Measly compensation for victims
The Hindustan Times 3rd December 2000

The gas claim courts here are winding up their work, certain that they have done an exemplary job in distributing justice. Only, the victims do not think so.

Having decided on the claims of over six lakh victims, the office of the welfare commissioner is convinced that all genuine individuals have been adequately compensated.

But the gas victims say if justice is awarding 95 per cent of the victims a flat Rs. 25,000 without going into the merits and demerits of individual cases, they would beg to differ.

The Welfare Commissioner's office further submits that claim suits of more than 10 lakh persons have been settled.

Ten lakhs persons, incidentally is more than the population of the City at the time of the disaster. But the gas victims insist that more than one lakh genuine gas victims are yet to be compensated.

Amidst such antipodal claims on the treatment meted out to gas victims by the claim courts, the most significant question is why indeed is there any 'conflict' at all.

The courts were set up for the welfare of the gas victims and not to 'try' them.

But as convener of Bhopal Gas Peedit Manila Udyog Sangathan, Abdul Jabbar says: "The gas victims were tried by the welfare courts as if they were criminals. Like many other groups who thought the gas had not done much damage to the people of Bhopal, judges saddled with the task of distributing compensation also began their work with the same notion. The result - they distrusted the claimants."

Survivors of the gas tragedy had all along maintained that the compensation agreement   of Rs 450 million between the government of India and Union carbide was not adequate.

They had even moved the Supreme Court for review of the agreement but when the Apex Court upheld the agreement in 1992, the dispute was set to rest.

The Supreme Court had based its order on the adequacy of compensation on the figures of death, permanent and partial disability, minor damages et al provided to it by the government.

The gas victims' survivor groups have maintained all along that the figures placed before the Supreme Court were not correct.

For instance, the Supreme Court was given a figure of 3,828 deaths. But persons who actually claimed compensation for deaths were over 21,000 and not many in the 'extra' cases were fake.

So, when the claim courts started deciding cases, they rather chose to award Rs one lakh for death in most cases and not Rs four lakh (the upper limit set by the Supreme Court in cases of death).

The Supreme Court in its guidelines had been very elaborate on how the degree of injury or damage should be assessed.

It also worked out categories like permanent total disability, permanent partial disability, temporary total disability and temporary partial disability and many more so that the extent of damage to the individuals was properly assessed and compensated.

But the courts despite taking years  to finalise compensation suits do not seem to have bothered to be precise in deciding  the extent of damage.

Moreover, they mostly stuck to the lower limit suggested  by the Supreme Court while deciding the compensation  amount.

This has resulted in most persons being given a compensation of Rs 25,000 in a pre-decided mode.

Jabbar claims 99.5 per cent claimants have received  just this much for the leak and its aftermath. And, this too after a long and patient wait of years. Abdul Wahid, a driver by profession, recently told the State Human Rights Commission that Rs. 25,000 after 16 years of the tragedy is hardly any compensation.

"If calculated in terms of price index, it equals Rs. 2,000 in 1984," he argues.

But the fact remains that initially the amount of Rs. 750 crore, which Union Carbide transferred to the Central Government within a week after the agreement was signed in 1989, might have appeared adequate.

But with the interest accruing on the amount for years, it has gone up substantially. And, even after all the gas victims are compensated, an amount of over Rs. 1,000 crore is likely to be left with the government.

And this is the crux of the matter. When the Government earned interest on the money meant for gas victims, why was it not given to them when their cases were settled as late as 15 years after the tragedy.