Will Bhopal victims get their due?

Sunday 15 August 2004

A government is preparing to go into denial

-- THE Supreme Court order directing the government to distribute Rs 1,503 crore to victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy after 20 years of the incident is exactly the kind of legal attention victims needed the very next day of the disaster. The verdict has two lessons: appropriate legal support to accident victims at the right time and the need of a transparent and accountable compensation system.

In the wake of the verdict trails a decade of very complex legal wrangling which dealt with the principles of providing compensation to victims of an accident. The argument was that any money received under an agreement to provide compensation towards a corporation's liability for the victims should go for the same purpose. On the other hand the state and central governments resisted this argument, while asking for the money to be used for general purposes, like drinking water supply to Bhopal city. So the verdict sets a precedent in India's compensation regime: any compensation money would be exclusive to its purpose. It was a major clean-up of the injustices done to the victims of the gas disaster.

Secondly, this clash over compensation money, which has overshadowed the real disaster in importance, should become the springboard for a new compensation regime in India. The one-decade of court proceedings are a practical guide for compensation issues in future. It is beyond doubt that the government of India and the state government faulted in a big way in dealing with the culprit. Add to it the highly bureaucratic way in which they conducted distribution, leading to widespread corruption and lapses in registering many genuine victims. So the message from the verdict is to make this process transparent and accountable.

Whether we have learnt a lesson will be tested when the distribution begins. Preliminary indications are that, as in the past, age-old politicking and narrow personal considerations may derail the process. Hardly five hours after the verdict Madhya Pradesh's minister in charge of gas relief, Babulal Gaur, disagreed: "Some money should have been left for parks and memorials." The state government is already planning to include all the wards of the city as victims, which the victim groups in the 36 wards vehemently opposed. If it happens, it would be Bhopal's second deadly disaster after the MIC leak.

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