36 years on, 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy survivors continue to suffer

By Pervez Bari 

Bhopal: Thirty-six years have passed since the 1984 December Bhopal gas tragedy, the world’s worst industrial disaster, but the survivors continue to suffer in silence with none to hear their woes.

On the occasion of the 36th Anniversary of the catastrophe, four NGOs working for the survivors formed a human chain near the long abandoned pesticide factory here on Thursday.

They condemned the continued evasion of legal liabilities by Dow Chemical, USA, the current owner of Union Carbide, for the ongoing damage to the health of the survivors and pollution of the local soil and groundwater. The organizations denounced the state and central governments for failing to make the corporation pay adequate compensation and denying the rights of the survivors to medical care and social support. They demanded formation of a special committee and action against the accused.

It may be recalled here that on the intervening night of December 2-3, 1984 Union Carbide pesticide manufacturing factory in Bhopal had spewed nearly 40 tonnes of poisonous Methyl Iso-cyanate gas exposing over 5,00,000 people to the toxic fumes. While 3,000 people had perished virtually instantly and over the years more than 25,000 have kissed death and the sad saga is still continuing uninterruptedly. About half a million people are still suffering from the side effects of the poisonous gas and several thousand people have been maimed for life.

Meanwhile, on the eve of Bhopal gas tragedy, a series of torchlight rallies and candle light vigils were held after darkness fell as victims and activists jointly commemorated a night of horror 36 years ago.

Mourning those killed in the tragedy, members of the Sambhavna Trust clinic held a candlelight vigil near the statue of the Bhopal Mother opposite the long-abandoned pesticide factory. Family members of gas victims who died due to COVID 19 this year joined the NGO members in resolving to continue with efforts to improve the health and healthcare of people poisoned by Union Carbide.

“This year in Bhopal, COVID-19 has killed gas exposed people at a rate of over six times the average rate in the district. Most possibly this is because of the higher than usual rates of lung, heart and kidney diseases, Type 2 diabetes, and compromised immunity in the gas-exposed population that makes them more vulnerable. These figures underline both the toxicity of Union Carbide’s gases as well as the current need for improvements in the healthcare of the survivors.” said Dr Sanjay Shrivastav, Physician at the Sambhavna Trust clinic.

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“Dow Chemical’s market share that was down to 2.5 % in 2005 has steadily risen since 2015 to over 22% of the Indian market. For sure, the Indian Prime Minister’s coziness with Dow has got something to do with this. Meanwhile, the monthly pension of 1000 rupees for 5000 women widowed by the disaster has been stopped since last December.” said Rashida Bee, president of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmachari Sangh.

Alleging the downplaying of figures of death of gas survivors due to COVID-19 by the Madhya Pradesh Government, Rachna Dhingra of the Bhopal Group for Information & Action, said: “We dare the government officials to cite one instance in the last 36 years when we have stated something without factual and or scientific basis. This is nothing new; officials have been downplaying the figures of death and extent of health damage caused by Union Carbide and Dow ever since the morning of the disaster. The official figure of death is still five times lower than the actual and over 90 per cent of those exposed to Union Carbide’s gases have been categorized as needing just one visit to the hospital.”

Ms Rachna said the Covid-19 death rate among those exposed to the lethal gas is 6.5 times more when compared with those who were not. Gas victims were already suffering from pulmonary disorders, kidney ailment and lung infection and were, therefore, more vulnerable to Coronavirus. Despite that, the state government, instead of making special arrangements for them, had converted the BMHRC hospital specially dedicated to gas victims into a Covid hospital, she added.

The Covid-19 pandemic has proved more fatal for the survivors of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy than the lethal methyl isocyanate gas leak. The death rate and rate of affliction by Covid-19 is noticed more among the gas victims.

According to the figures released by the health department till November 15, out of total 518 Covid deaths in Bhopal, 288 were of gas victims. Not only these, but more than 7,500 corona-positive cases — about 40% — were found in the gas-affected localities when the total count of Bhopal stood at 20,000 cases.

The study shows that the maximum number of cases was reported from Jahangirabad, TT Nagar, Ashoka Garden, Shahjahanabad, Aishbagh and Nishatpura localities of the city, which were also the worst-affected by the gas leak. Gas-affected people inhabit these areas in large numbers.

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An analysis of corona-afflicted gas survivors shows that people in the age group of 20-30 suffered the most, with 1995 cases in this age group. The next vulnerable group belonged to the 40-50-year age group, which constituted 20% of the overall cases.

Meanwhile, Nawab Khan, president of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Purush Sangharsh Morcha said: “In the last ten years officials of the state and central governments have promised in writing that they would revise the figures of death and health damage in the Curative Petition for additional compensation from the American corporations. These promises remain to be kept. Meanwhile, all official research on long term health impact of the disaster has been stopped or suppressed, symptomatic medicines remain the mainstay of medical care of the survivors who receive no social support and there are no official plans to stop the ongoing contamination of soil and groundwater.”

“The effect of the Coronavirus Pandemic on the survivors in Bhopal and on people exposed to industrial pollution everywhere in the world has once again highlighted the urgent need for reigning in chemical corporations. In the last 36 years judicial institutions in India and USA have failed to make Union Carbide and Dow Chemical obey the laws of the land. As injustice and suffering continues in Bhopal, corporations are encouraged to continue committing crimes against humanity and the global environment.” said Nausheen Khan for the Children against Dow Carbide. 

Meanwhile, customary official ritual to mourn the gas tragedy dead was held. The Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan attended the all-religions prayer meeting at Barkatullah Bhawan (Central Library) here on the occasion of the gas tragedy. The event was held in the presence of limited people with social distancing. Tributes were paid to the deceased gas victims during the prayer meeting. Different religious gurus also read from the scriptures.

Speaking on the occasion Chief Minister Chouhan announced that the monthly pension of Rs. one thousand to Kalyani sisters who were widowed in the gas tragedy will be resumed. This regular pension being given to Kalyani sisters which was discontinued in the year 2019 will be resumed. He also said that the capital should also have a special memorial related to the gas tragedy. Soon this will be made a Prakash Stambh Smarak which will serve as an inspiration.

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