Bhopal Gas: GoM skirts the issues
Posted June 28, 2010on:
The Group of Ministers (GoM) has been a disappointment. Its members believe that just throwing a package of Rs 1500 crore at the survivors of the world’s biggest industrial disaster will solve the problem. They have not applied their mind to the problem and taken into consideration why the survivors today are in such a miserable condition in spite of hundreds of crores of rupees having been spent in the name of redressing their grievances over the decades.
The GoM has failed to come up with an effective mechanism to ensure medical rehabilitation of the victims and also to suggest avenues of providing them some means of earning their livelihood, suitable to their physical condition. Besides, it is also necessary that the additional compensation that the government now intends to pay reaches the right persons and not the fraudsters.
It will not be out of place to give a broad idea how the unscrupulous got the upper hand. When the tragedy struck in the middle of the night and the people inhaled the poisonous gases and started choking, thousands of them fell down and died instantaneously. The others, who could, ran away helter-skelter. Unfortunately, the politicians, the bureaucrats and the judges, who were later to frame the rules, were not present there to advise them to take with them their ration cards and other papers of identification for seeking compensation decades later.
When the Supreme Court accepted the survivors’ plea to pay them interim relief (out of the settlement fund of USD 470 million) five years later, they were asked to produce papers of identification. Most of the gas-affected people were poor and illiterate and had been living a wretched life since the night of December 2-3, having lost their dear and near ones, without means of livelihood and harbouring in their bodies a host of afflictions caused by the gas inhalation.
Then the smart ones became active. The going rate for making a ration card of 1984, for instance, showing the address in one of the gas affected localities in 1991 was Rs 800 to Rs 1200. When the Claims Courts (as provided for in the Central Act on the Bhopal Gas Disaster) became functional in 1990-91, these smart ones filed their claims supported by neat documents. A majority of the genuine sufferers were not even in control of their ailing bodies and did not know where their papers were; they had not been able to put their households in order.
Another scourge of the victims was their medical categorisation. The survivors were grouped into several categories according to what the medical officers considered was the extent of their injury. There, too, money played its role. Those who could pay were put in categories of graver injuries. The genuine sufferers could not pay; for one thing, they were sure of the harm to their bodies being recognised, and secondly, they did not have the money to pay. They were mostly put into the lowest category, worth Rs 25,000 compensation (minus the interim relief that had been paid to them).
Those who had minor physical problems initially developed grievous symptoms later on. In some cases, the symptoms started appearing many years later and then made the victim crippled in one way or the other: some became unable to walk, others lost their speech, and the others developed serious heart, lung, liver or kidney problems. The young women lost their periods and became incapable of reproduction. But they were not put into proper categories of injury, and in some cases in no category at all.
They were denied proper treatment. They were asked to purchase medicines from the market for which they hardly had any money. The truckloads of medicines purchased exclusively for the gas victims were diverted for sale in the black market to Agra and other places. The NGOs working for the victims had been able to impound such consignments a few times and report the matter to the authorities and also complain to the Lokayukta. Nothing happened.
The judges manning the Claims Courts took bribes to fix and decide the compensation claims. The lawyers acted as their touts. The doctors took bribes to depose in the court on behalf of a victim. Those who had become gas victims by purchasing fake papers did not mind parting with some of the compensation amount. It was hard on the genuine victims. The NGOs brought these goings-on to the notice of the Madhya Pradesh High Court and also went in a petition to the Supreme Court. Nothing happened.
Gaur and Aquil
The earlier allocation of over Rs 70 crore for cleaning the environment in the gas affected areas was spent on construction works, mostly far away from the gas affected localities. Babulal Gaur, as minister of Bhopal gas relief and rehabilitation, had overseen the spending of that money. He is again holding the same portfolio and his only grouse seems to be that the Centre is not doling out enough money to help his cronies in the bureaucracy and the construction business to become richer. Gaur had told the Madhya Pradesh Assembly in 1992 that the gas victims were now quite well off and were no more in need of government assistance.
It’s not that the Congress minister did better. Arif Aquil, who in the Opposition was always shedding tears for the gas victims, was made minister of Bhopal gas relief and rehabilitation by Digvijay Singh. Aquil turned out to be worse than Gaur. Not only most of the gas relief related scandals took place during his tenure, but he behaved like an agent of Dow Chemical, the American company into which the Union Carbide Corporation was amalgamated.
Some gas victims’ organisations had preferred litigation in a US court seeking exemplary compensation for the environmental damages, among other things, from Dow Chemical and the erstwhile Union Carbide. When the hearing in the Federal Court of New York was going on, Aquil gave a statement in the Madhya Pradesh Assembly that the chemical wastes dumped on the premises of the defunct Union Carbide pesticides plant had no toxic substance and did not contaminate the ground water in the surrounding localities. Not only that, Aquil visited the gas-affected localities and got himself photographed while drinking a glass of water drawn from one of the hand pumps to show that the water was not contaminated. A similar statement was given in Parliament by Maneka Gandhi, who was minister at the Centre. The attorneys for Dow Chemical and Union Carbide were reported to have promptly produced these statements and Aquil’s photograph in the New York court in their defence.
One doubts that the GoM has taken these factors into consideration.