For Bhopal gas tragedy survivors, some happiness and continuing travails in 2023

Appearance of Dow Chemical in Bhopal court celebrated; ‘The Railwaymen’ hailed

Bhopal gas tragedy survivors address media on the eve of the 37th anniversary of the disaster. Sanjan Singh on extreme right

Ahead of the 39th anniversary of the Bhopal gas tragedy – the biggest industrial disaster in the world, representatives of survivors highlighted the major happenings during the year – some worth celebrating, others signifying the continuation of their four-decade-old travails.

On the night intervening December 2/3, 1984, highly toxic methyl isocyanate (MiC) gas leaked from the fertilizer factory of Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), killing thousands and maiming lakhs for life. Survivors and their progeny continue to suffer severe health consequences from the disaster.

Five survivors’ organisations addressed a press conference on Thursday, rejoicing the fact that their sustained efforts led to Dow Chemical – the current owners of Union Carbide – appearing in an ongoing criminal case in Bhopal court. This is the first time that an international accused of the gas disaster appeared in the criminal case.

It is now up to the prosecution – the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to ensure that Dow receives the harshest punishment for its crimes of Bhopal, they said, adding that since the CBI works directly under the Prime Minister, they were sending an appeal to him for effective and speedy prosecution of Dow Chemical. 

They also congratulated the artists and makers of the OTT miniseries The Railwaymen for a powerful telling of the story of the disaster and its aftermath. They said it was heartening to see that the makers highlighted corporate machinations and governmental apathy behind the disaster and its long aftermath with clarity. They hailed the fact that issues of the hazardous design and reckless running of the MiC plant, the denial of sodium thiosulphate for detoxification and the denial of the basic elements of a life of dignity to the survivors in the long aftermath are all presented in an impactful manner.

Condemn attempts to close down the gas relief department

However, the representatives strongly condemned alleged attempts by the minister and officials of the Madhya Pradesh Department of Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief & Rehabilitation to close down the department. 

The representatives said they have recently come across an official document marked confidential that lays out a plan to close down the department. The plan, scheduled to be discussed at the next meeting of the state cabinet, proposes handing over the five hospitals and nine dispensaries run by the department to the departments of health and medical education. Without any basis, it is being claimed that such transfer will improve the health care of Bhopal survivors, they alleged. 

In the last few months, the High Court has reprimanded the gas relief department for grave laxity in following the recommendations of the Supreme Court-appointed Monitoring Committee for improvements in the health care of Bhopal survivors. Instead of making improvements such as computerized registration of patients, treatment protocols and quality of care, the officials are trying to shed total responsibility to escape judicial sanctions, the representatives said.

Those who addressed the press conference included Rashida Bee, President of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmchari Sangh, Balkrishna Namdeo, President of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Nirashrit Pensionbhogee Sangharsh Morcha, Rachna Dhingra of Bhopal Group of Information and Action, Nawab Khan President of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Purush Sangharsh Morcha and

Nasreen Bee of Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Purush Sangharsh Morcha. 

Other significant developments of 2023

The organisations shared some other key developments of 2023 exclusively with THE WEEK.

On June 13, a study based on secondary data was published in the British Medical Journal Open by a group of researchers at the University of California in San Diego. The results of the study that documented the long-term intergenerational health impact of the Union Carbide gas disaster in Bhopal showed that men who were in the mother’s womb at the time of the disaster were more likely to have a disability that affected their employment 15 years later and had higher rates of cancer and lower educational attainment over 30 years later. Changes in the sex ratio among children born in 1985 suggest an effect of the Bhopal Gas Disaster up to 100 km from the factory in Bhopal.

Survivors hailed the publication of the article in a prestigious journal for highlighting the social costs of the gas disaster as well as for vindicating their stand that the disaster and its health impact are far greater than that made out to be by official agencies. 

Water in another colony was found to be contaminated

In another significant development on August 10, Principal Judge and Member Secretary of Legal Services Authority, Rajiv Karmahe directed the Bhopal Municipal Corporation to provide piped drinking water to 80 households of Brijvihar Colony located less than a kilometre north-west of the abandoned Union Carbide factory. Brijvihar Colony is one of the newer residential areas that came up after the 2012 Supreme Court direction to the state government to supply piped drinking water to 42 communities in the vicinity of the factory site. Despite this order, the Bhopal Municipal Corporation refuses to provide piped connections stating the reason that it is a private colony.

Keshub Mahindra, convicted in tragedy case, died

This year on April 12, Keshub Mahindra, Chairman Emeritus of the Mahindra Group of Corporations and India’s oldest billionaire, died at 99. Mahindra was chairman of the UCIL in 1984 and among the nine individuals sentenced to two years in prison in 2010 for their role in causing the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal. Despite their convictions, Mahindra and other fellow convicts have never been behind bars as their appeals against the convictions are still pending in the district court. Of the nine, five accused are now dead. Also, of the corporations charged with grave crimes for the Bhopal disaster – UCIL, renamed Eveready Industries India Limited, was convicted in 2010 and Union Carbide Eastern, Hong Kong and Union Carbide Corporation, USA are absconding, as per court records.

Curative petition on additional compensation dismissed

On March 14, the Supreme Court of India dismissed the Curative Petition for additional compensation for the survivors from Union Carbide / Dow Chemical. The Curative Petition was filed by the Indian government in 2010 seeking an additional 1.2 billion dollars from Union Carbide and its owner Dow Chemical. Five survivors’ organisations, who were co-petitioners in the matter, presented data and expert testimonies to argue for higher compensation. The petition however got dismissed. Survivors’ organizations called the dismissal of the review petition as a judicial assault on the legal and constitutional rights of the Bhopal victims. 

Positive changes in BMHRC

On July 24, Dr Manisha Shrivastava took over as the director of Bhopal Memorial Hospital & Research Centre (BMHRC) took over as Director. She met with leaders of the survivors’ organisations and sought their views regarding improvements that needed to be made. This led to improvements in BMHRC and its 8 community health centres including - the resumption of work in neurology, nephrology, and gastro medicine departments that had remained closed for the last 6 years; provision of facilities such as pain clinic, laser surgery for piles, esophageal stenting for cancer patients; placement for an implantable cardiac defibrillator for gas victims, use of interventional radiology in people suffering from liver problems, laparoscopic surgeries for gastric volvulus, ending wait-list of gas victims in need of dialysis and starting of PG courses in several departments. 

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