38th anniversary of Bhopal gas tragedy: Organisations representing victims write to the President expressing their concerns

On the occasion of the 38th anniversary of the Bhopal gas tragedy, the victims and survivors have sought the President, Draupadi Murmu’s attention to their continued suffering due to lack of inadequate medical treatment.

ON the occasion of the 38th anniversary of the Bhopal Gas tragedy, the Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udyog Sanghathan (‘BGPMUS’) and the Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti (‘BGPSSS’), the civil-rights organisations representing Bhopal gas victims, wrote a memorandum to the President of India, Draupadi Murmu, highlighting the concerns of the Bhopal gas victims and survivors.

Lack of medical facilities

The memorandum highlights the lack of medical care facilities provided to the victims of the gas leak disaster. It noted that Bhopal, back then, did not have the necessary medical facilities to provide adequate and appropriate medical treatment to all the gas victims and there was considerable delay in setting up new medical facilities. Therefore, the Supreme Court, through an order in 1991, had directed “a permanent specialised medical and research establishment with the best of expertise” to be established in Bhopal for the gas victims.

However, it was only after BGPMUS, Bhopal Group for Information and Action (‘BGIA’) and BGPSSS filed a writ petition, in 1998, that a new state-of-the-art medical facility was set up in Bhopal, in the year 2000, called Bhopal Memorial Hospital & Research Centre (‘BMHRC’) under the Bhopal Memorial Hospital Trust (‘BMHT’).

The memorandum notes: “Sadly, soon preference for treatment at BMHRC was provided to paying non-gas-victim patients due to which gas-victim patients found it difficult to get proper treatment at BMHRC.”

It further states that when the matter of discrimination against gas-victim patients at BMHRC was brought to the attention of the Supreme Court, the Trustee of BMHT was forced to resign in the year 2010 and the Supreme Court entrusted the management of BMHRC to the Union Government.

Further, it said, when the Union Government failed to provide adequate emoluments to consultants and specialist doctors at BMHRC, most of them resigned from BMHRC and joined several private hospitals that had been set up in Bhopal by then, the memorandum noted.

“As a result, since 2010, BMHRC has been left with very few Consultants and Specialist doctors to treat a large number of gas-victim patients”, the memorandum claimed.

Also read: Bhopal gas tragedy: Supreme Court to hear Union Government’s plea on additional damages to the victims

In response to the writ petition of 1998, the Supreme Court in 2012 directed the Union Government to recruit the necessary consultants and specialist doctors, computerise medical records, and restore the status of BMHRC as a super-speciality hospital. However, the said directions of the Supreme Court, the memorandum notes, have not been complied with by the Union Government and the State Government of Madhya Pradesh even a decade after the judgment was pronounced.

A contempt petition was filed in 2015, for non-compliance with the directions of the Supreme Court’s 2012 order and it is currently pending before the High Court of Madhya Pradesh at Jabalpur.

“As of today, there are over 4.5 lakh registered gas victims, who have sought medical treatment at BMHRC. Regrettably, these gas-victim patients at BMHRC and the hospitals and clinics under the Gas Relief Department of the State Government are being denied the best available treatment with the best of expertise for no fault of theirs,” the memorandum states.

At the same time, a unit of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (‘AIIMS’), which was established in Bhopal in 2012, has the entire wherewithal to provide the best available treatment with the best of expertise to non-gas victim patients. Despite a request from BMHRC, AIIMS (Bhopal) has declined to cooperate in providing the best available treatment to gas-victim patients.

This essentially means that gas victims in Bhopal are being denied “the best available treatment with the best of expertise” that is available to non-gas-victim patients in Bhopal, the memorandum states.

Inadequate compensation

The gas victims were provided inadequate compensation due to the unjust settlement between the Union Government and Union Carbide Corporation (‘UCC’) under the 1989 order, the memorandum said.

The memorandum questions the unjust settlement for a sum of $470 million (about Rs.700 crores) that was made on the assumption that only 3000 gas victims had died and another 1,02,000 people had suffered injuries of varying degrees.

According to the memorandum, the 1989 review petitions questioned the basis of the settlement, including the withdrawal of criminal cases against the accused. However, the Supreme Court dismissed the review petitions and the writ petitions, but restored the criminal cases against the accused, through an order in 1991.

