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Bhopal 15 years later


Yogi Aggarwal travelled to Bhopal again 15 years
after the gas tragedy that has killed over 20,000
people so far.

In the old quarter of Bhopal, most everybody has a story to
tell of that terrifying night when death poured from the
skies fifteen years ago. For those left with no permanent
physical disability, the trauma has passed. For the others it
remains a daily trial.

Fatima Bai, a handsome middle aged woman wearing a black
chaddor, recalls how in the chaos of that night she was separated
from all her four children and it was nearly a week before the
family was united again. Rashid, an autodriver, says he and his
family stayed at home, cowering beneath a blanket, their eyes
and lungs burning but they were eventually saved because they
did not rush out onto the streets like many others.

Others do no like to talk about that dreadful night. A group
of men at J.P. Nagar, a slum bang opposite the Union Carbide
factory and the place with the highest casualities, say "we are
neither living nor dead". More painful than the horror of that
night is the weakness, exhaustion, inability to work, constant
medical expenses, and the humiliation of running around to get
compensation or alternative work.

Vinod Raina, an educator and social worker in Bhopal, says
Union Carbide's behaviour was criminal since they knew of how
poisonous a gas MIC was and its effects. "If they had just in-
formed the people that in case of a leak they should cover their
eyes and noses with a wet cloth, there wouldn't have been these
kinds of deaths and crippled people. Most people would have been
saved," he says.

Even after the disaster Union Carbide did not even help the
people of Bhopal with information that might have saved their
lives. Its main concern was to limit the legal monetary liability
that it knew it would have to bear. For instance it knew that the
administration of Sodium Thiosulphate to those affected would
give relief. But they denied this possibility since "to admit it
could give symptomatic relief would be to admit that the toxic
gases had crossed the blood-lung barrier", and this would in-
crease their criminal liability. This remains its concern even
today as it joins hands with Dow Chemicals to become the
single largest chemicals company in the world.

The release of over 40 tonnes of the poisonous MIC and other
deadly gases into the atmoshere over Bhopal on the night of
December 2/3 1984, led to some 5,000 to 8,000 deaths in just
the first week while 21,500 have died till now (27,000 by unof-
ficial estimates). Some half a million people were in some way
disabled by the gases of whom some 200,000 to 300,000 people
continue to suffer in some way or another, crippled by damage to
their lungs, or immune system, or eyes, or muscles, or all or
many of these symptoms. Many women have turned sterile and
several children born after the gas tragedy have shown signs of
genetic mutation.

Doctors at Bhopal's largest hospital, Hamidia Hospital, who
requested anonymity told me that there was sufficient indica-
tion that genetic mutations in children born after December
1984 led to cancers, TB, hepatitis, meningitus, falciparum
malaria or Hodgekins disease. Moreover, children so affected
were often not amenable to treatment, making the doctors suspect
genetic damage. Unfortunately, in the absence of long term scien-
tific studies (the 24 Indian Council of Medical Research [ICMR]
projects were discontinued several years ago) it is difficult to
prove genetic damage.

While junior doctors at Hamidia hospitals mention these
facts with concern, doctors holding senior adminstrative posi-
tions blandly deny any chances of genetic damage and even assert
that they have not seen the ICMR reports. There seems to be an
attempt among senior doctors and officials to minimise the damage
caused by the gas leak, and certainly steer away from any mention
of genetic damage. This despite the fact that medical literature
on the aftermath of the Bhopal gas leak is replete with refer-
ences to possible genetic damage requiring further investigation.

Any real evidence of genetic damage would greatly increase
Union Carbide's liability. So far it has got off cheaply. Though
the Indian government demanded three billion dollars in damages,
Union Carbide managed to pay just $ 470 million after years of
wrangling in 1989. This worked out to less than one thousand
dollars for each of the 488,000 people affected and eligible for
compensation, not counting those dead.

Even by Indian standards, the compensation has been a pit-
tance -- Rs 25,000 for each victim, which after deductions,
bribes and advance payments often works out to around Rs 10,000
per head, much less than what they have spent on medical care
alone so far.

"If you see it as an input/output model," says Satinath
Sarangi who runs a free clinic in Bhopal, "the money the victims
have got has gone back to lawyers, doctors, touts, bribes to
officials, drug companies and chemist shops, and has not even
been able to stop them from falling into debt."

Neither has there been a serious attempt to rehabilitate
those rendered weak and tired by exposure to the gas. At one time
around 2,500 women were given employment in sewing work. Now this
has stopped. At one factory shed I visited, there were over 60
sewing machines but only one person at work there. Many sheds
have been turned into residential quarters for Rapid Action Force
jawans. There is some continuing effort by voluntary organisa-
tions but nothing of any consequence by the government.

There is a strange guilt operating in Bhopal. The rich and
the upper middle classes who lived far from the disaster area
want to forget the event, get on with their lives, want the
chapter closed. Some of them even resent the compensation the
poor are getting, and want the cake to be equally shared by
everyone in Bhopal, including themselves. These are the influen-
tial people whose apathy Union Carbide could count on in any long
drawn tussle.

During her election campaign in Bhopal, Uma Bharati of the
BJP tried to communalise the compensation, since over 40 per cent
of those affected are from the minorities. The demand that the
unaffected rich also get the compensation is not merely a matter
of greed but an expression of resentment that the poor are get-
ting some relief.

In official circles an uneasy silence prevails, a reluctance
to talk about the tragedy, or such uncomfortable things like
genetic damage. One can't help but feel that some powerful inter-
ests in Bhopal and Delhi are secretly on the side of Union Car-
bide, that crucial sections of the Indian state have already been
bought over by the largest chemicals multinational in the world,
the Indian state been effectively subverted to serve Union
Carbide's interests.

For the others, the victims, their only hope lies in the
fight going on, or as the cardboard campaign button says, "We'll
not forget Bhopal". The only encouraging sign about the Bhopal
gas tragedy and its aftermath 15 years later is that there are
enough people around who will not forget or let others forget the
criminal negligence that led to the terror and death on that
dreadful night in Bhopal.

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