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Why action came too slowly to treat victims of Bhopal gas tragedy?

This is the fourth story for the Bhopal Gas Tragedy series. It has been written by Anup Dutta in collaboration with Vikas Samvad: Today’s android-fixated generation may not even be aware that the scene was much worse than a war that changed the lives of many for generations and even shaped Bhopal, the state capital’s political and cultural history

Bhopal, Jabalpur, New Delhi: The entire stretch from Karbide Karkhana (Union Carbide Plant) to Hamidia Asptaal (Gandhi Medical College – largest hospital of the Indian state – Madhya Pradesh) facing Taj-ul-Masajid one of the largest mosques in India was split over with hundreds of people struggling to breathe and bodies with froth and foam settled on the mouth, burst eyes and swollen abdomen lying in the hospital premises following the 2-3 December Bhopal Gas Tragedy. On the backside of the same Hamidia Asptaal, facing Dhai Seedhi Ki Masjid, one of the smallest mosques in India a team of doctors were taking a different shot on hundreds of mangled bodies.

Today’s android-fixated generation may not even be aware that the scene was much worse than a war scene that changed the lives of many for generations and even shaped the state capital’s political and cultural history. But there was a time when the area was Bhopal’s lifeline.

On the day of the leak, Dr Chandra (Dr Hireesh Chandra, head of the Department of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology at Gandhi Medical College, Bhopal) and a team of doctors from the Gandhi Medical Center began performing autopsies and quickly discovered that many of the victims had been poisoned not only by MIC but cyanide as well; the reaction that led to the leak of MIC produced cyanide and several other toxic chemicals, writes Derrick Jensen in his book titled The Culture of Make Believe.

That afternoon, Chandra recommended injecting victims with sodium thiosulfate, a universally recognized antidote for cyanide poisoning, wrote Jensen in his 285-page book.

The presence of cyanide on the bodies gave a little more significant revelation than it should. In all this, a telex message titled ‘Treatment of MIC pulmonary complications’ travelled from Union Carbide Corporation’s (UCC) West Virginia plant. In his message, Dr B H Avashia wrote: “If cyanide poisoning is suspected, use amyl nitrate. If no effect, sod. nitrite -0.3 gm. and sodium thiosulphate 12.5 gm. I.V. for two to four minutes. Can be repeated [half dose] as a prophylactic measure.” His message is published on page no 5 The Hazards Bulletin & Bhopal Newsletter, dated  November 1987, February 1988, published by Bhopal Group of Information Action, c/o Eklavya organisation.

bhopal gas disaster victims survivors treatment
Picture by Prakash Hatvalne

Chandra’s recommendation and message from Union Carbide Corporation’s (UCC) West Virginia plant turned out to be the saviour both for the hundred and hundreds of children, women, pregnant women, parents, and grandparents struggling to breathe lying in semi-unconscious states in the Hamidia hospital premises and to the stressed and exhausted health care workers treating them.

The question with which I charge myself is, can UCC, now owned by Dow Chemicals, be a little prompt to send this message? A day after the autopsy reports, two -days after the arrival of the telex message and five days after the Bhopal Disaster, eminent German toxicologist Dr Max Daunderer reached Bhopal from Berlin. Max was not alone. He landed with a large supply of sodium thiosulphate, the only known antidote for cyanide poisoning.

After the briefing and the autopsy reports Dr Max made a demonstration before the healthcare officials and team.

‘With the help of a Drager Tube, he demonstrated successfully a cyanide level of about 2 ppm in the blood of dead victims (Hankinson, 1986). Until the end of December the dead bodies showed a pronounced Cherry Red Colour of the blood, and some a pink colour thereafter (Figure 3.9)’, says the 151-page report titled Health Effects of the Toxic Gas Leak from Union Carbide Methyl Isocyanate Plant in Bhopal Technical report on Pathology and Toxicology [1984 -1992] published by Director-General Indian Council of Medical Research Department of Health Research.

