Foul Air
NGOs find everything wrong with hospital for gas victims
The Week 5th November 2000

It is 16 years since the noxious fumes from the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal killed three of her family, but Abida Bi still gasps for breath. A victim of the gas leak, she spends most of her time at the clinic of the Bhopal Memorial Hospital Trust, where she is being treated for tuberculosis.

Thousands of survivors like the 46-year-old Abida flock every day to clinics run by the hospital in and around Bhopal. The facililities are bad but they have practically no choice. They were hopeful when the Supreme Court, in October 1991, ordered Union Carbide to set up a super-specialty hospital for the victims. Nine years later, the 350-bed hospital in Karond village - originally intended as a 500-bed hospital - is a picture of mismanagement.

Voluntary organisations working for the survivors have been deliberately kept out of the affairs of the hospital, alleged Abdul Jabbar, who had filed a suit against Union Carbide in the United States. The hospital, with a corpus fund of Rs. 350 crore, is literally out of bounds for common people, said Vishwas Sarang, corporator from Old Bhopal, which was worst affected by the methyl isocyanate leak.

Set up by a trust headed by Sir Ian Percival (a Tory who died last year), Bhopal Memorial Hospital started with a few clinics but opened the main hospital only three months ago. The clinics have been under a cloud. The International Medical Commission on Bhopal criticised their irrational treatment methods.

According to a study done by Rajiv Bhatia, director of San Francisco's occupational and environmental health department, treatment offered at clinic no.1 at Kenchi Cholla is not based on specific organ pathologies. The drugs, he found, are prescribed for short-term symptomatic relief of non-specific symptoms. he also found that the doctors were heistant to touch the patients.

Another study by Dr Atanu Sarkar, coordinator of the project on medical care and medical research of gas victims, found doctors writing out precriptions without clearly mentioning the symptoms. In several cases harmful drugs were prescribed without any justification. Satinath Sarangi of Bhopal People's Health and Documentation Centre fears that the 10-bed research unit at the main hospital will be used to generate and suppress potentially sensitive information on long-term health consequences.

NGOs have even accused the hospital management of embezzling funds. In an affidavit before the Supreme Court, Indian officials had complained that Percival had withdrawn Rs. 10 crore from the fund as his fees and travel expenses. Some trustees themselves are not satisfied with the way things have taken shape. M.N. Buch, one of them, resigned from the trust complaining that civil work was being given priority over medical planning. According to him, the composition of the trust itself is debatable. How come there was no social worker or eminent medical expert from Bhopal on the trust, he asked.

Abdul Jabbar of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan alleged that the trust was becoming the private property of few trustees and its director-general P.S. Vaish, a retired brigadier. When Justice A.N. Ahmadi, chairman of the trust vivited Bhopal recently Jabbar demanded a white paper on the functioning of the trust. His charges ranged from financial mismanagement to nepotism, and he wanted to know why the trust spent Rs. 110 crore on the hospital when the estimated cost was only Rs. 60 crore. He is yet to get a reply.

Repeated efforts of The Week to contact Brig. Vaish proved futile. The questionnaire faxed to him went unanswered. There are about 80 security men patrolling the hospital complex, preventing unwelcome reporters from entering the premises. "Nobody can enter the premises without Brig. Vaish's permission," said a sentry.

The state govenrment has reportedly quizzed the hospital about its functioning and facilities and why it is not accepting patients referred by the state-owned hospitals. The government has donated 80 acres to the hospital, and there are fears that after 8 years from its inception the hospital will become commercial as mentioned in one of its clauses.

By Deepak Tiwari