A new generation inherits poisoned genes of Bhopal gas tragedy, and the broken promises of govts too
Even 35 years after the Bhopal gas tragedy, the city is still feeling its after-effects. Those born to the survivors have been afflicted with birth defects, while the survivors themselves suffer from a myriad of ailments.
Bhopal is two cities — the new one with wide, clean roads, and old Bhopal that is mostly home to survivors of the gas leak
More than 25,000 people have died from illnesses caused by exposure to the deadly methyl isocyanate, an activist said
The most common ailments among survivors of the Bhopal gas tragedy are cancer, pulmonary diseases, skin problems and nephrotic diseases
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Bhopal: Even 35 years after one of the world's worst industrial disasters, Bhopal is still feeling its after-effects. An entirely new generation, born to those who survived the tragedy, has been afflicted with birth defects. Their families now worry about their frail children's future.
"The impact of the gas leak was felt in a 40-kilometre radius of Bhopal," said Abdul Jabbar Khan, a survivor of the gas leak and an activist working for the rehabilitation of survivors. "People living in 36 of Bhopal's 65 wards were affected."
In reality, Bhopal is two cities — the new one, with wide, clean roads and posh homes, and old Bhopal, with its congested roads wet with overflowing sewage, haphazard parking and encroachments. In these overcrowded streets and tenements live the remnants of the thousands of families who were asleep in their homes on the night of 2 December, 1984, when 40 tonnes of deadly methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas leaked from a nearby plant of Union Carbide India Ltd.
Their lives have since been one of pain and illness and a futile, 35-year struggle for some sort of justice from the company and the government. Nearly half a million survivors are still struggling with the debilitating after-effects of inhaling the harmful gas — lung cancer, kidney and liver failures as well eye disorders, among other ailments.
Our first stop was the abandoned factory. The premises itself is out of bounds "as toxic material is dumped in the pond inside", said one of the two security men guarding the plant. The boundary wall, which was covered with slogans in 1984 against the then Union Carbide chairman Warren Andersen, is now painted with slogans of Narendra Modi's Swachh Bharat Mission. Local residents enter the compound by making holes in the wall, and children can be seen playing cricket or grazing their cattle inside.
Reliving the disaster every day
JP Nagar, just 100 metres from the factory, was the worst affected by the gas leak and is home to many survivors and activists. Here, we encounter Hazra Bee, a 63-year-old who easily recalls the names of those who died as well as those who are still alive with "cancer, pulmonary diseases, skin problems and nephrotic diseases", the most common ailments among the survivors.
All the colonies near the factory have many such survivors. "The disaster has affected our genes," Hazra added. "My grandson was born with disabilities. In almost every family, every child has some birth defect, mental and physical."
Her own life is typical of most survivors. "I have had to go to the hospital every alternate day since that fateful night. I have chronic asthma, diabetes and stomach problems," she said.
The meagre compensation of Rs 25,000 that she and others got was hardly sufficient. "Government hospitals set up after the disaster (like the Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre, funded by the state government and Indian Council of Medical Research) are short of doctors, staff and medicine," she said.
Ultimately, the survivors have to resort to expensive medical care at private hospitals, something they could ill afford even if they were healthy, productive individuals. "Our children are not capable of doing hard labour after the tragedy," she said.
Back in the day, Hazra took part in many protests and movements the survivors undertook to press their case for better compensation and other relief measures.
"I was a labourer when the disaster happened," she recalled. "With demands like pension for survivors, compensation, medical facilities and housing, we even marched to Delhi but were treated like criminals. I spent 14 days in jail for fasting in protest. Now we are tired.”
In 1989, Union Carbide had agreed, in the Supreme Court, to pay $470 million to settle the initial compensation claim as against the government's claim of $3.3 billion. The court had dismissed the appeals of the victims' lawyers and upheld the settlement in 1991. It had also ordered Union Carbide's parent company and Indian subsidiary to fund a hospital for the victims at a cost of $17 million.
In 2006, the Bhopal Welfare Commission, which distributed the compensation, had claimed all initial claims had been settled — for 5,295 deaths caused by the incident and some 5,27,000 injury claims. They would get Rs 1 lakh and Rs 25,000, respectively.
