Today, one of the first things search engine Google’s autocomplete identifies are the words ‘gas tragedy’, just as we begin to write ‘Bhopal’. Such was the aftermath of the holocaust which eventually became the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, and left an indelible blot on the beautiful city’s name. There aren’t many things which have been left unsaid and untold in these three decades. But 35 years on, has the city progressed? Have the dues been given to families who are still living and struggling in the Bhopal of 1984?
Till today, there is no government-built/funded memorial for victims. The ‘Remember Bhopal Museum’ built in 2014 without any external help, is grappling with funding issues, surviving on a yearly lease. On December 11, 1984, a few days after the gas leak took place on the intervening night of December 2-3, Warren Anderson, Chairman and CEO of Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), left the Indian soil, never to return to attend court proceedings. He had barely spent a few hours in Bhopal. Arrangements for his stay were made at UCC’s guest house, situated at one of the most prime locations of the city, overlooking the lake. He was arrested, bailed out and comfortably fled the country like a VIP. The government let him.
Ingrid Eckerman in his book – The Bhopal Saga recalls what a victim told him, “Death would have been a great relief. It’s worse to be a survivor”. Even though Parliament passed the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act in 1985, it was of little help; the law appeared to be falling short. As the legal battles were on in India and the US, Dow Chemical Company successfully took over UCC in 2001, after which it became a wholly owned subsidiary. Thereafter, Dow claimed that UCC did not have any responsibility towards the tragedy, as it was legally a new company with new ownership.
Of course, the city has moved forward in these three decades, but certain issues loom large. After the factory was closed, whatever remained inside -- raw material, leftovers and finished products -- were sealed and kept there. Gas victims’ welfare organisations have been demanding its removal for years, but in vain. Many petitions have been lying in Jabalpur High Court and the Supreme Court of India for removal of the plant’s poisonous remains. In 1994, the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) reported that over one-fifth of the factory site had been used for dumping hazardous waste. To date, there has been no decision either by the government or from the courts on the removal of the hazardous waste that still lies in the factory’s compound. Sometime back, the contaminated remains were to be shifted to Pithampur near Indore and to Gujarat, but at both places the locals protested and hence perhaps they still lie unguarded in Bhopal. A principal bench by NGT was to be set up by then environment minister Jairam Ramesh around 2010, but later got shifted to New Delhi. With the principal bench now being in New Delhi, zonal offices exist in Bhopal and Pune. When I (the writer) last visited the now barren land of the then Union Carbide plant in 2017, it seemed like a neglected (or unwanted) piece of government land. The premise has been unattended since December 1984. Behind the overgrown bushes, lies its toxic history.
Last week, a report by Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) done from 2016-2017 studying the likelihood of genetic birth defects in babies born to gas-exposed mothers, vs unexposed mothers was barred from being brought into the public domain. Sadhana Karnik, an activist with the NGO, Bhopal Gas Pidit Sangharsh Sahyog Samiti, says that an expert committee alleges the data is incomplete, as the reason behind withholding the data. The report revealed the likelihood of genetic defects in babies born to mothers exposed to the gas leak was 9 percent against 1.3 percent in babies born to unexposed mothers. The government has been attempting to not publish this data since it would require the payment of further compensation.
The death of a spirited activist, Abdul Jabbar, last month is a further setback to the fight, hundreds of victims have been putting up till date. Jabbar lost his own family members to the carnage, fought relentlessly for 35 years demanding better compensation and medical treatment. Yes, the government was swift in swinging into action by offering Jabbar's widow a government house and financial help; But can we expect our institutions to swing into action in the same way if another tragedy strikes us some day?
Because UCC management never revealed the exact composition of the toxic released into the air, till date medical authorities have been unable to come up with an effective course of treatment. Congress, which was ruling Madhya Pradesh in 1984, is back in power today. But even so, not much and new is being done by the government for victims. We are living in the era of ‘Smart Cities’. But has the smart city of Bhopal given a good precedent to others on how it coped with the aftermath of the incident? Today, the city has a population of 18 lakh. Three decades earlier, it had much less. Still a Tier-II city, even now Bhopal is identified by people from across the globe as the city where the gas leak took place. Just like the repercussions of the leak which couldn’t be undone, ‘gas leak’ has attached itself as a suffix to the city’s name. Isn’t this a collective failure?
There could be another Bhopal any time, just like Chernobyl. No court ever passed a clear, just judgment on UCC for the crime it committed. The compensation they agreed to pay as the full and final settlement, against a deal of not having to undergo any more legal trials was six times less than what the Indian government had asked for. Thirty-five years on, have we progressed? Are our legal, environmental and social institutions better prepared today? Difficult to say.
First Published: IST