Bhopal gas leak: curative petition downplays number of deaths

Victims threaten rail roko agitation if government fails to correct death and injury figures in a month

 
By Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

Survivors of the gas disaster that struck Bhopal in December, 1984 have accused the government of downplaying the scale of the devastation caused by the gas leak from the Union Carbide pesticide plant. In the curative petition filed in the Supreme Court,  the government has asked the court to direct the US-based company, now owned by Dow Chemicals, to compensate for 5,295 deaths and 527,894 people getting injured in the tragedy.

These figures are higher than the earlier figures given by the government of 3,000 deaths and 70,000 injury cases, on the basis of which the original compensation was calculated. But the victims of the tragedy say the actual death figure is five times higher and most of the injuries were of permanent nature and not temporary as stated by the government in the curative petition. The petition may be taken up for hearing next month.

[Highlights]

The deadly methyl isocyanate gas leaked from the Union Carbide plant on Bhopal on the intervening night of December 2 and 3 in 1984. The US company was asked to pay a sum of US $ 470 million as settlement compensation by the Supreme Court in 1989 for 3,000 deaths, 20,000 temporary disabilities and 50,000 minor injury cases, on the basis on information furnished by the government. On an average, the kin of every dead person was supposed to be given Rs 2.33 lakh. However the amount was later distributed among the kin of 5,295 dead. As a result, most of them received only Rs 1 lakh each as compensation. Similarly, on an average, only Rs 25,000 per person was given to persons affected by temporary disability, instead of Rs 50,000 per person originally decided.

The government was forced to review the matter in August last year after a public outcry over the mild punishment awarded to the accused in the gas tragedy case by a sessions court in Bhopal. The government filed a curative petition in the supreme court for restoring harsher charges against the accused, enhancing compensation and environmental remediation of the mishap site.

The government decided that kin of every dead person in the tragedy would be paid Rs 10 lakh and that  persons with permanent and temporary disabilities will be paid Rs 5 lakh and Rs 1 lakh each respectively. For this, enhanced amount on the basis of corrected figure of deaths and injury cases along with the interest that would have accumulated between 1989 and 2010, the government has asked the court to direct the pesticide company to pay Rs 7,413 crore.

'Over 20,000 have died'

Organizations representing the Bhopal victims are not impressed. “According to the the study conducted by the Indian Council of Medical Research, more than 20,000 people have died over the years due to the after-effects of the tragedy. The basis of the curative petitions filed by the government is that the figures of death and injury presented in 1989 were not correct. However, these figures have still not been corrected. The court cannot provide justice to the Bhopal victims even if it wants to,” says Satinath Sarangi of Bhopal Group for Information and Action (BGIA).

“The ICMR study also pointed out that the majority of gas victims are permanently and not temporarily injured. However, the the government has put more than 90 per cent of the victims in the list of temporary injury cases,” says Balkrishna Namdeo of Bhopal Gas Peedit Nirashrit Pension Bhogi Sangharsh Morcha.  Interestingly, the government has reduced the number of cases of permanent injury in the curative petition to 4,902 from 30,000 as originally assumed in 1989. 

“We are going by the figures of the Welfare Commissioner appointed by the government to decide on the relief and rehabilitation claims of the victims. There were around 22,000 claims for deaths before the commissioner but only 5,295 were adjudicated on the basis of documents and surveys. We have to go by the judicial process” says an official in the Bhopal Gas cell in the ministry of chemicals and fertilizers. When asked is there a possibility that government will re-look into the claims of the people, the official says inviting claims and adjudicating them is a long and tedious process. “Twenty-six years have already passed. Repeating the whole process will further delay justice,” he adds.

The ‘top secret’ correspondence between the Union Carbide Limited (then Union Carbide Corporation)  and the Indian Ministry of Chemical and Fertilizers in March 1985, accessed by the BGIA, show that Union Carbide was proposing a settlement within three months of the disaster. The company had proposed to give Rs 14.08 crore for 1,408 deaths. Namdeo says because of its collusion with the American company, the Indian government introduced injury categories and later paid the minimum amount of Rs 25,000 as compensation to 94 per cent of the victims with lifelong injuries by arbitrarily assigning them to the temporary injury category.

The Bhopal victims have now threatened to hold a rail roko movement in Bhopal if the figures are not corrected in the curative petition within a month. “We have been writing letters to the Prime Minister, Chief Minister and Group of Minister on Bhopal for the last one year but we have not got any response. All we are asking is that the government presents figures of injury and death based on the report of the ICMR,” said Rashida Bi of Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmchari Sangh.

What ICMR report says

ICMR conducted a study on the ‘Health Effects of the Toxic Gas Leak from the Union Carbide, methyl isocyanate, between 1985 and 1994. It states that by1985 there were 2,500 deaths due to the gas leak. Around 3,500 spontaneous abortions occurred between 1984 and 1989. “Further analysis of the report shows that 9,667 people died between 1985 and 1993 due to the after-effects of the tragedy,” says Rachna Dhingra of BGIA. The study was stopped in 1994. “Even if we assume that the death rate due to after-effects of the tragedy was half between 1994 and 2001, and one fourth between 2002 and 2009 of what it was between 1985 and 1993, another 7,250 persons have died in this period. This shows that at least 22,917 people have died due to the tragedy till 2009,” she adds.

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