Bhopal's wounds are yet to heal

Lalit Shastri

BHOPAL: Not only have the Union Carbide Corporation and Dow Chemical Company remained unpunished for the Bhopal gas disaster, but the latter is also expanding its business in India. This was emphasised by the founder of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action and the managing trustee of the Sambhawna Trust, Satinath Sarangi, on the eve of the 21st anniversary of the gas disaster that ravaged Bhopal on the night of December 2-3, 1984.

In an exclusive interview to The Hindu , Mr. Sarangi said that during his recent U.S. visit, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met Dow Chemicals president Andrew N. Liveris. This despite the U.S. refusing to send the former UCC chairman, Warren Anderson, for facing trial here.

Even more surprising were reports that the Dow Corning Corporation of the U.S. was setting up a unit for producing silicon-based products in Pune, Maharashtra. Mr. Sarangi said the unit could cause cancer among communities in the vicinity of the silicon plant.

Activists are also angry that Dursban, a Dow insecticide, was being sold freely in the country. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had banned its use in homes and gardens in 2000, citing possible health risks to children.

Mr. Sarangi said the State Government did not know how to dispose of safely the toxic waste abandoned in the Carbide plant. Objections on the improper disposal methods adopted by the State Pollution Control Board were upheld by the Madhya Pradesh High Court.

The contamination of drinking water has also not been tackled by the State Government and the local authorities. More than 18 months have passed since the Supreme Court issued orders to provide safe drinking water to those living near the Carbide plant and who were being forced to drink water from hand pumps polluted by the toxic waste inside the plant. Even now, residents of areas near the plant were getting only one-fifth of their daily water requirement by tankers in the absence of any alternative arrangement.

Two reports submitted to the Supreme Court by a monitoring committee pointed out that there were serious problems with the hospitals set up for the gas victims. They said the doctors were not reporting for duty on time, and costly machines and equipment were either malfunctioning or were not in use.

Healthcare problems

Another serious problem was that people were coming back to the hospitals with the same symptoms — more than 20 years after the disaster.

For augmenting medical facilities, the Supreme Court had asked UCC in October 1991 to set up a special hospital for the gas victims. It responded by setting up the Bhopal Hospital Trust (BHT) in the U.K. in February 1992 with just $ 1,000 as contribution.

Funds for the hospital were collected by selling UCC's Indian shares that had been confiscated by the Bhopal district court. In 1998, BHT was converted into the Bhopal Memorial Hospital Trust. It was in news recently as its junior doctors and staff went on a strike demanding better pay and working conditions.