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Bhopal Gas Tragedy: 34 years later, 1985 govt memo reveals 'Operation Faith' was riddled with coverups

Editor's Note: More than 700 documents accessed from former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s office reveal how horrible relief and rehabilitation measures by the authorities, and a company determined to hide the truth led to more deaths in the aftermath of the Bhopal gas tragedy. This three-part series uncovers how a dysfunctional administration at the state and Centre failed to contain the crisis 34 years ago, and how it's taking lives even today.

New Delhi: 'Operation Faith', which was launched to tackle massive man-made disaster at Bhopal in 1984 was riddled with contradictions and cover-ups. An internal note (969-JSP-85/21-3) from Prime Minister Office (PMO) 21 March, 1985 suggested several individuals, choked by the lethal gas, have started regular routine and work. Another note (88/C) prepared for the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi claimed that most of the people with temporary eye ailments have recovered and only a small percentage of people who were severally exposed could have corneal ulcer leading to opacity.

“The present trends do not look alarming, but a long term impact study is necessary to assess the situation,” the note had said.

The two PMO notes give a clear picture of ground zero that was shaken just three months before the notes were written. More than a year later in May 1986, a survey, conducted by an NGO and submitted to the PMO, gave a completely different picture of the situation.

The Citizen Relief and Rehabilitation Trust report said: “Outside the hospitals and clinics in this area, people can still be seen wailing and begging for the panacea which would relieve them from scourge of the noxious visitation of December 1984. But they have ceased to be reckoned as victims of a man-made disaster by the people who are supposed to be responsible for their rehabilitation. Plunder and rhetoric subsist side by side and redeem everyone from the rigours of corrective responsibilities. All official and private initiatives to provide relief and rehabilitation remain largely ineffective or unimplemented. The medical and scientific community remains indifferent to the necessary task of developing a comprehensive health programme for a captive and debilitated community. It continues to indulge in recrimination and polemics over unproven theories. The outrage of the biggest industrial genocide in the world is gradually merged in offense that is contemporary India.”

The scene from Shakti Nagar Basti, severely-affected by the disaster, describes government’s apathy.

 Bhopal Gas Tragedy: 34 years later, 1985 govt memo reveals Operation Faith was riddled with coverups

Representational image. Reuters

The state had stopped free distribution of ration and milk to the affected victims months after disaster and by May 1986, they were in acute distress, struggling to make ends meet. This is what the report said: “Sona Bai of House No. 56 is the only earning member in a family of 10. She makes Rs 10 a day as a casual worker. Chapatis and chutney and occasionally potato curry are the items that the family can afford. Milk is not bought, not even for making tea. All the members of the family are severally ill with a wide range of complaints. These include impaired vision, skin rashes, cough, fever, chest pain, loss of appetite, fatigue, body aches particularly in the joints and burning and watering of eyes and stomach pain. Durga Bai of House No. 118 is suffering from acute pulmonary tuberculosis and is admitted in the MIC ward of Hamidiya Hospital. Kaushalya Bai’s husband of 138 Shakti Nagar died of pulmonary tuberculosis on 14 January. Kaushalya, aged 50 and her 4 grad daughters in the age group of 6 to 12, also complian of chest pain, cough, fever and weakness. Since the government stopped distribution of free rations last year, they are compelled to buy food grains and other essential edible items like cooking oil, spices and fuel etc from their meager income.”

Why were the victims, even after more than a year of the disaster, were struggling to get relief ? The answer is in PMO’s note (6530) dated 12 August, 1985. It said that the state government was hesitant to draw up and implement plan for long term rehabilitation partly because of expenditure involved. State government also rued the fact that despite spending Rs 2 crore a month on distribution of free foodgrains, they were not getting credit for it and there was inadequate perception of their relief effort.

A week later, on 29 August, 1985, Rajiv Gandhi’s administration drew a plan to continue giving free rations till the first anniversary of tragedy (December 1985) to avoid bad publicity. This shows pathetic approach of the government to deal with the awful tragedy.

PMO’s secret note (4170) said: “In view of the fact that in December 1985, there will be a lot of public attention to coincide with the anniversary of the incident, free rations to the affected persons may continue until January 1986. Thereafter distribution of free rations should be phased out within 6 to 8 months. The rations can be gradually reduced and thereafter stopped. According to Madhya Pradesh Government about 3.51 Lakh were affected. However, they are giving free rations to nearly 6.45 Lakhs. It is obvious that lot of bogus persons are receiving free rations. It is recommended that free rations for persons in non-affected areas (total population 1.14 Lakhs) should be stopped immediately. Further, the bogus ration cards in the affected areas should be detected and free ration stopped for such ration cards. It is anticipated that there are nearly 2 lakh bogus units. However for families whose bread winners have been permanently disabled or have otherwise no source of income may be given free rations. Depending upon the time they take to rehabilitate themselves economically. The number of such persons will not be very large.”

This was an interesting observation in the PMO note since the Congress government arrived at an estimate without even a proper survey of affected persons. Questions were raised on working of the then Chief Minister Motilal Vora arguing that his intention was to do meaningful work but he was holding the job as a seat warmer for someone else. MN Buch, chairman of National Centre for Human Settlements and Environment wrote to GK Arora, Additional Secretary to Prime Minister Gandhi in August 1985 raising this apprehension ( PMO 46/C-P-20&21/N):

“Very little has been done so far. Mr. Vora, the present Chief Minister, is well meaning and wants to move forward. Is he under some restraint, some deep seated feeling that he is only holding the job as a seat warmer for someone else? If so, the impression needs to be corrected and he must be told to ex digitate. Bhopal is not a problem of MP alone. It is as serious a national problem as Punjab or Assam. The patience of its people does not reduce the gravity of the issue.”

