People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


Vol. XXXII

No. 48

December 07, 2008

 

DECEMBER 03, 2008


24th Anniversary Of The Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster

N D Jayaprakash


ON the night of December 02 - 03, 1984, the people of Bhopal became victims of the world's worst chemical disaster when about two-thirds of the nearly 9,00,000 population of the city were exposed to highly toxic fumes. The poisonous gases had leaked from a tank containing nearly 41 tonnes of methyl isocyanate (MIC) an extremely volatile and noxious chemical that was stored on the premises of the pesticide factory of Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), a subsidiary of Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) a US multinational company. The immediate human death toll, according to official figures, was around 2500 while it was again officially acknowledged that residents of 36 of the 56 wards of Bhopal had suffered injuries in varying degree. The death toll in our estimate has since gone above 20,000. The fate of flora and fauna in the affected area was no different. However, the fact remains that even 24 years after the chilling incident a comprehensive survey has not been carried out in Bhopal to determine the exact magnitude and ramifications of the disaster. The 'Bhopal Poisonous Gas Leakage (1984) Inquiry Commission' headed by the then sitting judge of the Madhya Pradesh High Court, Justice N K Singh, which was set up by the state government on December 06, 1984, was abruptly wound up by the government on December 17, 1985, thereby, preventing the inquiry into the causes of the disaster. The truth is that even 24 years after the disaster, justice continues to elude the Bhopal gas victims. The current state of the various aspects relating to the Bhopal gas leak disaster is as follows:


HEALTH STATUS


Even 24 years after the disaster, on an average, everyday no less than 6000 gas-victims continue to visit the various medical centres in Bhopal, which have been specifically set up for the gas-victims, i.e., victims made over 20,00,000 visits to hospitals in the year 2007 alone. Victims suffer from a variety of ailments relating to respiratory system, eyes, nervous system, gastro-intestinal system, etc. The state of medical record keeping is abysmal. Despite specific directions of the Supreme Court in this regard, the state government has not yet carried out the work of computerisation of medical records. Shortage of essential medicines continues to be a recurring problem.


The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) had discontinued all medical research relating to the disaster way back in 1994. Due to the persistent demand of the organisations representing the gas victims and on the directions of the Supreme Court, the new director of ICMR has promised to restart research work. However, all those officials responsible in discontinuing research work for the last 14 years have to be taken to task for their criminal negligence.


It is highly unfortunate that the Monitoring Committee set up by the Supreme Court has been prevented from monitoring the quality of health care provided to the gas-victims at the Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre (BMHRC). As of now, the BMHRC is not accountable to either the state or the central government or any other independent body about the manner in which it is functioning. The BMHRC does not submit periodical reports even to the apex court nor does it properly audit its accounts. Since more than Rs 600 crore of public money is involved, appropriate steps should be taken forthwith to end this state of anarchy.


COMPENSATION


On February 14 15, 1989, the government of India had arrived at a settlement with the accused, Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), USA, for a sum of 470 million US Dollars (effectively only Rs 713 crore at 1989 prices was paid) on the assumption that the number of gas victims, including 3000 dead, was only around 1,05,000. (Out of the settlement sum of Rs 713 crore, Rs 113 crore was set-aside for those who had lost property, livestock, etc., and for specialised medical treatment.) In other words, Rs 600 crore was to be disbursed among the assumed number of 1,05,000 gas-victims as compensation at an average of Rs 57,143 per victim at the 1989 value of the rupee. However, as per the submission of the Union of India before the Supreme Court, as on February 28, 2007, no less than 5,73,537 gas victims were actually paid compensation, which works out to an average of Rs 12,423 per victim at the 1989 value of the rupee despite almost the entire settlement sum of Rs 713 crore at the 1989 value of rupee being utilised for the purpose. This means that the average compensation that each gas victim has received only about one-fifth of what he/she should have received as per the terms of the Bhopal Settlement, which itself was a measly amount. (Since bulk of the settlement sum, which was quantified on the basis that there were only 1,05,000 victims, was retained in a Dollar account, the interest that accrued on it plus the difference in Dollar-Rupee exchange rate during 1989-2004, were passed off as compensation to the other 4,68,537 victims who were kept out of the ambit of settlement in 1989.


