The Bhopal disaster occurred on the night of the second and third of December 1984. Two-thirds of Bhopal’s then population of about 900,000 people was exposed to the toxic gases. The chemical plant was owned and operated by UCIL a subsidiary of Union Carbide Corporation currently owned by the Dow Chemical Company. UCIL’s slogan was “Science helps build a new India”.
In the guise of helping build a new India, UCC actually transferred sub-standard technology to India despite having sufficient knowledge and experience about building safer plants like the far bigger and safer MIC unit it had built at its Institute plant in West Virginia, USA, in 1966. UCC violated its own prescribed safety norms by under-designing the safety systems at its Bhopal plant as a cost-cutting measure despite the fact that it was to manufacture and store in large quantities (over 80-plus tonnes) of the highly toxic MIC in two storage tanks for long periods. Moreover, even the under-designed safety systems – refrigeration system, scrubber and flare – were often not operated to their full potential and were shut off from time to time as further cost-cutting measures, which posed constant threat to the lives of workers at the plant and to the population in the surrounding areas. A disaster, which was inevitable under the circumstances, finally occurred.
Company officials tried to mislead about the likely impact of the disaster and about possible remedial measures. Government official were under-playing the magnitude and grievousness of the disaster than in properly assessing all its ramifications. There was obvious harmony of interests. Locally officials kept insisting, “MIC (methyl isocyanate) was only an irritant and not lethal”. They were also desperate to hide the presence of HCN (hydrogen cyanide), which was well known as a highly poisonous chemical. To their discomfiture, Dr. Heeresh Chandra, Head of Department of Forensic Medicine & Toxicology at Gandhi Medical College, was conducting autopsies, and suspected that death in many cases might have been caused due to cyanide poisoning. Dr. Max Daunderer, a toxicologist who was sent to India on 4th Dec. by the German Foreign Office to assist with the relief work, confirmed Dr. Chandra’s suspicion. Dr. Daunderer, who had foreseen the possibility of cyanide poisoning since he was familiar with the characteristics of MIC, prescribed sodium thiosulphate (NaTS) as an antidote. However, the pro-UCC lobby in Bhopal and Delhi was so powerful that Dr.Daunderer was deported from India on 07 Dec. in order to prevent him from further damaging UCC’s interests. Later, Dr.Sriramachari of ICMR and his team carried out necessary studies to confirm that NaTS was a safe antidote for treating gas-victims. However, even the ICMR could not prevent the State Govt. from formally banning the use of NaTS to treat gas-victims although timely administration of NaTS would have saved many lives and reduced adverse effects on the survivors.
Between September 1985 and February 1989, nearly 600,000 claims were filed for compensation. However, even before the claims were processed and adjudicated, a Supreme Court assisted settlement took place between the India and UCC on Feb.1989. The settlement for a paltry sum of 470 million dollars (then about Rupees 7150 million) was premised on the withdrawal of all criminal charges against UCC and all its officials for all time to come. The settlement was also based on the assumption that only 3000 victims had died and another 102,000 had suffered injuries in varying degree. These were merely imaginary figures of dead and injured since the 600,000 claims that had been filed until then had neither been processed nor categorized. Fifteen years later, in 2004, after adjudicating all the claims (including another 400,000 claims that were filed between 1989 and 1996), the Claim Courts concluded that the dead and injured gas-victims numbered nearly 573,000, i.e., a figure that was FIVE times greater than the one that formed the basis of the settlement! However, the Claim Courts too had underestimated the total number of dead (which actually was well over 20,000) & seriously injured in the absence of health records. Thus, all that the gas victims (including next of kin of the dead) got was a pittance from the Settlement Fund – on an average, just about $820 each (instead of $4476 each even as per the unjust Settlement).
Even thirty years after the disaster, gas-victims are still waging a determined struggle to procure a hard copy of their complete medical record that would enable them to demand appropriate medical care as well as seek higher compensation based on the gravity of their injury. Eligibility for seeking enhancement of compensation is based on proof of injury; but the very authorities, who demand such proof, deny the gas-victims the means to procure such proof! Gas-victims have suffered damage to their eyes, lungs, nervous system and gastro-intestinal system. Even in 2010, the morbidity rate among gas-victims continued to be around 20 per cent when among the control group it was below 9 per cent. The state of the mental health of some victims is alarming. Moreover, genetic effects are also suspected. About 6000 gas-victims still seek medical treatment every day. Thus, the ICMR, which had discontinued disaster-related medical research in 1994, was forced to restart it in 2010. Every victim of a disaster has a right to his/her complete medical record. Unfortunately, as far as the Bhopal gas-victims were concerned, the ICMR and the State Government have failed to take sufficient steps to maintain proper medical records. Thus, while the ICMR and the State Government were directed repeatedly by the Supreme Court of India since 2001 to computerize and network the medical records of all hospitals and clinics treating gas-victims, they have done little in this regard. As a result, gas-victims have been denied a copy of his/her complete medical record, which effectively prevents gas-victims from not only getting appropriate treatment but also higher compensation in terms of the gravity of injury.
Warren Anderson, the then Chairperson of UCC and accused No.1 in the criminal case, went unpunished during his lifetime provides a classic example in this regard.