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Binu Mathew

Tears are still flowing down from the eyes of the Bhopal gas victims. Their tears have not dried even after 18 years since one of the worst ever industrial disasters occurred. For someone like Selma, daughter of Razia Bee of Mangalwara, tears run down in blood red colour as though symbolising the plight of the whole victims.

It was on the night of December 2, 1984 that 40 tons of Methyl Isocyanate gas leaked from the Union Carbide Factory (UCC) situated in one of the most densely populated neighbourhood of Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India.

The first time the management of the Carbide plant came to know about the leak was at 11:00 pm. The factory alarm meant for workers was started by a desperate worker at 12:50 am. The management not only turned it off within minutes but also delayed the sounding of the public siren until as late as 2:00 am by which time all the gas that could leak had leaked. 8000 people died in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.

After 17 years, the death toll has risen to over 20,000 and 10-15 people are dying every month from exposure related diseases. Over 120,000 children, men and women continue to suffer acutely from a host of exposure related illnesses and their complications.

Damage to the respiratory system has led to the prevalence of pulmonary tuberculosis which has been found to be more than three times the national average. In the years following the disaster, the stillbirth rate was three times, prenatal mortality was two times and neonatal mortality was one and a half times more than the comparative national figures.According to a study by Dr. Daya Varma, Mcgill University, Canada, 40% of the women pregnant at the time of the disaster aborted. Another study reported nearly five times increase in the rate of spontaneous abortion as a result of the Union Carbide disaster.
The survivors complain of breathlessness, coughing, chest pains, fatigue, body aches, abdominal pain, numbness and tingling in the limbs, weak sight and runny eyes, anxiety attacks, bad memory, concentration difficulties, irritability, headache and mental illness.

An unusually large number of women have menstrual irregularities and excessive vaginal secretions. Mothers complain of retarded physical and mental growth in children exposed in infancy or born after the disaster.According to a study conducted by Ingrid Eckerman, there are reports on intellectual impairment and epilepsy. Failure to grow, delay in gross motor and language sector development was found in children born a considerable time after their mother's exposure to the gas.

The worst part of the disaster is probably yet to come. Researchers have found chromosomal aberrations in the exposed population indicating a strong likelihood of congenital malformations in the generations to come.
A detailed study of of psychological disorders caused by the disaster has not yet been taken up. But post-traumatic stress disorders, pathological grief reactions, emotional reactions to physical problems and exacerbation of pre-existing psychiatric problems have been noted.

To top it all is the rupture in family and social relations in the affected areas due to death, illness and poverty.All this misery would have been much less had UCC revealed the exact nature of the compositon of the gases released from the plant. To this day they have not done that.

On the December 3 morning of 1984 when victims started to pour into the hospitals, the bewildered Bhopal doctors contacted the plant doctor and the reply they got from him was that " It is only like tear gas. Just wash with water". Without information on the nature of the gases, docotors are still giving symptomatic treatment, which gives only partial relief.

Within the first week of the disaster 4 'medical experts' came to Bhopal on a visit sponsored by UCC. In their interviews to the media, they stated that the leaked gases would not have any long term health effects on the exposed population.This was in sharp contrast to the subsequent research findings. One of these experts was Brian Ballyentine, who was also a toxicologist for the Pentagon. Another expert, Dr Hans Weil, Prof. and Chairman of Pulmonary Medicine at the Tulane University Medical School, New Orleans, has a history of fudging medical data to minimize liabilities of Corporations (a prime example being that of Johns Manville Inc. in the Asbestosis case), and had been reprimanded in the past by a US court for his unethical conduct. He examined victims in Bhopal and said "they have an encouraging prognosis and most would recover fully."

After the disaster Dr. Max Daunderer, a toxicologist from Munich, demonstrated the efficacy of intravenous sodium thiosulphate injections in detoxifying the exposed persons and providing substantial relief in symptoms. This was further confirmed by studies carried out by the Indian Council for Medical Research. Through helpful government officials,

UCC succeeded in undermining official attempts for large scale administration of sodium thiosulphate. The company was quick to realise that the administration of this drug would establish that its toxins had indeed reached the blood stream and caused much more damage than the company would like people to believe.

Greatest sell off of all was the out of court damage settlement reached between Government of India and UCC. On December 14, 1989 it was announced in the Supreme Court of India that Union Carbide will pay $ 470 million as damages to the disaster.The first suit filed by Melvin Belli, an American lawyer, claimed damages upto $15 billion. Later the Indian Government arrogating itself the sole power to represent all the victims, filed a suit for $3.3 billion. 4 years after filing the suit and without informing the victims, the government settled for nearly one-seventh of the original claim. Of the $470 million settlement $200 million was covered by UCC's insurance and another $200 million had already been put aside. Out of an annual revenue of $8 billion a year, the corporation had to find just $70 million to close the books on the worst industrial disaster in history.

