Madhya Pradesh

Bhopal’s Heartache: Election Results Day Clashes with Gas Tragedy Anniversary Ignites Outcry

39 years later, Bhopal still gasps for justice and Madhya Pradesh election results day amplifies pain

Bhopal: The Election Commission of India is all set to announce the results of four state assembly elections together on December 3. As the political parties anxiously await the results in line with the predictions and exit polls, the anticipation among the voters is also visible. However, the choice of the result announcement date has sparked anger among the residents of Bhopal. December 3 holds significance as it marks the 39th anniversary of the Bhopal gas tragedy, a devastating industrial disaster that unfolded on the intervening night of 2-3 December 1984. The tragic incident claimed at least 25,000 lives and left thousands of individuals grappling with severe health issues.

Activists, survivors, and healthcare professionals have voiced their concerns about the insensitivity of choosing December 3 as counting date. It holds deep significance for the people of Bhopal. The clash between political priorities and the ongoing repercussions of the industrial disaster raises questions about the commitment to addressing the long-standing issues faced by the survivors.

Last minute revision in Mizoram’s counting date

Interestingly, the Election Commission has revised the result declaration date for Mizoram from December 3 (Sunday) to December 4 (Monday) citing that the commission had received various requests to change the date of counting from Sunday to any other weekday on the ground that December 3 (Sunday) marks a special significance for the people of Mizoram. The Election Commission revised the date of counting. Mizoram is the fifth state which went to polls on November 7. The counting date for the other four states Telangana, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan will remain the same.

On November 10, five organizations working for gas victims wrote a letter to the chief election officer (CEO) of Madhya Pradesh, requesting him not to announce the election results on December 3, the anniversary and mourning day of the world’s worst industrial disaster. The candidates fighting assembly polls also registered their complaints in this regard.

The survivors of the Bhopal gas tragedy are disappointed with the decision of the election commission. They say that it is a strategy to wipe out the pain and suffering, gatherings and protests, and to deviate the minds of people from the horrific disaster. Anwar Jahan, who recently went through an eye surgery spoke to eNewsroom. Her eyes weakened after the gas tragedy. “It is ridiculous that the result declaration date of one state can be changed because of religious importance while thousands of deaths and severe ailments remain ignored. When the gas leaked we didn’t know what that itchy substance was? Without knowing what was happening we ran with our small children to save our lives. We saw corpses of men, women, and cattle on the way. Can there be any excuse to downplay that? asked Jahan.

On Friday, hundreds of people staged protests across Mizoram demanding to change the counting of votes for the State Assembly election held on November 7. The Christian-majority state of Mizoram devotes much of their Sundays to the Church and associated religious activities.

The toxic substance Methyl Isocyanate leaked from Union Carbide (India) Ltd (UCIL), a subsidiary of the US-based Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) owned by Dow Chemical Company. The factory was situated on the outskirts of Bhopal, merely 2-3 kilometers away from Bhopal station. According to a report from the UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO), over 30 tons of poisonous gas adversely affected more than 600,000 workers and residents in the vicinity. The report highlighted that this disaster ranked among the major industrial accidents worldwide since 1919.

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Suboor Khan, a 10-year-old gas victim, participated in a press conference commemorating the 39th anniversary of the world’s worst industrial disaster, along with other survivors and victims | Courtesy: Chingari Trust

Survivors and alarming healthcare

Nasreen Bee was five years old when the gas leaked. She was admitted to the ICU in Hamidia Hospital for fifteen days because of a toxic case. Her father, brother, uncle, and aunt died in the aftermath of the gas tragedy and now her son suffers the complications passed through her because of poisonous gas.

Speaking to eNewsroom, Nasreen Bee said that people mourn the loss of their loved ones on this day. Now there will be noises of drums, crackers, and celebrations. The government itself mourns and marks the Bhopal gas tragedy by paying tribute to gas victims. Yet they ignored it. “The Chief Election Officer of Madhya Pradesh did not respond to our letter. When they can hold the result for 15 long days then what is the harm in holding it for the 16th day? This is a deliberate move to erase the Bhopal gas tragedy from the people’s memory,” said Nasreen.

In a press conference, Dr. Shweta Chaturvedi, a yoga therapist at the clinic, shared concerning statistics about Bhopal survivors under care. Since January 1, 2022, 22 of the 3832 individuals receiving care have passed away. Notably, 64% of these deceased individuals had been diagnosed with Hypertension, and 45% had Diabetes Mellitus. In 8 out of 10 cases, the deceased had both Hypertension and Diabetes. The third most common diagnosis among the deceased was respiratory illnesses, including Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).

Nitesh Dubey, a Registration Assistant at the clinic highlighted data from their records. Among 6254 individuals receiving care, those with a history of gas exposure were more than three times more likely to be diagnosed with Diabetes, Coronary Arterial Disease, Neuropathies, and Arthritis compared to those without gas exposure. Additionally, diagnosis of Hypertension, Acid Peptic disease, Asthma, COPD, Cervical spondylosis and Anxiety disorders were twice as common among survivors of the gas disaster.

The Sambhavna Trust Clinic has been running amid a severely affected community since September 1996. It has provided long-term care to 36-thousand persons exposed to toxic gas and contaminated water. They have won several national and international awards and their research published in international journals.

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Gas tragedy survivor elderly women, Rasheeda Bee (in white) and Champa Devi Shukla (in black & red) paying tribute and demanding justice for the victims | Courtesy: Chingari Trust

Condemnation and concerns

Activist Rachna Dhingra from the Bhopal Group for Information and Action strongly condemned the results date, labeling it an attempt to downplay the Corporation’s crimes with equal involvement from the government and now the Election Commission. She questioned the silence of Madhya Pradesh Chief Election Commissioner when the dates were announced. “Bhopal gas tragedy is a global issue. These people are complicit in the crimes committed against half a million people. There is no closure as the disaster persists in various forms—ongoing groundwater contamination, harm to the next generation, lack of proper medical care or rehabilitation, and the absence of punishment for those responsible for the Bhopal tragedy. Disaster isn’t a distant memory but an ongoing reality, with people succumbing to gas-related ailments, cancer and kidney diseases even today. If these political parties have any shame they will refrain from celebrations regardless of the election result,” Rachna reminded the political parties.

A report released by the Sambhavna Trust Clinic in February 2023 revealed that cancer is 2.5 times more prevalent in Bhopal gas tragedy victims compared to an unexposed population in other parts of the city. Women in the gas-exposed population were also found to be more likely to get lung cancers.

Let’s assume that the Election Commission was unaware of the gas tragedy, but what excuse does the Madhya Pradesh government have for not objecting? questioned activist Nawab Khan.

“The mourning and protest is not allowed but the celebrations have no restrictions. They want to merge the six hospitals and nine gas victim dispensaries with the health ministry. It is a complete erasure of the Bhopal gas tragedy. Narela is the most gas-affected area. Gas Relief Minister Vishwas Sarang gets votes from this area but fails to serve the gas victims,” said Khan.

Speaking on the official plans to close down the department set up for the welfare of the Bhopal survivors, Rachna informed, “We have recently come across an official document marked confidential that lays out a plan to close down the Department of Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief & Rehabilitation (BGTRR). The plan scheduled to be discussed at the next meeting of the state cabinet proposes handing over the 5 hospitals and 9 dispensaries run by the BGTRR to the Departments of Health & Family Welfare and Medical Education.”

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