Bhopal Gas Tragedy: Medical Research in the Aftermath of the Industrial Disaster

After the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, attempts were made to understand the effects of methyl isocyanide so that the victims could avail better treatment. However, time and again, relevant information from medical surveys was kept hidden. 

It has now been 35 years since the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, yet, the victims of what has been called the world’s worst industrial disaster have not received justice. The exact number of deaths and injuries remains debatable, with official numbers being contested by non-governmental organisations (NGOs). These organisations argue that the effects of methyl isocyanide leak continue to be felt among the people who live in the vicinity of the plant. Some of these organisations were able to file the Right to Information claims under which they found that ₹18 crore out of the ₹104 crore allocated by the Centre for economic rehabilitation of victims, was lost to corruption, while ₹86 crore has remained unutilised for the last nine years.” 

A recent report published by Down to Earth found that the doctors who had been working since the night of 2–3December, 1984, to collect samples to better understand the effects of methyl isocyanide have been ignored. The report quotes one forensic expert from the Hamidia Hospital in Bhopal as saying, 

“I waited for 20 years, but nobody came for the samples. In 2006, all samples, which were safely preserved at temperatures below -20 degrees Celsius, got destroyed when the hospital had a power cut for an entire day. I finally discarded them. Everybody knew that further studies were essential to ensure proper treatment to the survivors.”

The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has largely been in agreement with the NGOs in terms of the continuing effects of the gas leak. Logically, that would mean that the ICMR would be committed to conducting research on samples that were preserved from Bhopal to arrive at a better understanding of how the effects can be treated. However, the ICMR had abruptly stopped its investigations in 1994. 

In this reading list, we look at why the post-facto medical research after a tragedy of this magnitude was inadequate. 

Suppressed Data

Immediately after the night of the disaster, C Sathyamala and N D Jayaprakash write that  the central and state governments appeared to have been making efforts to map the impact it would have on the health of the people affected. The ICMR had been in the process of providing the gas-exposed families with a unique identifying number so that a sampling frame for long-term epidemiological studies could be developed. At the same time, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences had carried out the first systematic survey, which was funded by the Sir Dorabji Tata and AlliedTrust, since the then state government had refused to finance it. The findings of this survey were, however, suppressed. 

… the house-to-house survey was conducted from 1 January 1985 to the second week of February 1985, by “… [a] total of 478 students, 41 faculty members and 13 staff members cover[ing] 25,259 households” …  Based on post-mortem studies on the dead which indicated a “cyanide-like” poisoning, ICMR conducted a double-blind clinical study to assess the efficacy of Sodium Thiosulphate (NaTS), as an antidote to the poisoning and concluded, …the rationale for the use of sodium thiosulphate as an antidote has been established to ameliorate the lingering sickness of gas affected victims of Bhopal (ICMR 1985). Yet, the ICMR did not follow through with this recommendation both because of opposition from the powerful medical lobby in Bhopal which was heavily influenced by Union Carbide and because of the Indian government’s wavering stand. The MP government on its part decided to suppress the data collected by TISS which had been handed over to it in good faith. 

Reports Denied

In addition to the data that was suppressed, Satinath Sarangi writes that  workers themselves were denied their own medical reports from the periodic health check-ups that were conducted by the factory. Sarangi also points out how Union Carbide was actively involved in denying people healthcare, by eventually forcing hospitals funded by the Indian Red Cross Society to shut down by litigating against them in India and recovering $5 million, which, a New York court had originally ordered Union Carbide to pay to the Red Cross to aid the victims. 

In the years following the disaster workers of the Bhopal factory and survivors' organisations have made repeated requests for medical information on the leaked chemicals that have maimed them for life. Workers' requests for reports of their periodic health check-ups in the factory were turned down and the corporation asserted its right to withhold medical information from the survivors and their doctors as protected trade secrets. This has caused one of the most serious impediments in the medical care of the survivors. In the absence of adequate medical information, treatment of the exposure-induced health effects has largely remained symptomatic providing temporary relief, if at all. 

Underestimated Numbers

Part of the reason that rehabilitation efforts fell short was because, before Union Carbide could be held accountable in court, the company reached a settlement with the Indian government under which it would pay $470 million dollars for compensating the victims of the disaster so that they would be able to meet their medical costs. This redistribution was meant to be supervised by the Supreme Court, which developed a claimant classification system based on the severity of injury caused to each victim. But, as Paul Stanton Kibel and Armin Rosencranz write, original estimates identified 30,000 claimants, based on which the compensation calculated was estimated at approximately $14,500. However, as the official figures were contested, the number of claimants rose much higher, to about as many as 3,00,000, which meant that the amount each individual would receive would reduce drastically.  

The existing Bhopal settlement distribution scheme is based exclusively on compensating specific claimants for death or injury. This individual-based distribution scheme, by itself, fails to respond to the severe-medical and social consequences of the Bhopal disaster unless it is integrated with 'community- based' distributions which would fund institutions, programmes, and services that serve the larger, collective group of persons injured and adversely affected by the Bhopal accident providing effective long-term relief and assistance to survivors, and would serve as a landmark case of disaster relief. Under the Bhopal settlement distribution scheme envisioned by the Supreme Court, 30,000 individuals were expected to receive compensation payments. These individual compensatory payments were intended to cover a host of costs and concerns, such as pain and suffering, lost wages, and incurred and future medical bills. The amount of compensation that each individual was to receive would be determined by the severity and permanence of the individual's injury. 

Read More: 

Requirements of Justice | Armin Rosencranz and Sairam Bhat, 2010

Bhopal Gas Leak Case: Lost before the Trial | Sriram Panchu, 2010




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