Red tape and corruption delay compensation

DECEMBER 2-3 marks the eighth anniversary of the Bhopal gas leak - the world's worst industrial disaster. More than 4,000 lives were lost and 6.4 lakh people injured when methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas leaked from the Union Carbide (India) Ltd plant. Since then, an average of two persons die daily from after-effects of the gas. But victims still await compensation from a government bureaucracy dithering over categorisation and individual payments.

 
By Nitya Jacob
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

-- ON OCTOBER 16, 1992, the Supreme Court directed the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) to make Rs 1,482 crore available to Madhya Pradesh gas relief commissioner K Shankaranarayan for doling out to the victims of the 1984 Bhopal gas leak. But for the victims, who have waited three years since the court settled on US$ 470 million as the amount of final compensation, the money remains on paper.
Although Shankaranarayan is satisfied with the medical classification and the compensation disbursement machinery, he says actual payment of compensation is likely to take more time. He says, "Given the magnitude of the disaster and the number of claimants, this procedure is the best we can do."
Of 6.40 lakh claimants -- 75 per cent of Bhopal's population at the time of the gas leak -- awaiting compensation, the authorities have medically examined only 3.61 lakh from 1987 to 1991, after which the exercise was abruptly stopped. Of this, only 2.04 lakh have been classified according to the degree of injury. In addition, there are the next-of-kin of the 3,828 people officially declared dead. There will be 40 claims courts, one in each of the 36 gas-affected wards, and four appeals courts. The government has put the gas leak victims into four categories for purposes of compensation: death, permanent injury, temporary injury and no injury. Only 40 claimants have been classified as permanently injured. Several death claims were rejected because they were not supported by death certificates.
Meanwhile, five lakh people from 36 gas-affected wards of the city have been getting Rs 200 per month since May 1990 and another one lakh will soon be awarded similar interim relief amounts, implying therefore that all six lakh have suffered from the MIC gas leak. But the authorities see fit to consider only 2.04 lakh for final compensation.
The authorities have also refused to categorise the 1.05 lakh children who were exposed to MIC at the time of the leak, as well as those born to gas-exposed mothers since then. The then claims commissioner contended this would complicate the process of categorisation and delay compensation disbursement.

Lack of data Medical treatment of MIC victims has been seriously hampered by lack of data on the effect of the gas on human beings. Only Union Carbide (India) Limited (UCIL) can provide this data, but till now, it has not made this information public. In fact, in 1984, UCC claimed MIC was only "a throat and eye irritant".

There is also no data of the different kinds of gases released during the leak. A report prepared by a committee, set up in 1985 under then CSIR director general Srinivasan Varadarajan to probe technicalities of the gas leak, has been kept under wraps. The only source of information on the effects of MIC are surveys conducted by Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) officials in Bhopal and Delhi, but they have steadfastly refused to divulge any information.

The scarcity of medical records makes the categorisation suspect. After the gas leak, the medical teams that examined victims did not carry out comprehensive medical examinations. So, even though most MIC victims have suffered permanent lung, nervous system and eye damage, they have no medical records to support their claims.
Shahzad Khan and his wife, Safiya, suffer from acute breathlessness, a condition brought on by MIC exposure and subsequent lung damage. Neither is capable of physical labour, but both have been categorised as temporarily injured. "Isse achcha to mar jaate (we would have been better off dead)," says Safiya,, gasping for breath on a dirty cot in an ill-lit room, plagued by mosquitoes.
Kaniza Bee has developed tuberculosis after exposure to MIC. But TB specialist R K Dixit at Hamidia hospital has refused to categorise her as an MIC-affected person despite medical records that show clearly she is being treated for MIC exposure. Activist Satinath Sarangi of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action has documented many such cases.
Nishith Vohra and Sathyamala, both doctors working with the victims, say the personal injury evaluation (PIE) "depends on an arbitrary scoring that converts symptoms into numbers". But the government tests are cursory and often, not conducted at all. Government spokespersons, however, dismiss this allegation saying, "It is just not possible to subject every claimant to these time-consuming tests."



Fixed compensation

Leaders of the different victims groups have advocated a review in cases where the final compensation paid is inadequate, or the medical categorisation is flawed. Zahreeli Gas Kand Sangharsh Morcha chief Sadhna Karnik says, "People living in the worst-affected areas should be paid a fixed compensation amount of Rs 4 lakh each. The less-affected people should be paid Rs 2.5 lakh each and the rest, Rs 20,000 each." According to her, the courts should only ask for proof of residence while deciding claims.
On the other hand, Jabbar Khan, convenor of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan, wants all the gas victims to be paid uniform amounts. This is all the more important, he feels, because the community has helped the victims more than the government. But now with each family getting different amounts, resentment would destroy this cooperation.
Information gathered by the ICMR's Bhopal Gas Disaster Research Centre shows methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas has the worst effect on the lungs, the eyes, the gastrointestinal tract (GIT), the reproductive system and the skin, in that order. According to ICMR, the total estimated exposed population in 1984 was over five lakhs, with more than 20 per cent of them living in severely and moderately exposed areas.
MIC is the main input in the production of a pesticide, Sevin. Union Carbide's 1976 manual, entitled Methyl Isocyanate, says MIC is "a hazardous material by all means of contact, a poison by inhalation and an oral and contact poison." Its threshold limit value, that is how much can be safely inhaled in 24 hours, is 0.02 parts per million (ppm). A scientific dispersion model of MIC indicates the Bhopal gas victims were exposed to between 0.12 ppm and 85 ppm of the chemical.

