Unsettling

What the Centre and the state government did to rehabilitate victims

 
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

Unsettling

-- Asha, 24, visits the Bhopal Memorial Trust Hospital once every 2 days. She has a hole in her heart. But the hospital won't operate her, because she has overshot the hospital quota of Rs two lakh per victim. She cannot get herself operated privately. "I have spent the compensation of Rs 10,600 long ago," she says.

Asha received this paltry amount in 1989. The same year, sea otters affected by an oil spill in Alaska got US $40,000 each and a daily ration of lobster worth US $500. While the rehabilitation programme for the otters continues, developments till September this year show the Union and MP governments have done away with the compensation programme, officially turning half a million people like Asha into non-entities.

Initially the Indian government had demanded US $3.5 billion dollars as compensation; as time went by, it seemed more eager to jump off the moral high ground. As more time passed and the case got bogged down in the litigation process, the government looked ready to collect whatever loose change was thrown its way. In 1989 UCC obliged, parting happily with US $470 (about one-seventh of the amount originally asked for) as final settlement. The Supreme Court, guardian of the money now stashed away in a Reserve Bank of India dollar account, issued guidelines for the money to handed over to people. The dead were to be given Rs 1- 3 lakh; the fully or partially disabled were to receive Rs 50,000-Rs 2 lakh. For temporary injury, the apex court earmarked Rs 25,000-Rs 1 lakh. The MP government then cunningly fixed the amount to be actually disbursed. Apparently forgetting the court had mentioned a range, no doubt to be decided on a ase-to-case basis, the state government conveniently picked the lower limit and froze compensation at that level: Rs 25,000 for injury and Rs 1 lakh for death.

This was just the beginning of an intricate scam. In 1989, the money UCC had given was worth 750 crore in Indian currency. But then the rupee devalued. This, along with interest, swelled the value of the stash to about Rs 3000 crore. Of this amount, Rs 1360 crore remains unspent till date. So, how has the government spent money?

This is where the scam deepens. Originally, the number of compensation claims was about 2 lakh. Till last year, it had grown to about 1.29 million. According to the reports of the office of the welfare commission, Bhopal dated March 31, 2002, almost all claims filed by gas victims have been disposed off and over Rs 1,511 crore disbursed. According to the reports of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation Department, instead of the assumed figure of 3,000 claims on account of death (an 1989 estimate), over 15,000 cases have been cleared. Similarly, instead of an estimated 1,02,000 cases of compensation for injury, over 5,52,000 have been paid in this category. This means that five times the number of estimated claims have been settled, but using only half of the current compensation fund. Interestingly, another 16,000 fresh claims are pending in settlement courts. According to a welfare commission estimate, it would take another eight years to verify all of them.

Another way of putting it is to say that the money is safe with government. Indeed, the spiralling claims resulted in each victim receiving about one-tenth of the money earmarked for them. Compensation was finally disbursed by 1996, but not before the government deducted the Rs 480 crore it had spent on residents in 36 wards of the city for six years as interim relief. It deducted @ Rs 200 per month per claim, for six years. What victims, therefore, finally got was grossly negligible. People received as little as Rs 15, 000 as final settlement: just a few months of medical expenses.

What about the money left?
Rehabilitation has become a football game between the Centre and the state government, says Satinath Sarangi of the Sambhavna Trust clinic. Both are more keen on fighting over money. In September-October this year, the Planning Commission received four memos from the ministry of chemicals and petroleum the nodal department for all Bhopal gas related issues to explain the different clauses and provisions on the financial arrangement between state and Centre.

It wasn't such a mess in 1985 when the Centre, responsible for finances, provided MP Rs 102 crore for rehabilitation work. In 1992 a five-year action plan was launched. With an outlay of Rs 163.10 crore, its major component was medical rehabilitation. But nothing moved on the ground: a July 1997 review found that many of the rehabilitation schemes health, infrastructure and income generation schemes were incomplete. So the powers-that-be pumped a further Rs 95 crore into the plan and extended it to September 1998.

In July 1999, the Centre's brittle generosity cracked. It would no longer fund the state government's equally delicate efforts to help victims. MP had to find money for itself, and was put in sole charge of the rehab initiative. The state government refused to take on such a huge task. It changed tack: now, it demanded the Centre evolve and fund a special programme for the victims.

Rehabilitation has been been subsequently reduced to a politics of claims and counter-claims. MP makes a claim; the centre shoots it down, and vice-versa. On May 20, 2003 MP gas disaster minister Arif Akeel shot off a letter to Arun Jaitley, the chairperson of the Group Of Ministers (GOM) in charge of Bhopal. He demanded the GOM instruct the Planning Commission and the ministry of finance to make rehabilitation and relief work for Bhopal victims a separate centrally-funded sheme. "The government of India did not respond. It is no more sympathetic," says Akeel.

The state government is no better. It now wants the Rs 220 crore it spent on relief and rehabilitation since December 1984 to be reimbursed. It argues that according to the Bhopal Gas Rehabilitation Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act 1985, the Centre is responsible for all rehabilitation expenses. "This is one of the cruellest jokes on us," says Rashida Bee of the Bhopal Mahila Gas Peedith Udyog Sangathan. The MP government has also asked for a corpus of Rs 400 crore.

At the bottom of this new style of doing rehabilitation is the Rs 1,360 crore still unspent. Even as the fight over the rehab plan turned ugly, another front opened up: the unspent treasure each wants for itself.

The state government wants the apex court to release this money to it. It has presented a plethora of proposals, all shot down by the Centre. MP has asked for money to dispose off the toxic waste in the plant (or else it remains there). It proposed in 1999 a Rs 45 crore plan to supply drinking water to the city's 36 affected wards. This plan was junked, and re-presented more elaborately: MP revived an old plan it had to provide the entire city with potable water from the Narmada, a project costing Rs 726 crore, to come from the compensation fund. The real victims were jettisoned. Other grand proposals -- a memorial for the gas victim and a Life Science Institute in Bhopal -- show the government's intentions.

The victims have never figured anywhere in this venal grab for the Bhopal booty. Ever. They have sought the Supreme Court's intervention. But even after 30 hearings, this case hangs in (dis) balance.

And the future looks worse. In April, 2003 the GOM, that had in all the bickering among the Centre and the mp government tried to play the role of a referee, asked "the department of chemicals and petrochemicals to assist the Supreme Court in disbursing the surplus funds among the Bhopal gas victims on a pro-rata basis." It put forward another recommendation: the GOM should be disbanded. This means it will never meet again. This is a big blow to those still searching for, and hoping to find, ameliorative justice. For, such a move strips Bhopal's gas victims of their sole political platform, or intervening agency, in Delhi.




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