In 2010, the Indian government revised the compensation amount for those you died in the tragedy to Rs 10 lakh and started distributing the remaining Rs 9 lakh to their next of kin. A couple of years later, compensation for 33,000 "severely affected" survivors was also revised to Rs 1 lakh.
In December 2010, the Attorney General of India had filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking to increase the company's settlement to $1.1 billion, arguing that the earlier amount was based on incorrect figures and didn't include costs to clean up the environmental pollution. This matter has yet to be resolved, even as the criminal proceedings against Dow Chemicals, which bought Union Carbide in 1999, is still on at the Bhopal District Court.
Apart from the glaring differences in the government figures of the casualties, what activists and survivors are angry about is the complete lack of follow through in their aftercare. The Union Ministry of Chemical and Fertilisers, in 2010, had sanctioned a new, three-year action plan at a cost of Rs 272.75 crore, including Rs 33.55 crore for medical rehabilitation, Rs 104 crore for economic rehabilitation, Rs 85.20 crore for social rehabilitation and Rs 50 crore for drinking water arrangements in the gas leak-affected areas. But the utilisation of these funds is severely lacking.
According to Rachna Dhingra, a social activist working with the survivors of the Bhopal disaster, even seven years later, the Madhya Pradesh government has only used Rs 129.50 crore and diverted Rs 85.87 crore from the remaining Rs 143.25 crore to fuel various state government schemes and construction in non-gas-affected areas.
Bhopal's elected representatives have failed it
In the last elections — both the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and the 2018 Vidhan Sabha elections — voters demanded affidavits from candidates assuring them compensation. In the Assembly elections this time, only the Aam Aadmi Party candidate gave them this assurance.
"The BJP and Congress do not care about our demands," Hazra said. "We are still hopeful that the government will give us compensation."
Babu Lal Panthi, a 70-year-old survivor who lost his eyesight because of the Bhopal gas leak, said: "We trusted the BJP earlier, but they did not do anything for us. This time, the Congress came to our colony and asked for votes... It doesn't matter anyway. Now even my name has been removed from the voting list."
Unsurprisingly, scores of survivors have lost hope in getting justice through the electoral process, like Hazra's neighbour Abda Bee, who has been diagnosed with cancer and is resigned to her fate. "I don't have faith in governments and political parties," she said. "We can only hope for the best."
Last year, Savitri Bai had sat on an 80-hour dharna in Delhi without drinking water. "I lost my husband and child in the tragedy," the 58-year-old said. "I have been suffering from multiple diseases since that fateful day. We have tried everything for compensation and are still fighting for our demands."
Leela Bai, echoes Savitri's sentiments. "My daughter was a year old when the tragedy occurred. She died last year, at the age of 35, due to cancer. People are still suffering from the effects of the gas leak. Compensation is a must for our survival," the 60-year-old said, adding that the little they had received was spent entirely on her medical bills.
More than 25,000 people have died from exposure-related illnesses, Dhingra said, adding that half a million people suffer from chronic injuries now. "More than a lakh people live in areas where the groundwater is contaminated, and the new generation is born with defects," the social activist said.
The victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy had pinned a lot of hope on Narendra Modi in 2014, but five years later, "things have got even worse", Dhingra said. "The prime minister has, instead, helped the corporations responsible for the disaster. Dow Chemicals is still allowed to do business in this country while they are not responding to summons from Bhopal court," she pointed out.
BJP leader and Bhopal MP Alok Sanjar said he "can understand their problems... being a survivor of the Bhopal gas tragedy" himself. "I keep trying to speed up the compensation process and have raised this issue in the Lok Sabha twice. I hope we are able to give justice to the survivors," he said.
This is easier said than done as the new Congress government in Madhya Pradesh is playing the usual blame game.
"The previous (BJP-run) state government was not concerned about the survivors," said , Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief Minister Arif Aqueel. "Now, the Congress government will take every possible step to help them, and we will ensure proper compensation very soon. The Congress government will also ensure the smooth running of hospitals set up for the treatment of the gas leak survivors. "
The author is a Bhopal-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters