and his BJP ignored the Supreme Court directive is not surprising. What was really shocking was the apathy of Digvijay Singh who headed the Congress government for ten years. Digvijay Singh, as the PCC chief, had been participating in the agitations organised by the gas affected people and had been sitting on dharnas, along with Abdul Jabbar of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan (BGPMUS), to demand justice for the gas victims. He, as the PCC chief, had promised in the 1993 Assembly election manifesto speedy redress of the grievances of the gas victims.
After he became the chief minister in December 1993, he took on priority basis the task of completion of the demolition work which Patwa had left incomplete. He undermined the genuine NGOs working among the gas victims by propping up some unadulterated racketeers and putting at their disposal funds, which were meant for helping the survivors but actually helped his cronies become richer. By the time he completed his first term, the Bhopal gas had become a dirty word for Digvijay Singh and he made sure that this word did not find mention in the Congress party’s 1998 Assembly election manifesto.
The BJP governments, since 2003, have been as weary of the Bhopal gas leak survivors as the previous Patwa and Digvijay Singh governments had been.
When Union minister of environment Jairam Ramesh visited the erstwhile Union Carbide’s pesticides factory and later told a press conference that he was neither dead nor coughing (in reply to reporters’ question about the safe disposal of the lethal chemical wastes dumped there), he may not have uttered this nonsense on a whim. He may well have a certain American audience on his mind. There is a precedent.
Aquils and Jairams
Arif Aquil was minister of Bhopal gas disaster relief and rehabilitation in the Digvijay Singh government. A petition was filed in an American court on behalf of the Bhopal gas victims seeking exemplary compensation for the environmental damages, among other things, from Dow chemical and the erstwhile Union Carbide. The hearing was at the final stages when Aquil visited the gas-affected areas, filled a glass of water from a tap in one of the localities and drank. He had seen to it that he was photographed while drinking the tap water in a gas-affected locality. Later he made a statement in the Assembly that the chemical wastes dumped on the premises of the defunct Union Carbide pesticide plant had no toxic substance and did not contaminate the ground water in the surrounding localities.
A few days later the minister’s statement in the Assembly, along with his photograph showing him drinking from a tap water in a gas affected locality, was submitted by the counsel for the Dow Chemical in the American court, according to BGPMUS convener Abdul Jabbar, who was monitoring the progress of the case in the American court.