Whether it was bureaucratic callousness or political cover-up, the fact that the only comprehensive survey of Bhopal gas victims ever to be undertaken has yet to see the light of day 25 years later is likely to add to the controversy surrounding the disaster.
The Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) study was significant since it was the only comprehensive survey of the extent of damage wrought by the gas leak. The survey was initiated just two weeks from the date of the leak in 1984, while the victims were still visibly suffering from the consequences of inhaling deadly methyl isocyanate gas.
“It was much more comprehensive than any other government survey done till date and could have revealed some important information. That's probably why the State government never made its findings public,” says Satinath Sarangi of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action.
The survey was conducted by TISS along with the students, faculty and staff of several other social work institutes from all over India. A total of 478 students, 41 faculty members and 13 staff members covered 25,259 households in a period of six weeks.
The TISS team visited Bhopal at the request of the then Commissioner of Relief and Rehabilitation for gas victims. Since the State government refused to finance it, the survey was funded by the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust.
“Our team reached Bhopal on 8th December 1984,” says TISS Director, Dr. S. Parasuraman, who was a member of the survey team. “We then went back to Mumbai to organise the survey and returned to Bhopal towards the end of December. The survey started on January 1st and was completed in the second week of February,” he says.
Filled survey forms were handed over to the State government which promised to return them to TISS once they were processed for data.
However, this never happened even after repeated reminders to the then Chief Minister Arjun Singh.
“It was a truckload of data and TISS did not have large frame computers to process it then,” says Ms. Armaity Desai, former Director of TISS, who headed the survey team.
“Since the MP government had the computers, CM Arjun Singh persuaded us to leave the data with them. They later asked us for an analysis of the data which we sent and that was the last we heard from them,” says Ms. Desai.
Asked whether there was a political motive behind the concealing of data, she concurred. “What else could it have been since the survey findings were so crucial and complete? I even intimated Rajiv Gandhi about it when he visited TISS in 1985 but nothing came out of it,” she says.
And did she talk to Arjun Singh about it? “He would be the last person I would talk to since he was the one who probably buried it all,” she replied.
The survey findings included information about the number of people dead, orphaned children, pregnant women, lost domestic animals, injuries, breathing complications, and blindness among other crucial data.
The findings of the survey probably remain buried in old files of the Directorate of Gas Relief and Rehabilitation. J.T. Ekka, Director, Gas Relief and Rehabilitation refused to talk about the issue after repeated attempts.
“It was a cover-up bigger than most would imagine. It would have determined the exact scope and extent of the damage and compensation. No wonder the government buried it,” says Abdul Jabbar of the Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udyog Sangathan.