After processing all the 1,000,000+ claims for compensation (from 1992 to 2004), the claim courts under the Office of the Welfare Commissioner, Bhopal, had determined that the total human casualty figures, including dead, was nearly 5,74,000.

The memorandum notes that since the claim courts had established that the magnitude of the disaster was more than five times the figures on which the unjust settlement was based, BGPMUS & BGPSSS filed an intervention application in the 1988 order in 2004 and sought enhancement of compensation by five-times. It was in accordance with the magnitude of the disaster as ascertained by the claim courts since the victims were only paid one-fifth of the amount that was due to them even under the unjust terms of the settlement, it said.

“Unfortunately, the Supreme Court dismissed the said application in 2007, although compensation that was received for 105,000 victims was dispersed among about 574,000 victims.”

Also read: The many Bhopal Gas tragedies behind India’s environmental law framework

The memorandum notes: “Subsequently, on behalf of 1,01,000 gas-victims, who signed individual petitions, BGPMUS &  BGPSSS filed another intervention application seeking clarification and modification on the 2007 order. In 2008, the Supreme Court disposed of the applications as withdrawn.”

According to the memorandum, in 2008, nine gas victims from BGPMUS & BGPSSS filed a petition before the Office of the Welfare Commissioner in Bhopal for the determination of issues regarding the magnitude and gravity of the disaster. However, the Court of the Welfare Commissioner dismissed the petition in 2009. Subsequently, the said petitioners filed a writ petition before the High Court of Madhya Pradesh at Jabalpur against the said order. However, that was also dismissed.

In 2010, they filed a Special Leave Petition before the Supreme Court. The matter is currently pending before the Court and will be adjudicated after the curative petition of 2010 is disposed of by the court.

Conceding the plea that the magnitude of the disaster was five times greater than the basis on which the settlement was arrived at, the Union Government, in 2010, filed a curative petition against the 1989 settlement order seeking an additional sum of Rs. 7,400 crores as compensation.

As per the memorandum, after admitting the said curative petition in 2020, hearings began before the constitution bench of the Supreme Court on October 11, 2022, when the Union Government submitted that it intends to pursue the curative petition.

However, the Supreme Court is yet to decide whether it would permit organisations representing the gas victims to be impleaded as parties, the memorandum said.

The next date of hearing is scheduled on January 10, 2023.

Poor state of the criminal case

Considering the pathetic pace at which the criminal cases against the accused in the Bhopal disaster cases are proceeding, there is very little hope that the accused would ever be prosecuted in their lifetime for the crimes they had committed.

The cases are still pending at the Bhopal District and sessions court and as of date, the gas victims have been denied permission to lead evidence. Until and unless a Special Central Bureau of Investigation Court is set up, the Bhopal disaster criminal case will linger on for several more decades, the memorandum has told the President.

No remediation

According to the memorandum, even after 38 years of the Bhopal disaster, the Union Government and the State of Madhya Pradesh are yet to properly assess the magnitude and gravity of the problem created by contamination of soil and subsoil water in and around the former Union Carbide pesticide factory in Bhopal. Preliminary studies have shown that about 1.1 million tons of soil alone are contaminated.

“However, no attempt was made to evaluate and suggest ways and means to carry out remediation of the contaminated site despite the Supreme Court issuing specific directions in this regard in judgment & order in 2012 in the 1998 writ petition,” the memorandum said.

Also read: Rajkumar Keswani’s warning about a gas tragedy in Bhopal fell on deaf ears

Poor rehabilitation

A comprehensive plan to rehabilitate the most vulnerable sections of the gas-affected, especially the orphaned, the widowed, the elderly and the differently-abled is yet to be carried out by the Government of Madhya Pradesh.

The total failure to computerise the medical records of all gas victims and provide a copy of his/her complete medical record in the form of a health booklet to each gas victim is one of the gravest disservices rendered by the government to the gas victims.

The memorandum requests the President to take up these issues with the Union Government and the Government of Madhya Pradesh and ensure that the Bhopal gas victims are rendered justice without further delay.

Click here to read the memorandum.