The Bhopal Gas tragedy is considered the world’s worst, industrial catastrophe, and 26 years on,the nightmare still continues for its victims and survivors. 26 years on, they are still asking the same question they asked then – Will they will ever get justice?
The night of December 2-3, 1984, continues to evoke very strong emotions across the country as well as abroad, for its far-reaching impact as well as the delayed justice for its victims and survivors. In the early hours of December the 3rd, methyl isocyanate gas leaked out of the Union Carbide India Limited plant in Bhopal. Union Carbide India Limited was the Indian subsidiary of Union Carbide Corporation. For a tragedy of its scale, the details seem very fuzzy. The Madhya Pradesh government puts the death toll at 3787, while other sources go up to 12,000 deaths. This is in addition to the thousands impacted in various other ways by inhaling the gas. The long-term side effects of the gas inhalation is still evident after a quarter of a century past the tragedy. Children are still being born, showing the effects of the gas.
There was a huge international outcry after the disaster, for relief for the effected and to punish those involved. Union Carbide has been found liable for th disaster, but has denied responsibility even claiming the possibility of sabotage. The much awaited verdict on the court case on th Bhopal gas tragedy finally came on the of June 2010. A mere two years of imprisonment for those involved with no word on Warren Anderson, the then Chairman and CEO of Union Carbide.
Warren Anderson, the one that got away.
The Bhopal Gas Tragedy seems just as mired in controversy as it was when it happened. Here are some highlights the events that followed the tragedy.
3rd December 1984 , the gas leak occurs. Upto to 500,000 people said to be affected, the death toll still speculative, is said to be around 12,000.
4th December 1984, a case is registered against Union Carbide. Chairman and CEO of Union Carbide is arrested and then released on bail and allowed to leave the country. This is something that will come back to haunt everybody involved down the years. Who authorised this, how did they come to the conclusion that Warren Anderson should be allowed to go, is mired in controversy even today.
14th December 1984, Warren Anderson testifies in front of the Congress. He stresses UCC commitment to safety and promises to take actions to ensure that a similar incident “cannot happen again.” No testimony of this sort happened in India.
February 1985, an interim relief fund is set up by Union Carbide, that collects more that $120,000.
March 1985 The Govt of India, enacts the Bhopal Gas Leak Act , which allows the govt to act as the legal representative of the victims of the disaster. This turned out to be a controversial decision as individual victims cannot sue Union Carbide for compensation. Lots of activists are demanding that this be repealed, at least now, after 26 years.
1985 Government of India claims $3.3 Billion as compensation for the victims from Union Carbide in an American Court.
1987 Litigation against Union Carbide is transferred to Indian Courts.
1988 The Supreme court asks the Govt of India and Union Carbide to reach a settlement.
1989 5 years after the tragedy occurred, a settlement of $470 million is agreed upon, to be paid by 31st March, 1989. Within 10 days, Union Carbide made the full payment to the Government of India.
1990 Hearings are held to overturn the settlement. The Government tries to put together the list of people who have the affected.
1991 Supreme court hold the settlement as it is as well as comes out with additional pointers for what needs to be done.
1992 Part of the settlement is disbursed and Warren Anderson is declared a fugitive.
1994 Union Carbide completes the sale of 50.9 percent interest to McLeod Russell (India) Ltd of Calcutta.
2004 Fifteen years after the tragedy, the Supreme Court orders releasing the remaining settlement amount to the victims. Reports claim that along with the interest accumulated, there is approximately $ 327 million in the fund.
2005 The Supreme Court extends the deadline to 30th August 2006, for the release of the remaining settlement funds.
2010 Almost 26 years after the tragedy, the verdict is out. All the eight accused are guilty but all the convicts have been granted bail.
Controversies surrounding the Bhopal Gas Tragedy
The verdict on the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, has at the very least ensured that the media attention is focussed back on the Bhopal Gas Tragedy and people are asking questions that should have been asked 25 years ago.
- How did Warren Anderson get away. What was the role of the then state and Union Government in allowing a safe passage for Warren Anderson. Parallels have been drawn in the manner the BP oil spill is being handled by the US currently, and the way our Government handled the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. Why were the tough questions not asked of Union Carbide? Was there more than meets the eye? What made the government act soft on Union Carbide.
- The settlement amount that the Government of India agreed to, was based on an underestimated number of victims. With the number of victims being far higher, the compensation which was doled out was a pittance. Several groups have been campaigning about the conditions of the victims and the further injustice that has been meted out to them in the form of a pittance of a compensation.
- There was never a proper analysis and count of the actual number of people impacted. There have been instances of people who did not even live in Bhopal at that time getting compensation, while people who were killed, or badly affected went without compensation.
- There are claims that the $470 million settlement has still not been completely disbursed. Claims are that nearly two-thirds of the compensation amount has still not been disbursed.
