Where's the ev­i­dence?

Ques­tions are be­ing raised about the authenticity of foren­sic sam­ples of Bhopal gas vic­tims, cru­cial for es­tab­lish­ing the cause of deaths. Have they been lost?

Down to Earth - - CONTENTS - SOMA BASU |

The foren­sic sam­ples of vic­tims of the Bhopal gas tragedy avail­able with the gov­ern­ment may not be au­then­tic. Are they lost?

Tafter the Bhopal gas tragedy, there is no HIRTY YEARS jus­tice in sight for the sur­vivors of the world’s worst in­dus­trial dis­as­ter. To make mat­ters worse, the au­thor­i­ties have no foren­sic ev­i­dence of the dis­as­ter. It would have proved to be the most cru­cial ev­i­dence in the on­go­ing tri­als and would have also helped un­der­stand the ill-ef­fects of methyl iso­cyanate (mic)—the poi­sonous gas that leaked from the Union Car­bide pes­ti­cide plant in Bhopal and killed thou­sands on the in­ter­ven­ing night of De­cem­ber 2-3,1984.

Shock­ingly, most “sam­ples” that are avail­able, such as pre­served foe­tuses from preg­nant women that be­came the cover photographs of mag­a­zines, might not be those of the tragedy vic­tims. “There is not a sin­gle sam­ple in our in­sti­tute which we can say for sure be­longs to the gas vic­tims,” says D S Bad­kur, di­rec­tor of Medico-Le­gal In­sti­tute (mli) in Bhopal, the gov­ern­ment body that col­lected foren­sic sam­ples from the dis­as­ter site.He main­tains that the in­sti­tute did not have a sin­gle foren­sic sam­ple of the vic­tims when he took charge in 2009.

The foren­sic sam­ples are vi­tal be­cause In­dia at that time hardly knew any­thing about mic. “The sam­ples of or­gans af­fected by mic would clearly im­pli­cate US multi­na­tional Union Car­bide (now owned by Dow Chem­i­cal) as no other company was mak­ing the gas in the coun­try then,” says Ab­dul Jab­bar, con­venor of Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog San­gathan.

The cases in which the sam­ples were put up as ev­i­dence are still pend­ing in the courts of the dis­trict mag­is­trate and dis­trict ses­sions

judge. “The peo­ple named in the chargesheet are in­flu­en­tial.The sam­ples were tested by a gov­ern­ment body and not by any in­de­pen­dent body. What if the ac­cused claim that the vic­tims did not die be­cause of mic? The ev­i­dence to prove that is lost,” says Jab­bar.

A 2010 re­port of In­dian Coun­cil for Med­i­cal Re­search (icmr) on the Bhopal gas tragedy says Heeresh Chan­dra, who was the di­rec­tor of mli at the time of the dis­as­ter, re­ceived 731 bod­ies in De­cem­ber 1984, the month the dis­as­ter took place. But with the large num­ber of corpses pil­ing up in the first three days, com­plete au­topsy was car­ried out only on 283 bod­ies. Another 337 were ex­am­ined only ex­ter­nally.The au­topsy on the re­main­ing bod­ies were car­ried out later.

Im­me­di­ately after the gas leak, nearly 400 sam­ples were sent to var­i­ous gov­ern­ment or­gan­sa­tions, in­clud­ing the De­fence Re­search In­sti­tute in Gwalior, Pathol­ogy In­sti­tute in New Delhi, icmr in New Delhi, In­dian Tox­i­col­ogy In­sti­tute in Lucknow, Foren­sic Lab­o­ra­tory in Gu­jarat and the Cen­tral Bureau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion in New Delhi.

D K Sat­pa­thy, who took over as di­rec­tor of mli from Chan­dra in 1990, says 200 sam­ples were kept in a huge freezer at the in­sti­tute. Ac­cord­ing to him, he had em­ployed two per­sons to guard the freezer be­cause the pre­served or­gans could help in es­tab­lish­ing the cause of death. “Since it was ex­pen­sive to pre­serve the sam­ples, I wrote let­ters to icmr, De­fence Re­search In­sti­tute and var­i­ous other in­sti­tutes, ask­ing what should be done with the sam­ples. No­body showed in­ter­est,” he says, adding that per­haps the Cen­tre or the state did not want to dis­pose of the sam­ples as they “were scared of be­ing ac­cused of be­ing bribed by Union Car­bide for the de­struc­tion of med­i­cal ev­i­dence”.

