Fate of Bhopal victims offers no solace to Gujarat's quake-affected
The Times of India, 2nd February 2001


A victim of a natural disaster like an earthquake can console himself that it was the "cruel act of the God". But what succor does one offer the victims of a manmade disaster like the lethal gas leak from Union Carbide Corporation's Bhopal plant 17 years ago, especially when they continue to suffer from the callous attitude of bureaucrats.

These officials are supposed to take care of the victims for whom the Indian government had entered into a full and final settlement agreement worth $470 million (Rs 715 crore in 1989) with the multinational corporation.

Though the death toll in the world's worst industrial disaster has crossed 16,000 by now, the government - acting as the guardian of the victims - has granted death compensation in only 5097 cases. it took at least 11 years for the settlement officers to declare that only those many persons were killed in the disaster and no more.

The settlement officers mercilessly rejected the claims of thousands of dependents of the victims. And, even while granting compensation for death, the officers fixed varied amounts for different categories of death victims. The maximum amount of Rs 3 lakh or above for a death was given to only 19 families, Rs 2 lakh or a little above was paid to another small section of 76 dependents, and above one lakh rupees to 5002 claimants. Even a person killed in a road accident is awarded a reasonable amount by the courts.

The government has told the Lok Sabha that 6,375 claims "were not proved as death cases" and they were compensated for suffering "personal injury". Whatever the government meant by that, the civil and criminal law stipulates that even a minor injury if it results in death becomes a major case where the victim must be treated accordingly.

In all 6.19 lakh claims were reported to have been filed, the government said. Of these, 2.72 lakh were rejected and 6.14 lakh cases disposed even as the number of gas victims continues to increase due to unforeseen effects of the toxic MIC gas, particularly on pregnant mothers.

The existing number of dead persons apart, the procedure for treatment adopted by officials is surely going to multiply the number of dead. A Supreme Court lawyer who recently visited the gas victims in Bhopal was shocked to see that the super-specialty hospital set up for them have only empty beds. To get admission in these hospitals, the patients suffering from cancer, tuberculosis and respiratory problems have to produce certain documents such as the final settlement order. Failing which the referral hospitals are not obliged to admit the patients.

The lawyer has described these hospitals set up after the apex court's intervention as "five-star complexes having rose gardens, granite and marble floors, posh porticoes, elevators and what have you".

Tragically these hospitals do not have OPDs. The Bhopal residents who were afflicted with cancer in the aftermath of the gas leak continue to suffer in anguish as they are too poor to buy medicines and are unable to satisfy the all-powerful settlement officers that "they indeed belong to the below the poverty line strata".

"What does the poverty line have to do with cancer. It is the duty of the doctors to treat a patient in the hospitals specially set up for the victims of the disaster", an anguished lawyer said, adding: "The victims suffering from pulmonary diseases, cancer and eye ailments will continue to suffer despite the government receiving aid from UCC and other agencies for their rehabilitation and medical care.....This is an inhuman approach".

It is clear that Bhopal gas victims have now become the victims of the government's neglect and procedural bottlenecks created by bureaucracy.

Though the Supreme Court had justified granting approval to the $470 million settlement amount saying that any delay in rushing relief would be fatal for the victims, it may now order an expert committee probe into the goings-on in Bhopal to avert another man-made disaster caused by wilful negligence of a callous bureacracy and its heartless procedures.