Bhopal gas leak: Lingering environmental effects still a huge problem

By Sumit Tripathi*

The Bhopal Gas Tragedy is etched into the memory of all Indians. The methyl isocyanide (MIC) gas leak, which occurred between 2nd and 3rd December 1984, altered the lives of more than 5 lakh citizens in the immediate term and many more over the 37 years since. It is counted among the world’s worst industrial disasters, with a death toll comparable to Chernobyl. Although the incident took place in 1984, the real tragedy continues even today. Governments at all levels have failed their citizens to provide justice and rehabilitation, medical support, and upliftment. This continued suffering of the gas victims is the continued never-ending tragedy. They have failed to prosecute the guilty party at every instance and even allowed them to prosper after rebranding.

To better understand the continued struggle of the survivors of the Bhopal gas tragedy, we interviewed Rachna Dhingra, a social activist who has taken up the cause of the oppressed since 2003. Rachna Dhingra was a student at the University of Michigan when she was first exposed to the horrors of the Bhopal Gas tragedy and the extremely callous attitude of Union Carbide towards its role. She actively participated in protests by various Bhopal Gas tragedy justice groups against UC. On graduation, she was employed by Accenture. At the same time, Dow Chemicals had acquired UC and wanted no ownership of its liabilities towards victims of the Bhopal Gas tragedy. Coincidently, Dow Chemicals was her client at Accenture. Being a wild-eyed optimist, she had hoped to show the management of Dow Chemicals their responsibility towards victims of the Bhopal Gas tragedy. However, she soon found out that corporations are soulless organizations that only care about their bottom line. Disillusioned by the US corporate culture, she left the US in 2003 and moved to Bhopal to take up the cause of the victims in Bhopal. She has since worked with Bhopal Group for Information and Action to get the victims the justice they deserve.

Richa explained to us that the issues faced by the victims are threefold: Rehabilitation, Environmental and Medical. Furthermore, the governments at all levels are actively trying to hinder the efforts made towards solving all the three issues.

The government has failed the victims when it comes to rehabilitation. Of the 574000 exposed to the gas, many didn’t get adequate compensation, and the government downgraded the severity of injuries to hundreds of thousands. The compensation scheme of 1L to the immediate family of the dead and 25000 for minor injuries. However, the issue was that more than 500000 people had been assigned the category of temporary minor injury knowing fully well that there is very little chance of temporary ill effects of the exposure to MIC. The compensation rollout too was spread over time, making the amounts meagre (in term of purchasing power) by the time it was received by the victims. The ministry of rehabilitation of Bhopal gas victims is still a temporary ministry with no permanent staff. The MP government too had discontinued its 1000Rs a month pension fund started in 2011 to the widows of the gas victims due to supposed lack of funds I 2019.

Another aspect of rehabilitation is the medical assistance. Here too there is very little help for the victims. An average victim has very high chance of contracting cancer and/or Kidney failure. UC as a part of the settlement had funded the Bhopal Memorial Hospital and research center, A super-specialty hospital, which was to be dedicated to treating the victims. It was run by a trust until 2011 when it was found out that illegal drug research was being carried out on the victims. The Indian Council of medical Research took over the management of the hospital. Today patients are being turned away due to lack of doctors in the nephrology and neurology departments. There is no official gynecology department. There is lack of basic infrastructure expected in a hospital of its scale and funding.

The lingering environmental effects are still a huge problem for the residents of the area. There is tremendous ground water contamination of heavy metals, organo-chlorides and pesticides. In fact, there were 17 studies which were conducted over the years on the environmental issues and its effects on the population and were scrapped eventually. In 1992, 27 projects were launched to study the effects on pregnant women. These were finally published in 2004 due to immense pressure from the social activists. What the government really wants to do is erect a memorial on this contaminated land and move past the tragedy altogether.

The social activist groups have been tirelessly working against not just the companies but the government as well to provide justice for the victims. There were some successful events such as the march from Bhopal to Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, were the activists forced commitments from the then PM to launch studies into long term effects of the exposure. When the DRDO proclaimed that the food grown in contaminated soil wasn’t an issue for people over the weight of 70kgs, they arranged a “benign buffet” with the same food and invited the govt officials to the buffet. This forced them to change their stance on the issue.

Our conversation disillusioned us with the role of the government. When the authorities themselves aren’t interested in prosecuting and providing justice, crime can easily be swept under the rug. The government of India on paper is pursuing 3 cases against Dow Chemicals in the Supreme Court, but no progress has been made since 2014. Numerous cases have been registered by the activist groups in the district courts of Bhopal and there has been no compulsion towards the management of Dow Chemicals to appear and answer for the crimes of Union Carbide. Union Carbide settled in US for $3B against a settlement of $470M in India for a far lesser infraction. The government has no intention of righting that wrong. Meanwhile, the Dow Chemical’s market share continues to improve from 3% at the start of the decade to 24% in its categories. Union Carbide and subsequently Dow Chemicals have gotten away with murder with the government’s help.

*Second year MBA student, IIM-Bangalore

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