From increased incidences of diseases like TB and cancer to reproductive complications in women to breathing problems, there are few ailments that did not strike the survivors
Much has happened in the world over the past 30 years. The Internet was created; phones first became mobile and then smart, the world shrunk to the size of a global village even as the demons it battled, from terrorism to civil wars, grew in size. But there are also those for whom time has stood still in the past 31 years. These are the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy, the title given to the horrific accident at the Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh.
Nearly 42 tonnes of lethal methyl isocyanate leaked on the night of 2-3 December 1984, leading to unspeakable horrors. Official estimate put the death figure at 5,000, though activists who have long been fighting for both justice and compensation for the victims put the figure at 25,000. In an interview to Mint last year, Abdul Jabbar, convener of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan and a victim of the gas leak himself, had lamented the callous attitude of successive governments towards the victims.
“There was no proper compensation, medical rehabilitation, economic rehabilitation or environmental rehabilitation," he had said. Jabbar’s movement focused on skill development for those who suffered physical disabilities following the gas leak.
From increased incidences of diseases like tuberculosis and cancer to reproductive complications in women to breathing problems, there are few ailments that did not strike the survivors. Successive generations have been born with deformities. In fact, according to a recent study conducted by Sambhavana Trust Clinic, an NGO working for the gas tragedy survivors, more than 2,500 children born in subsequent years are suffering from birth defects. These children, with congenital malformations, were being born to parents who had been exposed to the gas.
“I think one of the first things we need to stress upon is that victims of the gas leak should not marry each other. This will drastically reduce the chances of children being born with defects," says D.K. Satpathy who was a forensic doctor in Bhopal when the gas leak occurred. He has performed autopsies of gas victims running into thousands, years after the leak. “There were thousands of toxic substances that were leaked in the air that night; MIC (methyl isocyanate) was just one of them. Eventually, the government should have conducted a controlled scientific experiment by stimulating the leak in order to have determined the true extent of the damages suffered by the people. Nothing happened and today, even after three decades, people are suffering."
While the Bhopal gas tragedy is firmly rooted in the public consciousness thanks to the visual archives and the sustained efforts of the survivors and activists, there is still a feeling of being let down by the government. The financial compensation for the victims has been paltry and the soil and water in and around the Union Carbide factory is still believed to be contaminated.
“In 2004, survivors had set up a small exhibition to mark the 20th anniversary of the gas leak. The government was planning a memorial at the site of the accident and this was something that was unacceptable to the survivors for several reasons. First, there was the fear of the state co-opting the narrative in order to sanitize it and then there was the worry about the site being a toxic dump," says Rama Lakshmi, who is a curator of the Remember Bhopal Trust that has set up the first museum dedicated to the tragedy. From oral history to possessions of the victims to paperwork to visual memories, the museum is located near the now-defunct Union Carbide plant.
“Can we trust the state to be the custodian of memory? Who has the moral right to safeguard the memory? It’s the community," says Lakshmi, who feels the museum has made it possible for the tragedy to be in a three-dimensional space.
But in spite of all the suffering that was unleashed, has India learnt any lessons from the disaster? According to Satpathy, no. “There should be a disaster management system in place with roles clearly defined right down to who will be handling shrouds. But we have learnt nothing," he says. “God forbid, if something were to happen now, we will again begin from scratch."
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