Home / Opinion / Harsh Mander | Two blots on Indian democracy

India in 1984 witnessed two towering calamities. Both were man-made and both were marked by unconscionable state betrayals. A month after the killing of 3,000 Sikhs in the worst single episode of targeted communal violence in Delhi, a poisonous gas leak from a Bhopal factory into a sleeping city killed, according to one official estimate 15,000 people over the years, and left a long bitter trail of chronic ailments in numerous people among an estimated half million exposed to the poisonous gas. Three decades later, these colossal catastrophes continue to cause suffering from unimaginable psychological and physiological damage to survivors and their children. It also exposes the callous and persisting state neglect and indifference, and spectacular failure of justice.

The assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards on 31 October 1984 was followed by a cynically organized pogrom against Sikhs in New Delhi. The Bhopal casualties arose from a different source of human malfeasance: the criminally careless leakage of around 40 tonnes of a highly poisonous gas methyl isocyanate (MIC) from a pesticide factory owned by Union Carbide.

The large number of fatalities in both these calamities could have been averted had governments acted fairly and promptly. A number of commissions and committees confirm the shameful failure of senior civil and police officials to prevent rampaging hate-mobs in Delhi: they became willing accomplices of an appalling political conspiracy to use public anger at the prime minister’s killing for the political windfall of a violent retribution against an entire community. In Bhopal, the state administration was largely absent. As public health experts N.D. Jayaprakash and C. Sathyamala recount, Union Carbide officials kept insisting that MIC was only an irritant and not lethal. With the concurrence of state officials they opposed administration of sodium-thiosulphate which was the only known antidote to cyanide poisoning, and which if had been applied could have saved many lives and prevented the aggravation of injuries. Governments also failed disgracefully, over the decades which followed to secure assistance for survivors to heal and rebuild their lives. The riot survivors were initially given a small monetary death compensation, which was enhanced later by court interventions. But governments did too little to help survivors rebuild their livelihoods, and even less to mitigate the grave psycho-social burdens which the survivors—especially widows and young children—carried.

The Bhopal story is even more dismal. Jayaprakash and Sathyamala record that while every attempt was made officially to underplay the magnitude of the disaster, very little effort was made to provide proper medical care to the gas-victims or to ensure that adequate compensation was paid to them based on the actual degree of injury suffered by them. The shocking conclusion of an earlier report by independent public health experts Against All Odds, was that “the Directorate of Claims, Bhopal, has ‘defined’ away the injuries of more than 90% of the victims as ‘no injury’ or ‘temporary injury’".

Intervention by courts provided some limited succour to survivors in both instances. After prolonged litigation, the Supreme Court held that the survivors of the anti-Sikh carnage should be compensated on the same norms as the Motor Vehicles Act, which led to a steep increase in their death claims. In Bhopal, the apex court directed that independent epidemiological surveillance systems for gas victims should be established to determine compensation levels and health responses. But the government and Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) made little effort over the years to identify all gas victims, monitor their health or give them adequate healthcare.

The court also ordered in Bhopal that lifelong health cards be given to all. Thirty years after the disaster, less than 10% have such cards and most are denied health services for their ever-mounting range of ailments. ICMR took 20 years to admit that it should have administered sodium thiosulphate for treatment of those exposed to MIC, but as a Medico-Friends Circle report points out, no one was held accountable for this enormous failure to administer this known therapy to most of the victims.

The failures of criminal justice to hold those responsible for both these carnages is even more unconscionable. Despite valiant battles against threats and impoverishment, widows of 1984 fought epic battles for legal justice, yet three decades later not a single prominent leader who openly led the mobs of 1984 has been punished; those convicted are foot soldiers. In the case of Union Carbide criminal liability for the crimes of what was world’s largest industrial disaster has been given up in favour of civil liability of monetary compensation and that too at a tiny fraction of what would have been payable had the dead been US citizens.

These are profound multiple miscarriages of justice and reparations for survivors of these man-made disasters. They’re a dishonour to India’s democracy, governance and legal systems.

Harsh Mander is a former member of the National Advisory Council.

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