Bhopal: The disaster continues

Lalit Shastri

On June 7, 2010, the Chief Judicial magistrate of Bhopal had pronounced the judgement sentencing each of the seven accused, who stood trial, for 2 years holding them guilty of negligence leading to the poisonous gas leak from the Union Carbide pesticide plant in the capital of the central Indian State of Madhya Pradesh on the midnight of December 2 and 3, 1984. Immediately after the judgement, those convicted under section 304-A and sections 336, 337 and 338 of IPC, were released on bail.

A window to the final stage of hearing in the criminal case linked with the Union Carbide gas disaster in the CJM’s Court in Bhopal: During the last leg of replies from both sides just before the verdict was pronounced, the CBI had lifted the entire argument from my book “Bhopal Disaster -An eyewitness account” published in1985, and told the court that Union Carbide had transferred an obsolete and outdated plant to Bhopal when they had developed a far more advanced plant at Institute in West Virginia, USA. When the counsel for the accused confronted the CBI lawyer on this, he had responded by saying that CBI team did not go to the US to verify this. On the other side as a private investigator, journalist and author I had gone there before raising this issue in my book.

Gas victims feel let down: The gas victims have been left utterly disappointed by the judgement. They have felt let down by the verdict that came over twenty-five years after the disaster. Victims and survivors have felt cheated as they think that the accused were tried under a highly diluted charge of culpable homicide not amounting to murder. Its been a common verdict of the people that those who should have been tried for mass homicide have been given a free ride home. The issue of the then chairman of the US multinational Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), Warren Anderson, who was arrested, released on bail, and allowed to leave Bhopal by the State Government aircraft within a matter of just a few hours on December 7, 1984 has haunted the citizens without end. What pains them the most is that Anderson is now dead without being punished for causing the Bhopal disaster.

I wrote this for The Hindu in 1996 to expose the bungling by Government of India and CBI when it came to seeking the extradition of former Union Carbide Chairman Warren Anderson -Lalit Shastri

Click here for the Warren Anderson Story

There is specific provision under section 221 CrPC. It says: If the person who is bound to apprehend an accused but lets him off or lets him escape, can be convicted for the offence depending on the severity of the offence for which the accused was apprehended. Under an offence committed under Section 304-II IPC, when the punishment is 10 years for accused, if a person helps the accused in escaping, he can be punished for 3 years and fine. In the Bhopal gas disaster case, the district administration has admitted that Anderson, the prime accused, was arrested. The then district collector has gone on record saying that he was released on bail on the orders of the chief secretary. Even if he was ordered to do so, as Government servant, he was not bound to obey the order which was against the law. As district magistrate, he should have stood up and told the chief secretary that under section 304 B only the court can grant bail. Surely it was an illegal act to save an accused and help him escape from the country.

The gas disaster left in its wake over 20,000 dead and hundreds of thousands critically injured and wounded with irreversible lung damage. People were blinded and the immune system of countless citizens was adversely affected and there is no count of those who have been crippled for successive generations.

The residents of Jai Prakash colony, just like those living in kenchi chola and adjoining neighbourhoods close to the now abandoned carbide plant, are angry and raging at the outcome of the criminal case, which got delayed firstly because the Supreme Court chose to close the chapter of criminal liability, when it approved the out of court settlement for $470 million in 1989 and secondly due to the legal process leading to the Supreme Court order, which allowed the charge to be converted from 304-11 (allowing maximum sentence of 10 years) to 304-A, which allows a maximum sentence of 2 years.

Hazira Bi symbolises the suffering

Hazira Bi lives in Jai Prakash Colony, right across the ill-fated Union Carbide pesticide plant. It is one of the several shanty towns that were hit the worst when tonnes of deadly methyl isocyanate leaked into the air from the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal on a cold wintry night in December 1984. Narrating her tale of horror and suffering on the night of the disaster, Hazira said:

“I was sustaining myself and my family by rolling beedis. It was a cold night. After a peaceful day I had retired to bed along with my three children—Manzoor (7 years), Mansur (4 years) and Mahfooz (11 months).” She said that her daughter Saira (10 years) was with her grandmother in the same neighbourhood that night. Around midnight, her husband Maqsud went out but came back screaming about something in the air. We too felt as if hot ground pepper had been sprinkled in our eyes as the door had been left open. As breathing the air became painful, we all ran out on the street, Hazira said.

She had tears in her eyes when she said that in those moments of panic she even forgot to pick her youngest son Mahfooz as she ran for life. On the road there was a virtual stampede. Everyone in her neighbourhood was running for safety. After some time, she decided to return for her child, whom she had left behind. Reaching her house by 4 a.m, she found her child listless but still breathing. Along with some volunteers, she went to the Carbide plant, where some doctors were already attending to those hit by the poisonous gas. They gave them a tablet for symptomatic treatment and administered some eye drop to treat their eye condition.

Hazira said that her youngest son who is now 26 years old was married to a gas affected girl. Their girl child Tahiba was born a paraplegic due to the affect of MIC on her unsuspecting parents.

There are many Hazira’s in the gas affected area. So many years after the disaster, local populations are also vulnerable to exposure to the toxic chemicals through routes such as polluted ground water and direct contact with contaminated soil or inhalation of contaminated dust. The HCH and other organochlorines can also be passed on in the milk of cattle that the locals graze on the site.

