02, Dec 2017 | Deborah Grey
1984, has always been associated with terrible things. It is the year of Operation Blue Star, Indira Gandhi’s assassination and the anti-Sikh riots. The year is often mentioned in ‘whataboutary’ matches between people at extreme ends of the political spectrum. But a story many seem to forget, and only pay lip service to on its anniversary, is that of half a million people forced to breathe poison on a cold December night in Bhopal. Many died, some survived… barely. Even today they struggle for justice and dignity in a world that is just too busy to stop and listen to their voices.
On the intervening night between December 2 and 3, Methyl Isocyanate, a highly toxic gas, leaked out of a Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal. The worst affected were the inhabitants of the shanties located around the plant, some of the poorest of the poor in Bhopal. Official government figures place the immediate death toll at just over 3700, unofficial estimates place the number at atleast twice that figure.
‘Memento Mori’ is a medieval Latin theory that says one must always be conscious of their mortality. “Remember, we all die,” is what it means. But some people die in worse ways than others. In Bhopal, many people died in their sleep, some woke up gasping for breath. Some choked, stumbled out of their homes into entire neighbourhoods covered in the poisonous gas, realised they had no escape and died feeling every agonising laboured breath as life left their bodies. Men, women and children, poisoned in the dead of the night.
Those who survived, ended up with serious heart, lung, kidney and liver disorders that affected more than just their health. Independent, fully functional people, gainfully employed in occupations that paid their rent and expenses, were suddenly left incapacitated and dependent on the kindness of others. Proud men and women, forced to live on charity for their feeble bodies couldn’t support them if they took more than a few steps at a time. People continued to die years after the gas leak as their health worsened and finally nothing could be done for them medically.
“The State Government has failed to address adequately and with sensitivity a host of socio-economic problems that confronts the chronically sick, the elderly, the differently abled, the widowed, and other vulnerable sections among the gas-victims,” said a joint statement issued by Abdul Jabbar Khan (Convener, Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udyog Sangathan) and N.D. Jayaprakash (Co-convener, Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahyog Samiti) on the eve of the 33rd anniversary of the tragedy.
In a crueler twist of fate, many survivors were allegedly made subjects of illegal clinical trials at the Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Center (BMHRC) a facility that was supposed to provide them free medical treatment. The statement by BGPMUS and BGPSSS also addresses this saying, “A shocking and disgraceful act that came to light in 2008 was the illegal manner in which secret drug trials were conducted on gas-victims at BMHRC during 2004-2008. After the matter become public, the authorities at BMHRC have been making every effort to shield the culprits. BGPMUS & BGPSSS have sought detailed inquiry into this unsavory incident of using gas-victims as guinea pigs and have demanded stringent action against the guilty.”
No Justice, No Peace
While revenge is rarely on the minds of the dying, it is only fair to hope for justice. But most people directly responsible for the gas leak did not face anything more than a slap on the wrists. Warren Anderson, the Union Carbide CEO at the time of the disaster was arrested and placed under house arrest at the Union Carbide guest house for a few hours during which he managed to post bail and left the country never to return. It is alleged Anderson’s quick getaway took place under the aegis of the ruling dispensation at the time. He was declared a fugitive, but successive governments failed to secure his extradition. Later in 2010, Andersen and few others belonging to the top brass were convicted for causing death by negligence and made to pay fines that were basically just pocket change. Anderson dies at the age of 92 without serving a day in jail.
Meanwhile, survivors and families of victims had to fight for years to get even a few scraps of the meager compensation promised to them. At a press conference held on Dec 1, Balkrishna Namdeo, president of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Nirashrit Pensionbhogee Sangharsh Morcha said “ The state government has reneged on its promises of ensuring a minimum of Rs.5 lakh compensation for the victims and providing lifelong pension to the widows of the disaster. 94% of the victims have got only Rs. 25,000 compensation for lifelong injuries and thousands of widows remain without pension support for more than a year.”
What Bhopal Needs
Survivors of the tragedy say that what Bhopal needs is that the culprits be charged and the survivors be given their dues. Instead, the MP government is hosting a ‘Run Bhopal Run’ event that many survivors groups feels is rather insensitive. “While all of old Bhopal will be mourning the death of their loved ones, the state government is supporting a spectacle with DJ’s music and Jumba dance in new Bhopal. This shows the abysmal depths of inhumanity in the powers that be.” said Rashida Bee, Goldman Environmental Awardee and president of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmchari Sangh. She appealed to the participants of ‘Run Bhopal Run’ to withdraw their registration in solidarity with the Bhopal victims.
Five groups of survivors will be jointly organising a torchlight procession on December 2 and a march to the abandoned Union Carbide factory on December 3. “The world will be watching us on December 3 and we will tell them how we have been betrayed by our own elected governments who kowtow before US capital.” said Satinath Sarangi of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action.
For more information on the Bhopal Gas Tragedy and to find out how you can make a difference, please visit https://www.bhopal.net/ and http://bhopal.org/