Madhya PradeshSHE

Bhopal Gas Disaster: Treading in Uncharted Waters

This the first story for the Bhopal Gas Tragedy series. It has been written by Anup Dutta in collaboration with Vikas Samvad: In the unrelenting struggle of Bhopal Gas Tragedy victims for justice, the activism that Aqeela draws is complex in every sense.

Bhopal: As dawn breaks, Aqeela Bi slowly finishes her household work below an azure sky everyday. After having meal, Aqeela, a gas victim takes a walk from Kamla Park locality to Central Library to reach Swabhiman Kendra (self-respect centre). It was founded by Padma Shri awardee, late Abdul Jabbar, convenor of Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan in Bhopal.

Here, Aqeela, a resident of Domni Gali, near Sulemania Kanya Shala- Ibrahimpura and others, mostly women activists, would work to support the struggle of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy victims.

“This is our place. When we and other gas victims fall sick or are unable to get treatment in special hospitals for gas victims or are unable to get medicines from these hospitals, Jabbar Bhai would make every effort to ensure that we should be provided best medical care,” says Aqeela Bi, who was diagnosed with cancer in the year 2017.

However, Aqeela decided to treat her cancer in a private hospital because of the consistent unprofessional performance of the government health institutions for the gas victims. It is worth mentioning that for treating gas victims, 24 Health Institutions were set up, according to Madhya Pradesh Government’s Relief & Rehabilitation Department’s Annual Report (December 2021) facts and figures. There are: one Super-Specialty hospital; two Specialty hospitals; three General hospitals; nine Day care units-dispensaries; three Ayurvedic dispensaries; three Homeopathic dispensaries; and three Unani dispensaries. A total of 664-bed facilities are available in the hospitals. The average daily attendance at OPD in various units is 1973 and the annual indoor attendance is 10495. The government also provides doorstep treatment to chronically ill gas victim patients.

Additionally, Right to Health is a part and parcel of the Right to Life and therefore Right to Health is a fundamental right guaranteed to every citizen of India under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. We all owe the recognition of this right to the fact that the Supreme Court of India, through a series of judicial precedents, logically extended its interpretation of the right to life to include the right to health.

However, the case considered here offers a heady combination of technical reports and significant thoughts by the Court.

The Quarterly Report that was submitted to the Hon’ble High Court on 30.06.2014 (Doc. No.6178/2014) by the ICMR or NIREH (Indian Council of Medical Research/National Institute for Research in Environmental Health) had noted as follows:

“The National Institute for Research in Environmental Health (NIREH), Bhopal, under the Indian Council of Medical Research came into existence on 11th October 2010 to focus on research on MIC affected population in the areas of (a) Respiratory Diseases; (b) Eye related Diseases; (c) Cancers; (d) Renal failure; (e) Genetic Disorders; (f) Congenital Disorders; (g) Women related medical issues; (h) Second generation children; and (i) Mental health and other relevant aspects.”

NIREH’s 2013 report [“Technical Report on Population Based Long Term Epidemiological Studies Part-II” revealed that: “During the acute stage [soon after the Bhopal disaster] 97 to 99 percent affected people suffered with respiratory and ophthalmic morbidities (98.2), with high abortion rate 523/1000 and general morbidities 98.99 percent. Since 1999 general morbidities are fluctuating below 23 percent. However, these symptomatic morbidities are higher than those seen in the control area [which was 8.6 percent].”

The NIREH report provoked two voluntary organisations Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udyog Sanghathan (BGPMUS) & Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti (BGPSSS), which are working among the gas victims, to write a letter to the Monitoring Committee, Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief & Rehabilitation.

In its letter dated April 17, 2023, the organisations cited the reasons that led to the filing of the contempt petition before the Hon’ble High Court. The document reads as follows: “We were compelled to file before the Hon’ble High Court the above-said Contempt Petition on 15.05.2015 due to willful and deliberate disobedience by the concerned officials of the Government of India and the Government of Madhya Pradesh of the directions of the Hon’ble Supreme Court to provide requisite medical care to the gas victims, including monitoring their health status, without further delay.”

In the 41-page letter, the organisations highlighted the failures of the Government in treating the gas victims on several counts.

It may be recalled that the Hon’ble Supreme Court in para 35(17) of the Judgment & Order dated 09.08.2012 in W.P.(C) No.50 of 1998 had directed as follows:

“We also direct the State Government and the Monitoring Committee to evolve a methodology of common referral system amongst the various medical units under the erstwhile BMHRC and BGTRRD to ensure that the gas victims are referred to appropriate centres for proper diagnosis and treatment in terms of the nature and degree of injury suffered by each one of them.”

Similarly, in para 35(18) of the same order, the Hon’ble Supreme Court had directed as follows:

“We also direct that the Monitoring Committee, with the aid of the Advisory Committee, NIREH and the specialized doctors of BMHRC, issues a standardised protocol for treating each category of ailment that the gas victims may be suffering from. This shall be done expeditiously.”

However, when the government and ministries failed to comply with the Court’s direction to prepare “A standardised protocol for treating each category of ailment that the gas victims may be suffering from” in over a decade, the two organisations pleaded before the Court to hold the government and the concerned ministries accountable for the negligence.

The story about the gas victims’ tedious journey for medical care seems to move from dispensaries to hospitals to governments and the courtroom and from the courtroom to governments to dispensaries and hospitals. There seem to be nothing wrong if Aqeela and several others like her doubt the quality of medical care rendered by the 24 established government health institutions. In the unrelenting struggle of gas tragedy victims for justice, the activism that Aqeela draws is complex in every sense. As you start unravelling her story of a slow, patient journey, one is struck by the paradoxical reality where the gas victims feel let down but are ready to carry on the fight themselves. They are unstoppable. Their pursuit of the right to health and medical care, with unlimited patience comes with the belief that whatever works is the best.


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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