The victims who were not fatally affected, have either gone blind or have suffered severe eye condition. The affect of the gas on eyes depended on various factors, mainly duration of exposure, concentration of the gas in the atmosphere, distance of the affected person from the site of the disaster and what the affected person was doing at the time of the exposure—whether one was asleep or out in the open. A large population is also suffering from pulmonary and other serious disorders. People have suffered irreversible lung damage and their immune system has been compromised for life. They tend to fall sick more often and their working capacity has been badly affected.

More than 20, 000 people residing close to the Carbide plant, who are being routinely exposed to contaminants in their ground water. Contaminants that can cause damage to the liver, kidney and can cause cancers and birth defects and this is happening routinely. The source of the contamination of ground water near the Union Carbide’s abandoned factory is the chemical waste generated in the factory from the time it began its operation in 1971. These wastes-highly toxic chemicals like chlorobenzenes, dichlorobenzenes, trichlorobenzenes, lindane and PCBs–chemicals that can cause cancer, birth defects and a whole range of systemic damages, were dumped both within the factory premises and outside the factory in a landfill but the landfill was leaking from 1981 onwards.

The victims have received monetary compensation. But this does not come to the rescue of a large population that is gas affected and is susceptible to falling sick more often due to their weak immune system. These victims are finding it difficult to perform the normal day to day economic activity. The minimum they expect from society is a better environment to live in and some concrete steps towards their economic rehabilitation.

Leela Bai: Survivor in the Midst of death

Leela Bai with son Jagdish (Photo by Lalit Shastri)

Leela Bai has painstakingly woven the warps and wefts of life building a pattern that should symbolise bravery and singularity of purpose. She is a survivor in the midst of death and destruction and has stood her ground braving the onslaught of the worst industrial disaster that struck Bhopal when tonnes of deadly methyl isocyanate leaked from the Union Carbide pesticide plant a stone’s throw from her two-room tenement in Jaiprakash colony, which was a slum cluster of about 800 houses when disaster struck on that wintry December night 25 years ago.

Asked to narrate what she went through that night, Leelabai said:

“It was a laidback Sunday and we had decided to call it a day rather early. My in-laws were sleeping in the adjoining room while I slept with my husband Balram and daughter Rani (4 years), in the front room. Around midnight, Balram opened the front door and went out but within no time he returned wailing and shouting. By then Rani was also sitting in bed coughing and rubbing her eyes. I was fast asleep, my face covered with quilt. The commotion woke me up and soon I realized that there was something poisonous in the air that was suffocating and blinding us in no time. Others sleeping in the next room also began coughing. Within minutes, we were on the street running for life. There was chaos all around. As we ran, breathing became difficult and our lungs started choking. I could feel a searing pain in my eyes. After running a short distance, I asked my husband to return home instead of running clueless in the open. After defying the poisonous cloud that had descended on us, we came back to our shack and bolted ourselves inside. No words can describe those horrifying moments. Early morning, we heard the voices of doctors and volunteers, who were already there to offer medical help and relief. We were one of the two families in that area that stayed back. Many of those who ran for fresh air drowned in their own body fluid and had died. Our small stock of sheep also perished. A few streets away, there were dead bodies scattered all around.

My daughter suffered severe lung damage and my husband too was badly affected by the poisonous gas. As our daughter needed immediate medical attention, we went to Hamidia hospital in the morning of December 3. The journey from our house to hospital was a nightmare. In the hospital, the doctors were struggling to attend to patients who were arriving by the hundreds. The hospital complex was littered with dead bodies. Victims with vomit-stained bodies lay all around. A doctor rushing through the corridor gave us a few seconds. Thrusting some tablets in my hands, he asked us to immediately gulp them. He also told the volunteer accompanying him to give us some eye drops.

All of us were hit by the poisonous gas but we were more worried about the fate of Rani, who was limp and gasping for breath. She grew up as a weak child and over the years her life revolved only around hospitals and doctors. Two years after the disaster, my son Jagdish was born. He is a weakling susceptible to falling sick every second day. When he was eight, we were told by doctors that he was suffering from diabetes and ever since he is on two daily shots of insulin. He went to a government school at Arif Nagar nearby but since he was incapacitated, he could not continue his schooling beyond the ninth grade. Now Jagdish at 30 is frail and looks barely 10 or 11.

With two children, both of them suffering, we tried our best to rebuild our lives. Balram, who has been crippled with a severe respiratory condition, has been working as a daily wager in a factory where he earns a meagre Rs. 50 per day. I could augment the family’s income for a couple of years by working at the sewing centre especially set up by the Government for the gas victims. But after its closure, I lost my ability to go for any other economic activity due to deteriorating health and failing eye sight. My daughter Rani was married three years ago. She died of multiple organ failure this April leaving behind her son Mohit. My son-in-law and Mohit—both stay with us.

In terms of full and final settlement of our claims, my husband Balram, our deceased daughter and I—the three of us received Rs. 25000 each. As interim relief, Rani was paid Rs. 10,000 while I got Rs. 16,000. This was besides an interim relief of Rs. 200 per month, which we received for a short period. All this money has already been exhausted. Our days are numbered and there is no solace when I think of my grandchild and son, who continue to suffer.”

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