By Elton Gomes
Thirty-four years after the Bhopal gas tragedy claimed thousands of Indian lives, survivors continue to wage a hard battle over proper rehabilitation, adequate compensation, and proper medical treatment.
Official records state that the disaster killed 3,787 people. The figures were updated by the Madhya Pradesh government later as the immediate official estimate from Union Carbide factory had stated that 2,259 people had died.
However, activists fighting for the Bhopal gas tragedy victims have estimated that at least 8,000 and 10,000 deaths occurred. In an affidavit, submitted in 2006, the Indian government said that the Bhopal gas leak caused 5,58,125 injuries – this included approximately 3,900 severely and permanently disabling injuries.
What caused the accident?
On the intervening night of December 2-3, 1984, poisonous gas began to leak from the factory of Union Carbide in Madhya Pradesh’s capital Bhopal. The poisonous gas killed thousands of people directly.
The gas leak in the Union Carbide (currently known as Dow Chemicals) was reported after midnight on December 3. The incident took place at Plant Number C of the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal.
It is estimated that about 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas and other chemicals leaked from the Union Carbide factory. Methyl isocyanate is extremely toxic, and if its concentration in the air reaches 21ppm (parts per million), it can cause death within minutes of inhaling the gas. In Bhopal, the level had reached multiple times higher.
What happened after the leak?
Bhopal had a population of about 8.5 lakh back in 1984. After the leak, more than half of its population was coughing, complaining of itching in eyes and skin, and faced breathing problems. The gas caused internal hemorrhage, pneumonia, and death. The villages and slums in the neighbouring areas of the factory were the worst affected.
The case against Dow Chemicals
On December 1, 1987, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) filed a charge sheet against Warren Anderson, chairman of Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), and eleven other accused, including Union Carbide Corporation (USA), Union Carbide (Eastern) Hong Kong, and UCIL.
Thereafter, on February 1, 1992, a Bhopal trial court proclaimed UCC (USA) as an absconder and ordered UCC to present itself before the chief judicial magistrate (CJM) on March 27, 1992.
In February 2001, UCC merges with The Dow Chemical Company and becomes a 100% owned subsidiary of Dow.
In June 2004, Bhopal CJM, Anil Kumar Gupta, issued a show cause notice to Dow, stating that “it would not be proper to pass an order on fixing criminal and civil liability on Dow… without listening to the opposite party.”
The case was then scheduled for February 2005 when Dow Chemical International Private Limited (DCIPL), the Indian front for Dow Chemical claimed in court that it has nothing to do with its parent company – Dow Chemical. DCIPL appealed in the Madhya Pradesh High Court, requesting it to quash the trial court summons.
In March the same year, the Madhya Pradesh High Court granted a stay against the summons to Dow Chemical. The stay was granted after DCIPL filed an appeal. According to reports in 2015, the Madhya Pradesh High Court lifted a seven-year-old stay that prevented summoning of Dow Chemical in the criminal case.
By 2006, the case was listed several times for final hearing as per the MP High Court website. The case has come to the following judges for final hearings Sugandhilal Jain, Suresh Chandra Sinho, P.K. Jaiswal, U.C. Maheshwari, M.A. Siddiqui, Rakesh Saxena, Tarun Kumar Kaushal, G.S. Solanki, N.K. Gupta, and R.C. Mishra.
Reports from September 2015 stated that a US district court had dismissed a plea seeking to make Union Carbide liable for contamination caused by its pesticide plant in Bhopal.
Seventeen survivors of the 1984 gas tragedy had filed a case against the corporation in 1999 in the US district court in Manhattan. On June 26, 2015, Judge John Keenan ruled that Union Carbide and its former chairperson Warren Anderson were not liable for environmental remediation or pollution-related claims made by residents near the plant.
It seems that the survivors will have an uphill task now that Dow Chemicals is merging with DuPont. The merger has led to the formation of a new entity named DowDuPont. The merger has further reduced the possibility of compensation as the new company has disowned liability of the Bhopal gas victims.
According to the survivors’ organisations, the merger of the two companies will result in the disappearance of the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) as a legal entity – this could severely damage their claims for compensation from the UCC.
As many as five organisations have written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in February 2018, but the PMO is yet to act on their letter.
Organisations still fighting for justice
A number of organisations are still involved in the quest for justice for the victims.
The president of one of the organisations, Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmchari Sangh, Rashida Bee told the Hindustan Times: “The PMO has not taken a single step to stop Union Carbide’s disappearance through the trifurcation of Dow-DuPont that will begin two months from now. At the PMO’s grievance portal our letter of February this year (PMOPG/D/2018/0084804) remains pending for the last eight months.”
Bee added, “Since 2004…the contamination has spread to 42 settlements around the factory with a population of over one hundred thousand. But, the governments at the state and the centre have done nothing,” as per a PTI report.
Bhopal Group for Information and Action convener Rachna Dhingra then spoke about the inefficacy of both Congress and BJP governments. Dhingra told the Hindustan Times, “In 2010 the then Congress government at the Centre filed a curative Petition in the Supreme Court seeking additional compensation of 1.2 billion dollars.
“However, neither the Congress nor the BJP governments have filed any application for urgent hearing in the last eight years and the curative petition has not moved an inch since it was filed.”
Elton Gomes is a staff writer at Qrius
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