Alive and dead in the gassed Old Town

Two decades after the Bhopal gas tragedy the victims have been reduced to abject suffering by the political and medical establishment, reports Betwa Sharma
As a law student in Bhopal and documentary filmmaker, I have been a witness to the lives of the gas victims. Here, I will try to establish the pitiful condition of the victims after 22 years vis-à-vis indices of compensation, health, environment and social justice.
The affected people have received compensation through diverse channels in the last two decades. Initially, they were placed under different categories based on the severity of their injuries; 90 percent of them received Rs 25,000 which is the minimum amount given for the least serious injuries. Then there was compensation for ‘special categories’ like widows and orphans. These too were negligible sums.
The tragedy occurred in 1984, the compensation was distributed in 1992. For the most crucial years soon after the tragedy — the people had no monetary aid to fund their medical expenditure, no source of livelihood. To rectify this extreme set of problems, an interim compensation of Rs 200 per month was provided. The interim compensation that was awarded was eventually deducted from the final compensation that was distributed to the people.
Who robbed me of my eyes? Victims of the gas tragedy in a protest
This issue has yet to be resolved. Over the past 22 years, the condition of a victim may have deteriorated or newer ailments may have emerged, but what good would Rs 25,000 do? It was pitiable 20 years ago — now it is simply unacceptable.
The strategic thinking of the judiciary and the government over the years has been unpredictable. In retrospect, the initial move of parens patrie which awards sole guardianship of the victims to the government, restricting them from filing individual suits and seeking redressal from the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), has done little to secure any aid for them. They had little or no role to play in the proceedings and eventually were stuck with the paltry sum of Rs 470 million agreed upon by the Union of India and UCC in an out-of-court settlement. How and why this settlement was reached will remain a mystery, although it wasn’t completely unexpected, as the amount demanded by the government kept decreasing at every stage of the legal battle and some of India’s sharpest legal minds continued to back the UCC. Parens patrie did nothing more than dish out an inadequate amount of compensation to mute and ailing spectators after a prolonged, agonising wait.
To make matters worse there was no source of income: the business and capacity to work had been immobilised. Medical bills were exorbitant and there was no certainty that people were being given the required treatment. Medical negligence and lack of knowledge on the part of doctors and institutions like the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) was astounding. There were sustained efforts by the UCC to downplay the medical injuries caused to the victims.
Even as the years passed by, the terrible situation did not improve, the secrecy and collusion on the part of the Indian authorities with the UCC in connection with medical research made matters worse. The complete details of the components and effects of the methyl isocyanate gas have still not been released by the UCC office in the US. The medical infrastructure provided in the early stages was minimal; hundreds of victims were cramped in two-three hospitals. Today, seven medical institutions have been set up through various judicial orders. These, till date, are not fully functional, their state of the art equipment is rusting as doctors do not have the expertise to operate them and patients do not have the money or inclination to use them. After two decades, the agencies put in place, to make these people ‘healthier’, have abjectly failed or rapidly failing.
Old wounds still simmering: protest rally in Bhopal: AP Photo
A small respite came with the historical Supreme Court order for pro rata distribution of compensation in October 2005. This basically meant that all the victims who had received compensation in 1992 would get the same amount in 2004-05. This essentially means that 90 percent of the people would once again receive Rs 25,000. The first controversy came with the proposal to extend the number of wards in which the money was to be distributed. This met with opposition — a fixed sum of money was to be distributed to a larger number of people in wards that had not even been affected! Was this a ploy by ministers and politicians to enlarge their vote bank?
This issue is yet to be resolved. The distribution of money was a mechanical process wholly disconnected with the nature of injury suffered by the person. Over the past 22 years, the condition of a victim may have deteriorated or newer ailments may have emerged, but what good would Rs 25,000 do? It was pitiable two decades ago — now it is simply unacceptable.
But the pro rata distribution advocates made a strong case by pointing out the obvious glitch of ‘false claims’. This implies that a victim would have to prove that he was entitled to a higher sum of money on account of a serious, persisting ailment due to the effects of the gas and not due to any other reason. Requirement to produce this kind of medical evidence would put a tremendous burden on the victim — most of them are barely literate and may not have retained the relevant medical records. Besides, distributing compensation based on individual medical cases would make execution of the apex court order a long-winding process, defeating the objective of expeditious disposal of money and would only add to the existing backlog of cases.
Does this mean that the order has been used by the establishment to dispose off the remaining liability while feeling morally satisfied? Or was it a prudent move to secure the interests of a large gamut of the victims?
To be continued…

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