The finest achievements in the stadiums of London pale in comparison to the determination of the young participants at the Special Olympics in Bhopal.

In Bhopal, a day before the glittering opening of the 2012 London Olympics, children with physical and mental disabilities born to parents exposed to the lethal poisonous gas 27 years earlier participated with gusto and verve in a Special Olympics. If the Olympics represent the triumph of the human body and spirit over all odds, the determination and cheer displayed by the children with damaged limbs and minds in Bhopal that summer day could match the finest achievements in the stadiums of London.

The Special Olympics were organised by activists and parents to protest the sponsorship of the Olympic Games by Dow Chemicals. A decade back, Dow bought the Union Carbide Company, responsible for one of the world’s deadly industrial disasters. The Indian Council of Medical Research estimates that over 5,20,000 persons exposed to the murderous MIC gas which leaked from the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal on the night of December, 2, 1984, had poisons circulating in their bloodstream, causing different degrees of damage to almost all the systems in the body.

More than 27 years later, it is estimated that well over 1,20,000 chronically ill survivors and their children continue to be in desperate need of medical attention. People in areas directly exposed to the gas report that unusually high numbers of deaths of younger people continue to occur. It is officially estimated that around 5,000 people have died due to causes which can be directly attributed to the gas exposure, but unofficial estimates of the on-going death toll are much higher, even at over 30,000.

I recently visited many homes in the impoverished settlements which were exposed to the gas. People everywhere spoke of being haunted by chronic, lingering sadness, memories that just do not fade, panic and fear, the inability to hold jobs and relationships, and the extinction of hope. These are classical symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, documented in many major natural and human-made catastrophes globally. There has been little sustained official and professional effort to address these treatable psycho-social disorders, therefore tens of thousands of forgotten and impoverished survivors of the gas-leak, and their children, continue to endure great misery.

The ailments of the body are no less crippling. The poisonous gas damaged lungs and eyes the most. Experts report that people suffer continuous breathlessness, a rasping persistent cough, aggravation of diseases like tuberculosis, chronic bronchitis, and pulmonary fibrosis, permanent reduced vision, and early age cataracts. People also endure a range of neuro-muscular failures, resulting in loss of memory and limb sensation, fatigue and weakness.

Women are worst hit, with menstrual disturbances and premature menopause. Activists suggest an increased rate in gas affected families of birth defects, disabilities and deformities, growth retardation and chromosomal aberrations, and higher onset of gas-related cancers. However, the exact nature and extent of these longer-term impacts of the toxic gas, and how these can be treated and prevented, require far greater and more rigorous research.

Need for substantial research

Part of the on-going tragedy of Bhopal is the abysmally poor research into the health impacts of the gas leak on the affected population. The central body ICMR abruptly stopped research after 1994. It handed this responsibility to the Centre for Rehabilitation Studies of the Madhya Pradesh government, whose research experts describe as “worthless” because of poor methodology, slipshod data collection and inadequate analysis. Srinivasa Murthy, senior psychiatrist, remarks bitterly: “All this leads one to think of the situation as not one of lapses but a deliberate design to mask the real impact of the disaster”, to minimise the liability of the private company and governments for the death and continued suffering of many hundred thousand men, women and children.

The government reports substantial spending on “medical rehabilitation” of affected populations, to the extent of Rs. 366 crores as of March 2009. It has established an impressive infrastructure of one super-speciality, two speciality, four general, two polyclinics and 14 dispensaries, with expensive equipment and a battery of specialists. The official medical interventions have favoured capital intensive super-speciality hospitals, which offer greater scope for corruption, private practice and service to the elite.

Impoverished patients with lingering, chronic ailments would benefit far more from primary and secondary clinics, which are located within affected communities, and are much more accessible to and empathetic with the suffering people. There is need for substantial government-funded longitudinal research into the health impacts and treatment of gas-related ailments, comprehensive individualised records, development of mandatory appropriate treatment protocols, and regular reviews of the needs and impact of the care being provided.

Instead, the impoverished affected population remains mostly under-served. People report unending queues, long waits, cursory and unsympathetic treatment, and that many prescribed medicines are unavailable in the hospital pharmacies. The major problem is that doctors bargained hard and secured the right to see private patients, and these remain their priority. Srinivasa Murthy, who relocated recently to Bhopal 15 days every month to contribute to the healing of the minds of the survivors, declares: “We have failed in our national responsibility to care for the survivors of the Bhopal disaster for 28 years, and the question is: do we want to continue in the same manner?”

The Olympic Games in London are indeed permanently tainted by the cynical acceptance of the organisers of sponsorship by the inheritors of a company which wrought such enormous suffering without end of several hundred thousand innocent people in Bhopal. But the burdens we carry in India are far greater.

Everyone has let down the survivors — the Central and State governments, the industry, health professionals, scientists, lawyers, and ordinary people. A great part of the suffering of the survivors of the gas leakage could have been prevented or reduced if the State, the company and professionals had done their duty to them. Until this alters, there seems no end in sight to the agony of the men, women and children who were exposed to poisonous gas that fateful winter night nearly three decades back.