After news of the $470 million settlement, Carbide's stock actually increased $2 a share. The then chairman, Robert Kennedy who owned 35,000 shares in the company, personally benefitted $70,000.

The settlement clearly shows a double standard in treating victims of industrial disasters in India and elsewhere. Union Carbide and eight other companies paid US $ 4.2 billion as potential damages for Silicone Breast Implants to 650,000 claimants. This amount was 9 times more than what the Bhopal victims were given and less than a 10th of the $5 billion court award against Exon Valdez for polluting the Alaskan coast. Approximately US $ 40,000 was spent on the rehabilitation of every sea otter affected by the Alaska oil spill. Each sea otter was given rations of lobsters costing US $ 500 per day. Thus the life of an Indian citizen in Bhopal was clearly much cheaper than that of a sea otter in America. If the award amount of $470 million where distributed equally among all the victims of Bhopal disaster each would get around only $200.

Many of the people did not get even that much relief. More than 250,000 claims were never documented or classified, making it hard for these victims to obtain compensation. The largest amount paid for death was around $ 2,000. Many of the victims in the gas trgedy were poor, illiterate people. They had no idea of compensation or the importance of keeping records. When the government agencies demanded documents, they had nothing to provide. And some who had documents lost it in the 1992 Hindu - Muslim riot. There is no provision for providing compensation for severly affected children who are born after the disaster.

According to the settlement the liability to provide adequate compensation and facilities for the handicapped victims requiring long-term follow up and treatment rest with the Indian Government and not with Union Carbide Corporation.

Union Carbide was also exonerated of the responsibility to clean up the affected area. On the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the disaster Greenpeace named the area in the vicinty of the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal a "Global Toxic hotspot". Their report based on samples collected from in and around the factory premises - indicates severe contamination of the ground water and soil with heavy metals and carcinogenic chemicals. In 1990 the Bhopal Group for Information and Action(BGIA) reported the presence of atleast seven toxic chemicals based on a report by the Citizens Environmental Laboratory, Boston. Toxic chemicals are reported even in the breast milk of mothers around factory vicinity. Indian government has not taken this matter seriously, only in one community is there a provision made for supplying drinking water in tankers. All the other neighbourhoods are using toxic drinking water.

The Indian Governments attempts in rehabilitating the disaster victims is a picture of total neglect, apathy, inefficiency and corruption. As per officil records of the Gas Relief and Rehabilitation Department, Government of Madhya Pradesh, a total of $ 80 million have been spent on relief and relief and rehabilitation of the survivors of Bhopal since the disaster. The compensation money has multiplied in terms of Indian rupees as a result of the increase in the value of the dollar and the accruing interest. However the interest has not been paid to the claimants as it should have and a balance of about $200 million is likely to remain after all compensaton are to be settled at the present rate.

For legal redressal of this disaster and the wrong done to the victims, seven individuals and five organizations filed a class action suit on November 15, 1999 in the Federal District Court of New York, against Union Carbide Corporation and its former chairman Warren Anderson. The suit charged the Corporation and the official with grave violations of international law and the human rights arising from their "reckless and depraved indifference to human life" in perpetrating the disaster. The support of the Indian Government is crucial to the success of this legal action. But the request of the victims to the Indian Government to present an "amicus curiae" brief has so far fallen on deaf ears.

As the victims are moving from one hell to hell, the perpetrators of the crime are romping free around the world. On Dec. 7th 1984, Warren Anderson, and other Indian officials were arrested on charges of culpable homicide, criminal conspiracy and other serious offences. The arrested officials were lodged in the posh guest house of Union Carbide and Warren Anderson with an annual salary of Rs.10 million, was released on the same day on a bail of Rs.20,000. Summons from the Bhopal court drew no response from him and in January 1992 proclamations were published in Washington Post directing Anderson to face trial in the Bhopal court. In March 1992 the Chief Judicial Magistrate issued a non-bailable arrest warrant against Warren Anderson. He continues to abscond criminal justice.

The hope of the victims ever to receive justice received a setback with the merger of Union Carbide Corporation with Dow Chemicals, in February this year. With the merger, UCC has vanished as an entity and Dow became the second largest chemical corporation in the world. In its submission to the Securities and Exchange Commission, USA, Union Carbide has deliberately omitted the the mention of pending criminal liabalites of the corporation. This fact was brought by victims organisation to the notice of the SEC, but met with indifference and deliberate silence.

Manu's law, the ancient Hindu law practised in India, held a person who had injured another to pay damages, not according to the status of the victim but according to the status of the wrongdoer. This law, has never been repealed. This rule of the ancient common law of India, enforced by many rulers in the last thousand years and more, is still the unacknowledged law of India. And it goes on, as we now see in the case of theBhopal victims too.

Binu Mathew is the editor of

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