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Carbide cash going abegging

By Sudhir K Singh

BHOPAL: There is a sneaking, rear in some quarters that the left-over of the compensation money - a whopping Rs 700-800 crore- for victims of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy may be claimed back the US-based Union Carbide Corporation in case it goes undisbursed.

The funds have been lying in the custody of the Supreme Court registrar since the Carbide management agreed to cough out $470 million (Rs 715 crore) as compensation following an agreement with the Indian Government in March 1989.

However, the actual amount disbursed since has been much larger because of delayed payments and the resulting accretion of interest on the principal sum. Unofficial estimates say about Rs 1,100 crore may already have been paid to about five lakh affected families spread over 36 wards in Bhopal.

Former state chief secretary and four time BJP MP from Bhopal Sushil Chandra Verma told The Times of India News Service that it was precisely to avoid the relapse of the money to Carbide that the suggestion to extend the compensation cover to inmates in 20 more municipal wards (almost wholly in new Bhopal) was given in 1998. In fact, he had even resigned his Lok Sabha seat in protest against the "injustice" done to the denizens of these wards.

Critics had then accused him of "playing politics" with gas money and pandering to the BJP plank which dictated that the beneficiaries of the Carbide funds should extend beyond the Muslim-dominated population of old Bhopal.

Verma said that with just about 25,600 cases remaining to be settled, it was almost certain that the lion's share of the remaining dollars would go back into Carbide's kitty. Welfare organisations, he said, were bluffing themselves with the thought that the money would be allowed to be used for the environmental and sanitary betterment of Bhopal.

The convener of the Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udyog Sanghathan, Abdul Jabbar, however, said crores of rupees were lying undisbursed with the Supreme Court largely because the majority of "injury," victims had been handed out the minimum compensation of Rs 25,000 each when rules permitted a maximum payment of Rs 4 lakh for the deserving. "Only six or seven percent got more than the base figure" he said. What had also caused the pile up was the refusal to pay the sufferers interest on money he/she should ordinarily have received in 1989.

Jabbar said of the 22,146 death cases filed, only 7,000 were adjudged to have lost their lives from exposure to deadly toxic gases released from the Carbide plant on the tragic night of the 2nd, December, 1984. And of the 7,000, only 100 odd victims had been paid more than Rs 1 lakh when the Gas Relief Act permits handouts to Rs 5 lakh.

Jabbar argued that Carbide could never claim back the unused money since the deal with the Indian authorities was a one time composite pact. A letter sent by him to the Union minister for chemicals and fertilisers in February, 1999 had contested Verma’s claim for the inclusion of 20 more wards in the gas affected area.

Hospitals for gas victims did not have essential medicines, equipment or doctors; not a single victim had found a regular job; widows, orphans and the disabled were left with no social support. " The unused money can be used for their upkeep and preservation," he added.

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