Bhopal gas tragedy: unsung battles of a Keralite to seek justice
Thirty seven years of prolonged anguish and relentless struggles still flame in the lanes of Bhopal. Even after bearing the brunt of someone’s fault for a lifetime, the victims are denied justice. The reminiscence of the midnight when the toxic gas leaked from the Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL) sends a chill down the spine of Raeza Bi even after these years. However, she could not shut herself in her room, lamenting over the mishap which claimed the lives of her husband, daughter and father-in-law. Despite her health problems, Raeza Bi, one of the founding members of Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udhyog Sangathan, keeps on fighting for the cause of the gas leak victims.
On December 2-3 1984, the poisonous gas methyl isocyanate leaked from a pesticide manufacturing company UCIL, engulfed almost 36 wards out of the 54 municipal wards of Bhopal. Reaza Bi opened up to Mathrubhumi.com over the catastrophes she went through after the exposure.
“We were utterly ignorant of what was happening that night. Within a short time, fumes enveloped all around. No one was able to breathe and the eyes were burning. People were running outside for air, screams were heard and we decided to stay indoors. I draped my children with soaked clothes. As my girl child went unconscious, we took her to a nearby hospital the next day. But we returned in panic as we came across the crowd and countless corpses lying there. Later, several days were spent in tents and hospitals. At last I lost my father-in-law, then husband and soon my girl child”
Raeza Bi marked her strong dissent against the government for not fulfilling any of the genuine demands put forth by the gas leak survivors. She says that the government has always betrayed them and the cases are still going on in Bhopal High court, Jabalpur High Court and the Supreme court.
Many of the persons who led the way for protests had passed away including Abdul Jabbar, who was posthumously honoured by Padma Shri this year. Raeza Bi said that after his demise it is ND Jayaprakash who leads the cases for the victims and their families.
Jayaprakash, a member in Delhi Science Forum hails from Puthuppally in Kottayam district. The Delhi Science Forum was the first organisation to conduct a study on the gas leak.
Findings of the first report
The report of Delhi Science Forum found grave violations of double safety standards in the UCIL. The safety systems installed in the factory were incapable of neutralising the toxic materials stored. Nearly 80 tonnes of methyl isocyanate were held in three semi underground tanks and the disaster struck when one of them leaked. All the three lines of defence mechanisms including refrigeration system, scrubber and flare tower were non functional when the gas leak turned up.
Camouflaging the magnitude
One of the demands raised by the forum was to conduct a proper assessment of the extent of the disaster. Soon a detailed survey was undertaken by 500 volunteers in the calamity-hit households under the supervision of TATA Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). But after the completion of data collection in 25,000 households, the government interfered, ceased the survey and confiscated the data. Even the TISS had no access to the findings of the survey. The authorities then asked to file individual claims which ended up in receiving over 1 million claims by the course of time. It was the improper review of the incident that led the undeserved individuals to file for claims.
Jayaprakash remembers how the state government ruthlessly accelerated the removal of dead bodies without keeping proper records and cleared the tragedy-hit regions when the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited Bhopal. The actual number of casualties remains still an enigma.
The free ration started for the 1 lakh households and the sewing centres set up for supporting women who lost the breadwinners of their family had no life for more than a year. This urged the women of Bhopal to form the organisation Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udhyog Sangathan.
It was with considerable effort that CBI had obtained permission to carry out inspection in the West Virginia plant of Union Carbide in the USA. But on February 14, 1989, the same day of the inspection, an unanticipated settlement transpired in the Supreme Court of India, which Jayaprakash pointed out as a malicious act. Instead of the 3000 million dollars claimed as compensation, Union of India asked for 470 million dollars during the settlement and along with that the Supreme Court dispersed the criminal cases associated with the gas leak.
During the time of settlement, the government had received 6 lakhs of claims related to the case. However they concluded that there were 3,000 deaths and 1,02,000 injured without the basis of any authentic reports. All these injustices led to the formation of Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahyog Samiti under the combined efforts of 30 voluntary organisations. The petition filed by the forum against the settlement became fruitful as the SC revived the criminal cases against the accused and assured to demand more compensation from the company if further undisputed claims surfaced. Soon 40 claim courts were set up and after 12 years of arduous processing, the government switched the earlier figures and reported over 5,295 casualties and 573,000 injured. However, still many victims are kept out of the records.While over 25,000 victims are actually dead, compensation for death was only paid to over 5295. The rest were paid compensation only for injury though those victims died because of the severity of the injuries.
Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre
The super speciality hospital which was set up for the treatment of gas leak survivors was the best in central India during the 2000s. Hence, even non gas victims also started to resort to the hospital for treatment and the hospital established for the free treatment of the victims started to neglect their treatment and gave priority to the patients who could afford expensive medication. The hospital trust which was not answerable to any authorities was dissolved and the government took over the hospital. However, the doctors soon resigned from BMHRC and joined the private hospitals.
With the spread of the pandemic, the hospital was converted into a Covid hospital and the gas leak survivors were deprived of treatment. With the efforts of Jayaprakash and other activists, the government shifted the covid treatment facilities from there and resumed the earlier functions of the hospital.
Threat of chemical bomb still looms
Soon after the tragedy, the useful machinery left in the factory was shifted from there, but left the toxic compounds in the premises. 345 tonnes of toxic materials are reported to be stored on the surface while there is no clarity about how much is buried in the underground tanks.The poisonous substance abandoned in the factory is perpetually contaminating the soil and water here. Jayaprakash informed that talks with the government are still going on over neutralising the chemicals with on-site remediation through closed loop technology.
Along with the disregard borne by the survivors after decades of the incident, the fear of another gas exposure still persists in Bhopal.
When a series of accidents were reported in the factory of UCIL, journalist and activist Rajkumar Keswani had warned the city in 1982 saying “Wake up, people of Bhopal, you are on the edge of a volcano…” , even now the call reverberates in Bhopal.