Academic journal article Social Justice

"Just like Any Other City": The De-Gasification of the Bhopal "Gas Relief" System

Academic journal article Social Justice

"Just like Any Other City": The De-Gasification of the Bhopal "Gas Relief" System

Article excerpt

On December 3, 1984, an unprecedented chemical exposure, resulting from an explosion at a Union Carbide Corporation pesticide factory, poisoned the residents of the city of Bhopal, the capital of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. At least 5,000 (some estimates say as many as 23,000) people died from inhaling methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas and its breakdown products, including hydrogen cyanide, phosgene, and monomethylamine. At least 20,000 inhabitants--perhaps as many as 200,000 people--were left permanently disabled and more than 500,000 were exposed.

Medical researchers saw the Bhopal gas leak as a tragic disaster, but also as an opportunity to study the consequences of a devastating mass chemical exposure. Scientists from the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) commented in 1985 that studies on gas exposure should "be continued over a long term, as in the Hiroshima study" (Morehouse et al. 1986, 31), which has lasted 60 years and is ongoing. However, in the end, no comprehensive medical monitoring (1) was conducted on the affected population, and the only large-scale epidemiological study in the affected areas, conducted by ICMR itself, was methodologically flawed (Sundar Rao 1993, 228) and their publication was delayed. ICMR stopped conducting epidemiological research in Bhopal after 1994. (2) Today, despite ICMR's work and many independent studies, no scientific consensus exists regarding the ongoing morbidity and mortality from the gas exposure. However, ICMR's epidemiological research, only released to the public in 2010, (3) suggests that there was continuing illness due to the disaster. When they terminated their studies, the morbidity rate remained higher in gas-affected than in control areas. (4) There is also evidence that gas survivors have been subject to genetic damage of uncertain consequence (Mallaet al. 2010).

In this article, I discuss the government gas relief hospital system that was developed to treat survivors of the gas disaster over the decades that followed the tragedy. I look at the state of the infrastructure in the system to assess whether it is really designed for, or reserved for, the needs of gas survivors today. I then discuss the attitudes of medical practitioners within the system, who, in part because work like ICMR's epidemiological study above was not continued or widely disseminated, tend to see gas survivors as "fakes" and the gas disaster as a generic kind of harm not worthy of special services. Finally, I look at the ways in which these factors have combined overtime with bureaucratic and financial decision-making to undermine the status of the survivors within the system that was built in their name, resulting in a progressive "de-gasification."

Gas Relief

Beginning in 1985, the government of the state of Madhya Pradesh laid plans to build a "gas relief' system, which was a set of hospitals where the gas-exposed could get free medical treatment in perpetuity. Yet by the time most of the hospitals were completed, in the late 1990s, the time of crisis--when the most needed component was hospital beds--was more than a decade past. This had been clear for some time. In the mid-1990s, the International Medical Commission on Bhopal recommended that "in order to establish an adequate health-care system the community level and the primary level of the health-care pyramid should be developed" (ibid.). However, the gas relief system continued to add large hospital-based inpatient services rather than significantly strengthening community health. Despite its flaws, the gas relief system was at least reserved for gas survivors for most of its existence. However, in 2010 the state government instituted a scheme called the Patient Welfare Committee (Rogi Kalyan Samiti), which gave access to the gas relief hospitals to anyone for a nominal fee of ten rupees ($ .16) (Department of Public Health and Family Welfare Madhya Pradesh 2010). After 2010, therefore, the gas relief system no longer exclusively served the needs of the exposed, even though the state had not shown that there was no longer a need on the part of the gas-exposed to have services reserved for them. …

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