Bhopal gas tragedy, death figure still eludes

Bhopal: Even after the passage of 27 years, a consensus — between the government and the NGOs — on the number of victims of Bhopal gas disaster is elusive. The leakage of methyl isocyanate gas from since defunct Union Carbide pesticides plant in Bhopal on the night of December 2 and 3 led to the worst industrial disaster in the world, in which thousands perished and many more suffered permanent ill-effects.

The two prominent NGOs which are fighting for the rights of the victims, namely, Bhopal Group for Information and Action (BGIA) and Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangthan, claim that actual figure of casualties is much higher than the official figure.

"Madhya Pradesh Government has put the death toll at 5,295 in an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court," said Rachna Dhingra of BGIA. But in another criminal petition filed in the apex court, government put the death toll at 15,248, she said, adding that it was for the government to tell which figure was correct.

According to Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), which had conducted a study titled `Health Effects of the Toxic Gas Leak from the Union Carbide between 1985-1994`, there were 2,500 deaths by 1985. Around 3,500 `spontaneous abortions` took place during the period 1984-1989. "The report further shows that 9,667 people died between 1985-1993 due to the after-effects," Dhingra said.

According to her, even if it was assumed that death rate due to after-effects of the tragedy between 1994-2001 was down to half of what it was between 1985-1993, and to one-fourth between 2002-2009, another 7,250 deaths must be attributed to the tragedy. Which meant, at least 22,917 persons had perished owing to the gas leak till 2009. Similarly, the figure of those who suffered permanent/temporary injuries too was uncertain, she said. Till 2004, over 3.5 lakh persons had approached Bhopal Memorial Hospital and other relief hospitals for treatment of gas-tragedy related ailments, Dhingra said.

Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangthan`s convener, Abdul Jabbar, said that after the tragedy, 15,274 death claims and over 5.73 lakh claims for injuries were filed, and very few were rejected. However, Madhya Pradesh minister for `Gas Tragedy and Relief`, Babulal Gaur, said the government had arrived at the death figure only on the basis of medical certificates. Jabbar said the actual figure must be higher. "God knows how long the survivors will have to wait for justice," he added.

Meanwhile, the anniversary of the disaster, an annual ritual which sees number of participants dwindling every year, would be observed tomorrow. Every year, the day witnesses burning of effigies of the then Union Carbide Chairman Warren Anderson, processions and demonstrations at the defunct Union Carbide plant. This year, some organisations have also decided to stage a rail-blockade for some time. One of the organisations has decided to stage a dharna in front of official residence of Chief Minister.

The progress of the court cases related to the tragedy offer a telling comment on the slowness of the system. The Chief Judicial Magistrate`s court here delivered judgement in the main criminal case only last June, sentencing the accused to two years` imprisonment. Then the Centre filed a curative petition in the Supreme Court against `dilution` of charges, but the Supreme Court said it should be heard by the district court. The matter is now before the district court.