Besides, there is another 4-page note in the PMO files suggesting that though Madhya Pradesh Government was not averse to rehabilitation of the affected persons but the effort seems to lack direction. A report (DO No. 11/2/85-ARL) by the panel headed by BJ Heerjee Additional Secretary, Home Affairs in August 1985 revealed another horror. Immediate relief was not provided to majority of the affected families:

"It was the complaint of practically every voluntary organisation and the members of the press and political parties that there is delay in the disbursement of Ex-Gratia relief to the affected persons. As stated earlier, 22,800 families have been surveyed. Out of these 11,800 families are identified as having an income less than Rs 500 per month. These families are eligible for financial assistance of Rs 1,500. Only 8,341 families have been given this assistance so far. Thus, 3,459 identified families have yet to receive this assistance. Considering the fact that only one-third of the affected families have been surveyed so far, the number of families still to receive financial assistance would be larger. Similarly, the state government declared an ex-gratia payment of Rs 10,000 for each deceased person. 1754 persons were reported to have died from inhaling the gas. Ex-gratia payment has been made to the families of 1073 deceased persons. 283 dead bodies remain unidentified. The remaining 398 cases should be settled expeditiously. It was pointed out to the group that the eligibility of income of Rs 500 per month should be done away with. The group appreciates that in these days of high prices, a family of five cannot subsist on Rs 500 per month,” Panel report said.

Bhopal Gas Tragedy: 34 years later, secret govt memo reveals coverups

Almost 8 months later in April 1986 Home Ministry informed the PMO ( letter 13/C) that the state government has completed the survey of about 78,500 families in 30 gas affected wards of Bhopal and 6 more wards were bring surveyed. It is important to note that free ration to the victims was completely stopped from January 1986 but monthly pension of Rs.200 to a widow that was announced with much fanfare was limited to only 207 persons. For long term rehabilitation for gas hit population, the government had launched a scheme for special training and bank loan up to Rs.12,000 to start a small business. Of the total amount, 25 percent was subsidised by the state government and bank charges were in the range of 4 percent to 12 percent. But, even this scheme was massive failure. Against the target of 20,000 families, 2457 families were covered till April 1986. The representative of the state government told the group headed by Heerjee that the success of economic rehabilitation programme would depend on the positive role of banks.

“So far the banks have not been enthusiastic,” the group was told.

The whole process was lost in a quagmire of bureaucracy. The victims were told to get ‘no dues’ certificate and other carry out other paper works done before getting eligible to access the loan amount.

“Present procedure is very cumbersome in as much a person has to get ‘no dues’ certificate from 21 banks before his loan application is considered. This problem could be largely sorted out if an individual could give an affidavit in this regard and the banks acted on it without insistence on ‘no dues certificate’,” a senior state government official Ishwar Das had told the central panel.

Process still haunts family of victims

In a meeting last year, the government was still struggling to speed up the cases needs to be taken up by the welfare commissioner. Minutes of the meeting said: “In-charge registrar informed that 443 ex-gratia cases were decided and a sum of Rs 7.93 crore has been awarded till end of August 2017. After discussion, it was decided that steps may be taken for expeditious disposal of ex-gratia cases.”

As far as disposal of 336 tonnes Union Carbide waste is concerned, the bureaucratic muddle has delayed the entire process. In September last year, a Detailed Project Report (DPR) of remediation of Union Carbide site was prepared and shared with the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). There is, however, no timeline when the project will be completed by the expert agencies. In 2010, Rs. 33.55 Crore was earmarked for carrying out various components of medical rehabilitation. 8 years down the line the unspent balance available is Rs 17.73 crore, which literally means half of the amount is unspent. The State government is now planning to utilize rs.7.94 Crore out of Rs 17.23 crore for up-gradation and moderation of modular occupational therapy complex for 4 gas Rahat Hospitals and construction of bone marrow transplant centre at Kamla Nehru Hospital. For social rehabilitation Rs 85.20 crore was allocated but only Rs. 45.05 Crore was utilized in the last 8 years. There also allegations that Bhopal Municipal Corporation (BMC) manipulated the report on water quality in 42 gas affected localities. In an affidavit filed in the Court BMC claimed that samples were collected on 18 August 2018 to apply physical test, chemical test and bacteriological test. BMC said they found the samples to be within the prescribed parameters.

Bhopal Group for Information and Action (BGIA) has alleged that samples were manipulated. The organization claimed that the BMC officials collected samples of piped drinking water on 10 August 2018 and sent to State Research Laboratory under the Public Health Engineering Department.

“The results were ready on 14 August and showed presence of faecal coliform in over 70 % of the samples. In two samples the faecal coliform, which is indicative of disease causing bacteria, was found to be 2400 times the permissible limit. This was clear evidence of contamination of drinking water with sewage. Following this adverse report, the same BMC officials secretly collected another round of samples from the same 42 communities on August 18 and sent them to their own Quality Control (Water) Laboratory whose results showed that all the samples were free from faecal coliform,” BGIA alleged.

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Updated Date: Dec 03, 2018 16:36:30 IST

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