No end to suffering for Bhopal gas victims
Twenty-nine years have passed since a poison gas leak from the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal killed thousands of people. For the estimated 100,000 survivors and their children who cope with birth defects, illness and a variety of other health problems, it might as well still be the 1980s.
It was 12 a.m. on Dec. 3, 1984 when 40 tons of toxic methyl isocyanate leaked from the plant. In the J.P. Nagar neighbourhood that was worst affected, many people died instantly. The death toll is more than 5,295, according to the Indian government though projections based on an Indian Council of Medical Research study put the figure as high as 25,000. An estimated 574,372 people have been affected in some way by the gas; health activists say more than 150,000 have been seriously affected.
Lung and eye complications are common among people in this area. Many also suffer from loss of limb function along with severe palpitations and recurring chest pain.
“I do not have the strength left to do anything now,” said Mazid Khan, 52, who was employed as a security guard at the Union Carbide Corporation factory. Mazid was exposed to the gas, and now suffers from weak eyesight and swelling in his limbs.
Most victims have received 25,000 to 50,000 rupees ($400 to $800 at today’s conversion rates) in compensation, an amount that is far too small for effective medical treatment or as restitution, said Rachna Dhingra of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action (BGIA), an organization that works with victims of the disaster.
This is because the process of medical categorization was an extremely flawed process. Less than 6 percent of survivors underwent the crucial tests of urine thiocyanate, exercise tolerance test and lung function test. The other 94 percent received the small payment.
“Union Carbide’s own internal document clearly states that after exposure to MIC there will be residual injury in spite of prompt treatment so the question of minor/temporary injury does not arise. The Indian government classified most victims as sufferers of “temporary injury” rather than permanent or temporary disability,” Dhingra said.
Classifying them this way led to a far smaller payout, under the terms of a settlement struck in 1985 between India and Union Carbide. The corporation was bought by Dow Chemical in 2001.
BGIA and other NGOs have demanded that the compensation should at least be 600,000 rupees ($9,735) for those who lived in moderately affected areas; 1.6 million rupees ($25,956) for those who lived in severely affected areas; and 2 million rupees ($32,440) for deaths.
Aam Nabi, a gas victim who suffers from recurring chest pain, palpitation and redness in the eye, said that despite treatment her condition has worsened over the years.
Another resident, Shamshad Begum, who lost her son and mother-in-law on the night of the disaster, suffers from intestinal complications and has undergone four surgeries. “I still get severe stomach ache. The doctors say there is no permanent cure,” she said.
Shamshad’s husband died in 2007 from complications related to gas exposure.
There are six gas relief hospitals being run by the state government and one by the central government. Yet the victims say that the treatment is not proper and the facilities inadequate.
Many victims like Nayyum Khan,79, who suffers from high blood pressure and lung infection, have stopped going to the hospital altogether. “It’s of no use,” he said.
The Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre was set up in 1998 for patients affected by the gas, but people here say that it can take almost a month to get an appointment.
“It’s true,” said Dr Manoj Pandey, the hospital’s director, citing a lack of medical equipment and doctors. “We have only one MRI machine, two operating theatres and a team of three surgeons catering to about 12 lakh (1.2 million) gas victims. In such a situation, we have to prioritize.”
Children born to women who were exposed to MIC also suffer from genetic disorders such as physical and mental retardation, and heart and lung complications. The government claims that there is no evidence that the gas caused these problems, so they receive no compensation.
All this time, the pond by the derelict Union Carbide plant is full of toxic waste, say residents.
The Madhya Pradesh state government submitted a proposal to New Delhi in 2008 to build 2,500 houses about 10 kilometres away from the city. The state budgeted 400 million rupees ($6.4 million) in 2010, but later said that rising land values meant that they could build only 897 houses.
Even if they could move, many people couldn’t afford to, Dhingra said. Daily wage labourers can walk to work in the city from where they are now, but could not afford to pay 40 rupees a day to commute back and forth. For now, many people simply will have to keep living by the disaster site.
(Editing by Robert MacMillan; Follow Robert @bobbymacReports | Disclaimer: This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced in any form without permission)
Photo captions: First Row (Left to Right)
1. A statue erected in memory of the gas victims. A plaque on the pedestal carries an inscription: “No more Hiroshima, No more Bhopal, We want to live. The graffiti on the wall behind depicts the struggle and suffering of the gas survivors.”
2. Haliman Bi, a resident of J.P. Nagar, is suffering from brain cancer caused by exposure to methyl isocyanate.
3. The identity card of Mazid Khan, who was employed as a security guard at the Union Carbide factory when the disaster took place.
4. Mazid Khan (right) was employed as a security guard at the Union Carbide factory when the disaster took place.
Photo captions: Second Row (Left to Right)
1. Mazid Khan, was employed as a security guard at the Union Carbide factory when the disaster took place.
2. Nayyum Khan, who was affected by the gas.
3. A lane in J.P. Nagar.
4. Mohammed Idris, who was affected by the gas.