But, Sat­pa­thy claims, dur­ing a long power cut in June 1999, the freezer stopped func­tion­ing and most of the sam­ples got de­stroyed. He says only a few sam­ples that “were kept in for­ma­lin” were saved. The sam­ples in­clude ba­bies and foe­tuses, the photographs of which have been used in many sto­ries on the tragedy car­ried in lead­ing pub­li­ca­tions. “I handed over all th­ese things to the in­sti­tute when I re­tired, ”he says.

How­ever, Bad­kur, who took over as di­rec­tor of mli after Sat­pa­thy, says the photographs can­not be of the Bhopal vic­tims as “there was not a sin­gle sam­ple” when he joined. “Even I am sur­prised when I see pho­tos of foe­tuses in mag­a­zines and news­pa­pers claim­ing they are of the gas vic­tims, ”he says. Bad­kur was joint di­rec­tor at the in­sti­tute when Sat­pa­thy was in charge.

Manoj Pandey, di­rec­tor of Bhopal Memo­rial Hos­pi­tal and Re­search Cen­tre and Na­tional In­sti­tute for Re­search in En­vi­ron­men­tal Health, two of the in­sti­tutes where Sat­pa­thy claims to have sent the let­ter, says, “Who­ever says he had writ­ten to us ask­ing what should be done with the sam­ples is ly­ing.We never re­ceived such let­ters.”

When asked about the sam­ples col­lected dur­ing au­top­sies of Bhopal vic­tims, V M Ka­toch, di­rec­tor gen­eral of icmr, said he has no in­for­ma­tion. “This is the first time any­body is ask­ing me about the sam­ples. I will have to find out.”

No lessons learnt

One of the rea­sons why peo­ple con­tinue to suf­fer from the ef­fects of the leaked gas even 30 years after the in­ci­dent is that very lit­tle re­search has been un­der­taken on how to com­bat mic, says Bad­kur.It could have been pos­si­ble with the help of the sam­ples that no longer ex­ist. “While there is enough med­i­cal data which shows ge­netic mu­ta­tion in mic vic­tims, au­topsy stud­ies have not been done to sub­stan­ti­ate it,” he says. Worse, the state gov­ern­ment stopped mon­i­tor­ing mor­tal­i­ties caused by mic in 1992.

In Jan­uary 2009, icmr in­vited re­search pro­pos­als to study the ef­fects of mic poi­son­ing. But the med­i­cal fra­ter­nity showed lit­tle in­ter­est in it. In the ab­sence of good pro­pos­als, the coun­cil has kept the call for re­search open till it gets some sig­nif­i­cant pro­pos­als. Ka­toch says the call for pro­pos­als was an op­por­tu­nity to de­velop an an­ti­dote for cyanide poi­son­ing. “icmr can’t ask sci­en­tists to study sub­jects that do not in­ter­est them. Though ge­netic ab­nor­mal­i­ties have been seen, there hasn’t been enough study to es­tab­lish the ex­tent of ge­netic mu­ta­tion. To un­der­stand cyanide poi­son­ing bet­ter, con­crete stud­ies have to be done,” he says. Please read the next spe­cial is­sue of Down

To Earth, com­mem­o­rat­ing the 30th an­niver­sary of the Bhopal gas tragedy

Th­ese sam­ples of pre­served foe­tuses and ba­bies that made the cover photographs of mag­a­zines might not be of the vic­tims of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy. They are kept at the Medico-Le­gal In­sti­tute in Bhopal

Mo­hammed Umer is the third-gen­er­a­tion vic­tim of the gas tragedy. The five-year-old has dif­fi­cul­ties bal­anc­ing him­self and has a stunted growth

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