The hypothesis seemingly worked. Dr Chandra, Dr Avashia and Dr Max were able to find a path of recovery for the victims.

bhopal gas disaster tragedy survivors treatment
Picture by Prakash Hatvalne

Dr NR Bhandari the Medical Superintendent of the State-owned Hamidia Hospital (attached to Gandhi Medical College, Bhopal) and the first clinician to attend to the victims found victims regaining visibility and relief to distention.

In his book titled “25 Years of Bhopal Gas Tragedy: Inside Story and Untold Truths,” Dr Bhandari wrote that both (Dr Max and Dr Chandra ) had found that sodium thiosulphate, when administered intravenously, led to improvement in the patients affected by the gas with no side effects. However, Dr Bhandari was quick to make another startling revelation.

In that case, UCC was aware that MiC could decompose into cyanide once it entered the body, Dr Bhandari wrote.

Activists working among the gas victims feel that both UCC and the Indian establishment underplayed the magnitude and grievousness of the disaster in properly assessing all its ramifications.

“There was an obvious harmony of interests between Carbide officials and the Indian Establishment. The most telling instance in this regard relates to the denial of sodium thiosulphate (NaTS) therapy to gas victims because UCC was desperate to hide the presence of the highly toxic hydrogen cyanide (HCN – one of the reaction products of MIC) and NaTS was a known antidote for cyanide poisoning,” says paper titled “The path to sustainable development: Lessons from the Bhopal disaster”, presented at the Right to Development Anniversary Event organised by the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations Organisations, Geneva on December 2, 2014, the eve of the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster. The paper was presented by ND Jayaprakash, joint secretary, of Delhi Science Forum and co-convenor, Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti (Coalition for supporting the cause of gas victims).

bhopal gas disaster tragedy victims treatment
Picture by Prakash Hatvalne

However, on the background of grief and despair, medical treatment and the intended purpose of such treatment, another development was taking its own course. The Union Health Ministry abruptly banned the use of sodium thiosulphate when it was found that sodium thiosulphate, injected intravenously, had started providing relief to victims.

Subsequently, Dr Max was told to pack up and leave. Before leaving, Max met Indian officials, and explained about his works, supposedly findings and suggestions.

He met the officials of the Union Health Ministry and placed all the evidence before them, says a report titled Bhopal Gas Disaster – Mockery of Relief and Rehabilitation appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly.

A news report quoting KN Pradhan [late], the then Member of Parliament, Bhopal says that of the over one lakh needing sodium thiosulphate, only five per cent have been lucky enough to get the injection.

The fine print which has received very little media attention is that three months later in March 1985, the government reversed the treatment by recommending Sodium Thiosulphate injection only to be disrupted again in June 1985.

A regrettable feature of all this is that instead of a more favourable international environment, one more rejection and suspicion stuck with the gas victims.

The government should take up the case as one which mirrors many of the issues relating to the failure of the treatment of the gas victims to uphold law and order and protect the vulnerable. In both the cases, a good administration (both the centre and the state) would have commenced the legal process of charge and prosecution.

Indeed, asking the question is as powerful as dealing with the answer- that if streets of Bhopal were stained by bodies oozing foam, burn & burst eyes and swollen abdomen, the question with which I charge myself (not swayed by the emotion) is that the Act was Bad (deletions mine).

Of course, there are setbacks, but let us return to the key issue that needs to be reviewed: first, what the Governments (the Centre and the State) did upon receiving the telex message from UCC? What questions have the Governments (Centre and the State) slapped before the UCC for sending the message so late? Secondly, why was the use of sodium thiosulphate allowed, then stopped, restarted again and stopped finally?

The gas victims had many disappointments for not living by the truths they were told. On this one, they definitely want to hear facts and truth and doesn’t our Constitutional order guarantee them this?


Anup Dutta is a fellow of Vikas Samvad Constitution Fellowship 2022.

Anup Dutta

is a multimedia freelance journalist based in Bhopal. He reports on people, politics, policies, health, art and culture.

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