By Abdul Hafees
Note: This feature story was written after attending a protest by the Bhopal Gas Tragedy victims, who had assembled at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on 10 November, 2014 and appealed to the government for a hike in compensation. And the protest was part of a month-long strike ahead of the anniversary of the disaster on 2 and 3 December.
Even after three decades, a nightmare haunts them across generations. They are still gripped by the horror of that night. The tragedy of the night has resulted in endless sleepless hours. What makes them edgy is that their children born after the disaster do not know the terrifying legacy that awaits them. While revisiting the dreadful memories after thirty long years, they seem not to have recovered from those panic-stricken moments as the scars re-erupt in the form of deep trauma.
Bhopal gas tragedy, which is referred to as ‘the world’s most devastating industrial disaster,’ had rendered nearly four thousand dead and thousands of inhabitants physically disabled, as per official estimates. Unofficially it was found that around ten thousand people had died. The disaster had occurred on the intervening night of 2 and 3 December, 1984. The Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), a giant pesticide plant in the country, witnessed a leakage of a toxic chemical gas, methyl isocyanate (MIC). While the people who lived nearby often looked at the plant with awe and some of them earned their livelihood there, they had never speculated that the chemicals produced there could end their lives one day.
Still traumatized by the incident that snuffed out their dreams, some of the survivors had gathered at Jantar Mantar, Delhi, about a month ago with placards in their hands and fire in the hearts. Many of them were old women. Five young women were observing indefinite waterless strike. As a result of the protests and timely intervention of the Amnesty International, the government further hiked the proposed compensation a little. After a settlement with the UCIL in 1989, the government paid a total amount of rupees 3842 crore to 5.74 lakh victims. After the revised estimate was approved, a group of ministers also sanctioned a hike in the redressal. Although the government had then filed for another 7786 crore, the case is still pending in the Supreme Court.
It is believed that if the authorities had tried to make them aware of the precautionary measures to be adopted in case of a crisis, the worst disaster could have been avoided. The U.S Company UCIL, which is accountable for the disaster, renamed Dow Chemicals now, has built a hospital in the same locality to treat the affected people. Warren Anderson, the then Union Carbide chairman, who died a month ago, was declared a fugitive and an absconder after the Indian government made several attempts to extradite him but he never appeared before the court. The company appeared completely indifferent to the fact that they have ruined the future of generations to come.
The victims along with their children still suffer from chronic diseases which can never be cured. “Over the past years, we witnessed only one change that was the closure of the factory; nothing else has changed. We still encounter problems of water intoxication, respiratory and, numerous other diseases,” says Sayeda Bi, a victim of the disaster, who lost some of her family members in the tragedy. Though health surveys were conducted along the site of the disaster by the concerned departments and organizations, no remedial measures were taken to purify the contaminated water and resolve other environmental issues.
After three decades of struggle, these people have nothing to lose. Some lost their breadwinners; some lost their future promises. A year ago, the doctors observed that “the probability of a baby being born with congenital anomalies is seven times higher in the disaster affected areas. The effect is evident even in the third generation.” There are around 1,000 children born with defects as a result of the disaster. Many of them would never enjoy a childhood and go to school because some of them experience acute breathing problems and suffer from physical disabilities.
Thirty years on, the victims of one of the worst disasters the world has ever seen are still living on the edge thinking of the ordeal that awaits their children.
Abdul Hafees is studying journalism at the Indian Institute of Mass Communications, New Delhi.
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