The Statesman 13 Dec 2014
Abdul Jabbar

It seems the tribulations of Bhopal’s victims will never cease. The gas disaster was only the beginning. The settlement, with the meagreness of compensation, arrived at without hearing any victim, is among the many injustices that the victims have had to battle. Three situations show the growing distance between the victims and justice.

Drug trials on victims

In January 2010, I chanced upon a circular from the Director, Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre (BHMRC), dated 25 August 2008 directing the Departmental Heads of Cardiology, G.I. Surgery, Anesthesia, and Pulmonary Medicine “to suspend all the ongoing and proposed drug trials in your department with immediate effect”. The circular referred to a telephonic communication that the Director, BMHRC, had had earlier that day with the Secretary of the BMHT or Bhopal Memorial Hospital Trust.  (The BMHT was set up after the order of the Supreme Court in 1998 and stands dissolved by the order of the court dated 9 August 2012. BMHRC was established by the BMHT in 2000.) The subject heading was ‘Re: conduct of drug trials at BMHRC’.

This came as a shocker, and we tried to get information from the BMHRC about these drug trials. BMHRC however stonewalled us. By letter dated 11 February  2010, BMHRC turned down our request for information saying: “This is to inform you that the Hospital Trust does not fall under the purview of this Act. The Trust was constituted by the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India.”

Since then, some information regarding the clinical trials that were conducted at BMHRC during 2004-2008 has come into the public domain. It appears that at least 215 gas victims had been subjected to clinical trials. It seems that these were conducted at the behest of several pharmaceutical companies. As reported in the print and electronic media, the pharmaceutical companies included Theravance Inc., Wyeth Research (now part of Pfizer), Sanofi-Synthelabo (now Sanofi-Aventis), AstraZeneca, Schering and GlaxoSmithKline. BMHRC allegedly earned over Rs. 100 lakh for facilitating the process.

These clinical trials were to test “a new chemical entity” identified by a code number. As far as we have been able to ascertain, it was not an approved drug. Prior informed consent was not taken from the patients; some patients had their signatures taken on the consent form, but the forms were in English. The impact of the clinical trials of the new chemical entity has not been made public.

In fact, even family members have not been informed of those who suffered adverse impact or died.
This compelled us to move the Supreme Court asking that BMHRC provide complete documents about the clinical trials, patients enrolled, the result of clinical trials, deaths and who has been behind these trials. BMHRC cannot refuse to answer the court.

A dysfunctional criminal justice system

The lackadaisical manner in which the trial against the accused in the Bhopal disaster criminal case has proceeded for the last thirty years has made a mockery of the criminal justice system. Warren Anderson and Union Carbide Corporation were accused 1 and 11 in the charge-sheet. The case has been on the court’s docket since 1992, after the Supreme Court, in 1991, set aside the part of the settlement-orders that quashed the criminal cases against the company and its officials. Anderson and UCC did not appear at the trial. Anderson had been declared a ‘proclaimed absconder’ on 1 February 1992, as were UCC and Union Carbide (E) Ltd (accused 10). When UCC was acquired by Dow Chemical and became its wholly owned subsidiary, the Chief Judicial Magistrate issued notice on 6 January 2005 to Dow Chemical Co. to appear in the criminal case in UCC’s stead. This was in response to an application made by three organisations working among the victims, BGPSSS, BGIA and BGPMUS, on September 7, 2001. This order of the CJM was stayed by the Madhya Pradesh High Court at Jabalpur on 17 March 2005 at the urging of a purported non-party, and it was to be seven years before this stay was vacated, on 19 October 2012.

The CJM thereafter re-issued notice to Dow on 24 July 2013. Dow failed to reply to the notice, and fresh notice was issued to Dow to appear on 12 November 2014. One more deferral, and the date is now 14 March 2015.

As for Anderson, he was declared a proclaimed absconder on 1 February 1992, and non-bailable warrants have remained pending from 27 March 1992. It was May 2003 before the Indian government caved in to pressure and conveyed its request for extradition to the US government, which the US government rejected on 13 July 2004, citing technical reasons. In April 2011, the request for extradition was revived, after another non-bailable warrant had been issued in July 2009 and the CJM had re-issued a Letter Rogatory on 23 March 2011. The Indian government made no attempt to expedite the proceedings, although the matter was reportedly pending before the U.S. Administration since April 2011. That Letter Rogatory of March 2011 became infructuous with the death of Anderson on 29 September 2014.

Ground water contamination

In 1996, when the Madhya Pradesh Health Engineering Department’s State Research Laboratory tested water from 11 community tubewells, it found large amounts of chemicals dissolved in the water. The report concluded that “it is established that this pollution is due to chemicals used in the Union Carbide factory that have proven to be extremely harmful for health. Therefore the use of this water for drinking must be stopped immediately.” This did not prompt any action from the state government. On 7 May 2004, the Supreme Court had to direct the state government to immediately supply piped drinking water to those residing in the area around the Union Carbide factory site.

No one doubts the toxic waste that has seeped into the soil and contaminated the water, and which has been causing sickness among the affected population, is a legacy of the operation of the factory from 1969. Based on the polluter pays principle, it should be UCC, and now Dow Chemical, that should bear the responsibility, and liability, for cleaning up the site and compensating the affected people. Dow Chemical has, however, refused to own up to the responsibility, and that matter too is now in court.

There has been a gross underestimation of the toxic waste that needs to be cleaned up. What is being debated is the disposal of 345 tonnes of toxic waste that has been stored at the plant site.  But a preliminary study that was jointly carried out by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), Nagpur, and the National Geophysical Research Institute (NGRI), Hyderabad, in 2009-2010 estimated that “the total quantum of contaminated soil requiring remediation amounts to 11,00,000 MT”. The stoic indifference of the State Government to this daunting task is alarming.

(The writer is a survivor of the Bhopal gas disaster and Convener of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sanghatan)