- Dow Chemicals which took over Union Carbide, in 1999, claims that it has no legal responsibility in connection to the Bhopal gas tragedy. Apparently the Indian government in 1989, gave a clean chit to Dow as the $ 470 million settlement absolved Union Carbide of any further responsibility. There is a lot of controversy on the basis on which the Indian government gave such an undertaking.
Conditions of the victims of the Tragedy
The picture that became the defining image of the tragedy
Amidst all the political footballing that is happening, the group of people who are most outraged are the actual victims. Most of the victims of the gas tragedy belonged to an under-privileged area of Bhopal. Thousands died in their sleep. For the victims, it has been a long struggle for compensation, medical attention and rehabilitation apart from dealing with personal loss. Children are still being born with defects and disabilities that doctors feel can be traced back to the gas tragedy.
Various citizen groups talk of how there was never a process set up to help the victims. No line of treatment was worked out, ad-hoc cures and quacks have been abounding because of the lack of information. Some of these ‘cures’ have resulted in further complications for the victims rather than any relief. For years women suffered multiple miscarriages which were linked to the gas leak. The incidence of miscarriages were reported to be around 24% higher than for normal women. The full effects of the gas leak, is still not entirely analysed and documented.
A lot of the impoverished victims have been further victimized by their lack of education and abject poverty. They have been asked to provide proof that they are victims and they have not been able to, resulting in no compensation at all. Seeta Devi, whose, new-born son died of complications right after the tragedy and has had 2 children with disabilities since, says that she is helpless. She does not know how to get ‘proof’ and has not got any compensation so far. Some of Bhopal’s most needy victims have gone without compensation because they have no way of proving that they were there. ‘What can I do, this is my fate’, she says, resigned to it and not expecting anymore. ‘People like us cannot expect anything’, she says, sadly. Doctors turn them away, despite the fact that their conditions are quite clearly the result of the gas leak. Only money and the right ‘connections’ count.
Aslam(name changed) claims that his neighbors who were not even in Bhopal at that time have managed to get compensation by getting the documents right.
Another issue that the people around the area are living with is the contaminated site of the plant. Inspections have found 44,000 kg of tarry residues and 25,000 kg of alpha naphthol lying in the open since 1984. Studies have suggested that the soil, underground water, vegetables are all contaminated with the toxic chemicals. Other studies have found traces of the chemicals even in breast milk. There is no piped water supply in the area, so the victims are being victimized on a continuous basis, by the intake of toxic chemicals in various forms.
The site clean up needs to be done on an urgent basis. The clean up has been another issue which has been politicized and no real solution has been agreed to yet. The activists representing the victims have implored the newly set up GoM( Group of Ministers) looking into the issue, to take this up as the highest priority to make up for the neglect and negligence of successive state and union governments.
Where do we go from here?
There has been a lot of demand to get Warren Anderson extradited. Will the extradition of Warren Anderson after 26 years make any difference today? The government of India has far more answers to give, than Warren Anderson. If Warren Anderson got away then, it was because our elected government allowed him to. Sources from everywhere speak of how he was flown out as a VIP, rather than a fugitive, escaping justice . What did Anderson know that the union government wanted him out-of-the-way? Or was it just an old-fashioned matter of some money exchanging hands?
Forget about Warren Anderson, can we hold our government accountable, at the very least? The actions of the Indian government in the years after the tragedy almost looks like it wanted to hush matters quickly rather than investigate properly and get justice for its citizens.
Even today, our ministers are still insisting that the government has done everything possible and the judiciary is responsible for the delay in justice. Speaking to reporters, Union Law Minister Veerappa Moily insists that , ‘“Government did its job, judiciary should be blamed for the delay.”
Should our successive governments have sat and waited through the delay? Wasn’t there any other way to ensure that the victims got their justice sooner? Or was it hoping that the tragedy fades away from public memory?
Another important question that activists have been raising is the whether India is in a better situation to handle disasters like this, if it should happen again. Where are the lessons learnt? Have put together an plan of action, a process to handle such a disaster. Have we learnt anything at all from the disaster? Are we in a position to react differently(better) in case something like this happens again in India.
Finally, now, the government has set up a Group of Ministers to look into the Bhopal Gas tragedy and the underlying issues that have been almost buried. The GoM has come out with a better compensation structure for the victims, clean up strategy of the site. It waits to be seen if the implementation of all these will be better or if it would follow the footsteps of the previous compensation strategy. Victims are still sceptical on many counts. 55-year-old Ajmal Mohammed who has been suffering from several respiratory ailments as a result of the gas leak,wonders, ‘ Will I get anything now? Or will it go to minister’s relatives?’ Can we hold our governments accountable ever?
While GoM does recommend some relevant measures, it still raises the question, is it too little, too late?
*Pictures courtesy Google image search*