To rectify this gross discrepancy, nine gas-victims filed a joint petition before the Welfare Commissioner, Bhopal, on August 28, 2008 urging the Welfare Commissioner to pay compensation to the victims at least at the rate of the rupee prevailing on the date of the settlement. (Since the actual number of gas-victims is five times of what was assumed at the time of settlement, justice demands that the total amount of compensation be proportionately enhanced five times.) The petition was filed on behalf of 1,01,000 gas-victims, who had earlier petitioned the Supreme Court in this regard. The Welfare Commissioner, Justice R S Garg, who is a sitting judge of the M P High Court, heard the petition on November 29, 2008 and he has reserved his order. Senior Supreme Court advocate, Indira Jaising, and advocate Mehak Sethi represented the petitioners.


ENVIRONMENTAL POLLUTION


It is indeed a crying shame that there is no proper health-monitoring of the victims of environmental pollution resulting from the dumping of toxic waste in and around the Union Carbide factory site even prior to the 1984 disaster and from the leaching of the various toxic chemicals stored at the plant site into the ground, thereby, polluting groundwater resources. It is recognised that many of the residents in and around the factory site, who were dependent on the polluted ground water as their sole source of drinking water, have been afflicted with various toxin-related ailments. Despite the Supreme Court's direction dated May 07, 2004 in WP(C) No.657/1995 to supply safe drinking water through overhead tanks, the state government has still not fully complied with the directions.


It is the considered view of the organisations representing the victims that the remediation of the contaminated soil and ground water in and around the closed Union Carbide factory is the sole responsibility of Dow Chemical Company, USA, which is the present owner of Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) and which has ipso facto taken on the liability of UCC. As per the recommendation of the Scientific Committee set up under the auspices of the MP High Court at Jabalpur in Writ Petition No. 2802 of 2004, the entire toxic waste lying in and around the Union Carbide factory site at Bhopal was to be transported to USA for appropriate remediation. The Union of India should execute the recommendations of the said Scientific Committee dated August 26, 2006 without further delay.


CRIMINAL CASES


The government of India has till date not executed the Letter Rogatory dated July 06, 1988 issued by the Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM), Bhopal. The said Letter Rogatory was issued to enable the CBI to carry out a comparative study of the safety systems installed at the Union Carbide plant at Bhopal and at the Union Carbide plant at Institute (West Virginia, USA) and to verify whether UCC had adopted inferior-safety standards at its Bhopal plant. The failure on the part of the central government to facilitate the visit of the CBI to the United States to execute the said directions of the CJM is only intended to benefit the accused officials of Union Carbide in the criminal case. When there is prima facie evidence that the disaster resulted due to inferior safety systems that UCC had installed at the Bhopal plant as compared to the superior safety systems that UCC had installed at its Institute plant in USA, the total inaction of the Union of India in this regard amounts to subversion of justice.


The government of India has also not taken adequate steps to execute the non-bailable warrant of arrest issued by the CJM, Bhopal, on March 27, 1992 to seek the extradition of Warren Anderson, the former chairman of UCC and accused No.1 in the criminal case, from the United States. The inaction on the part of the Union of India to facilitate the execution of the said non-bailable warrant of arrest again amounts to subversion of justice for the benefit of the accused in the criminal case.


NATIONAL COMMISSION ON BHOPAL


The organisations representing the victims have been repeatedly demanding the setting up of a National Commission on Bhopal to tackle all the pending issues facing the gas victims. It is high time that the government of India acceded to the demand. There is need for all people to support the just cause of the Bhopal gas victims. Until and unless mass pressure is exerted on the government of India and the government of Madhya Pradesh, justice will continue to elude the hapless gas-victims.