By Itika Singh:
In a big victory for the survivors of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, the Government has agreed to revise the figures of victims used in its compensation claim and also to provide additional compensation to all survivors. This has brought a glimmer of hope to the survivors who have been fighting for justice that has been denied to them for 30 years. The move came after a protest at Jantar Mantar, organized by five Bhopal based organizations, which began on November 10th. As part of the protest, five women survivor fasted without water. Their fast was broken after the Minister of Chemicals and Fertilizers assured them, verbally, of meeting their demands.
The protesters, most of them women, are survivors themselves who had come from Bhopal to agitate for two demands. One, that the figures of deaths and injuries mentioned by the government in its curative petition to the Supreme Court be amended to reflect actual figures based on records of Indian Council of Medical Research and MP Government hospital. According to Amnesty International, the government had claimed for 5,295 deaths, 4,902 cases of permanent disability and 42 cases of severe injury, whereas activists have been calling for 22,917 deaths, 508,432 cases of permanent disability and 33,781 cases of severe injury to be included in the petition. Their second demand was that all survivors of the gas leak be given an additional compensation of Rs. 1 Lakh. About 93% of the survivors were denied this compensation, on the grounds that their injuries were categorized as ‘minor’.
The Bhopal Gas Tragedy took place on 3rd December, 1984, when a poisonous gas leak occurred at the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) owned Pesticide Plant in Bhopal. But the gas leak was not just an accident; it was a culmination of a number of cost cutting measures that prioritized profit making above safety regulations. It is shocking to see the sheer number of indicators that were present long before the disaster. To start with, unproven technology, rather than the tried and tested, was used in the construction and installation of the pesticide plant in Bhopal. Then, the plant was missing mechanisms to detect leaks and record essential parameters, and this wasn’t due to lack of technology since UCC’s plants in US had all the necessary safety measures in place. The facts become darker still. There had been gas leaks before 1984 as well. On December 25, 1981, a leak of phosgene killed one worker at the plant and severely injured two others. On January 9, 1982, twenty five workers were hospitalized as a result of another leak at the plant. On October 5, 1982, yet another leak occurred, requiring the hospitalization of hundreds of people who resided in the communities surrounding the plant. In May 1982, a safety audit of the plant had reported 61 hazards, at least 30 of which were major. The report specifically warned of “potential for the release of toxic materials” and a consequent “runaway reaction”. This report was available to the UCC top brass, but far from acting upon it, the company went on to undertake more budget cuts – this time by laying off almost half of the workforce. Safety training duration, too, was cut down substantially from 6 months to 15 days. In more instances of blatant disregard for safety and human life, the UCC stored excessive quantities of the poisonous MIC gas at the Bhopal plant. European standards limit storage of MIC to half-a-ton. The Bhopal plant stored 67 tons of this gas on the night of the disaster. It was this MIC gas which leaked, causing one of the biggest industrial disasters in the world.
If only the above warning signs had not been ignored, the tragedy could have been avoided. Even worse than the tragedy are its consequences, which exist even today. The survivors of the gas leak suffer from chronic illnesses that include breathing illnesses, brain damage, reproductive complications, damaged eyesight and even cancer. These and other illnesses have left people unable to do manual work, meaning they cannot support themselves. Health problems have been found even in the children of these survivors. Bhopal is now seeing a third generation affected by the gas leak. Further, the site of the factory, which was a storehouse of the toxins, has still not been cleaned up. According to Greenpeace, more than 20,000 people still live in the vicinity of the factory and are exposed to toxic chemicals through groundwater and soil contamination. The public funded Sambhavna Clinic, which provides free health care to the survivors, is witnessing disturbing trends. Bhopal.net quotes a report from the Clinic as saying, “The alarming rise in cancers, tuberculosis, reproductive system problems and other problems such as growth retardation among children born after the disaster remain undocumented”.
Greater compensation that has now been assured by the government can go a long way in helping the survivors financially. It is also a step forward in the direction of bringing Union Carbide, and its mother company Dow Chemicals, to justice. However, a question remains – Has India learnt its lesson from the Bhopal Gas Tragedy? The recent Make in India program aims to bring in more foreign investment, encouraging global corporations to set up their manufacturing units in India. This is exactly what UCC had done with its Bhopal Pesticide Plant. Keeping this in mind, it is critical that the government has its priorities in order – the people come before the capital. India cannot appeal to foreign investors at the cost of labour rights and environmental preservation.
The strike in Delhi has been successful in winning the battle, but the war is yet to be won. There is a long way to go to bring Union Carbide to justice. The onus to do this does not rest solely on the survivors or the government. The privileged sections of our country and the mainstream media too need to wake up from their apathy and come out in support of the cause. To prevent from other Bhopal-like events from happening, a review of the present manufacturing industry is required.