ICMR surveys indicate MIC corrodes the epithelial lining on the body's internal organs, which, in turn, causes haemorrhage, scarring and ultimately, fibrosis in which the tissues are invaded by growing protein fibres. MIC reduces the carbon dioxide-oxygen exchange ability of the body, and thereby curtails the oxygen available to tissues.
Shahzad Khan and his wife, Safiya, suffer from acute breathlessness, a condition brought on by MIC exposure and subsequent lung damage. Neither is capable of physical labour, but both have been categorised as temporarily injured. "Isse achcha to mar jaate (we would have been better off dead)," says Safiya,, gasping for breath on a dirty cot in an ill-lit room, plagued by mosquitoes.

Kaniza Bee has developed tuberculosis after exposure to MIC. But TB specialist R K Dixit at Hamidia hospital has refused to categorise her as an MIC-affected person despite medical records that show clearly she is being treated for MIC exposure. Activist Satinath Sarangi of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action has documented many such cases.

Nishith Vohra and Sathyamala, both doctors working with the victims, say the personal injury evaluation (PIE) "depends on an arbitrary scoring that converts symptoms into numbers". But the government tests are cursory and often, not conducted at all. Government spokespersons, however, dismiss this allegation saying, "It is just not possible to subject every claimant to these time-consuming tests."

ICMR studies show the damaging effect of MIC on alveoli -- air sacks in the lungs where actual gas exchange takes place -- MIC and, in the healing process, the body creates scar tissue in the lungs, which reduces their ability to function. MIC also reduces the transparency of the cornea, with the result that gas victims have impaired vision.

Mutations possible

MIC's ability to combine with amino acids enables it to enter the cells and affect their DNA structure. This means it can cause mutations, some of which may show up only after several generations.
According to the ICMR's studies, MIC-affected women show a higher rate of miscarriages -- 7.63 per cent -- as compared to 3 per cent in the control area surveyed, but are yet to find a reason.
ICMR's manual for treating gas victims states "there is no specific antidote for the gases". It prescribes symptomatic treatment for different ailments. TB is to be treated with standard anti-TB drugs such as rifampicin and ethambutol, breathing problems with bronchodilators and steroids, eye problems with eye drops, and so on.
As many as 98 per cent of MIC victims have breathing problems, according to an ongoing ICMR survey. In the five years since the disaster, a large percentage of them have contracted TB. Nearly 95 per cent of the victims have impaired vision. Miscarriages have been noticed in 25 per cent of gas-affected women. The survey also shows the emergence of GIT disorders such stomach ulcers, diarrhoea and kidney infections.
The ICMR survey also found less than half of all children born in Bhopal after the disaster were of normal birth weight as compared to 60 per cent in a control area and their mental growth was significantly affected. Thirty-three per cent children between 6 and 15 years have respiratory infections, as compared to 0.5 per cent in the control area.

Settling claims

Though the claims courts are first settling death claims, in the last eight months, they have disposed of only 800 cases so far, says Vinod Raina of Eklavya, a non-governmental group that has worked extensively with victims, "At this rate, the courts will take 20 years to settle all the claims, by which time it will be too late for many of the victims." Prashant Bhushan, who represents the victims in the Supreme Court, plans to petition the court in December for more speedy payment of compensation.
The compensation amounts for each category were fixed in 1989 shortly after the Supreme Court decided on US$ 470 million as "the full and final amount payable to victims". "Since then, the value of the rupee has been halved against the dollar, but the compensation amounts remain the same," points out N D Jaiprakash of the Delhi Science Forum.
Jaiprakash said he also plans to file a petition to the court to continue interim relief payments until all final compensation cases are settled and not to stop them pending processing of claims. Both Raina and Jaiprakash feel that the only way to get money quickly to the victims is to deposit a certain minimum amount in their bank accounts as final compensation. While the claims are being decided, interim relief payments will stop. Monthly interim relief of Rs 200 each has been paid to five lakh victims through banks since May 1990, pending final compensation, under a Supreme Court order.
Both Raina and Jaiprakash feel the only way to get money quickly to the victims is to deposit a certain minimum amount in their bank accounts as final compensation.

Interim relief disbursement and categorisation of victims are controlled largely by touts. (See box) The Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation Department plans to set up 40 courts that will hand over the money to the victims. Seventeen of these are already functional under judges drawn from the state judiciary. A visit to one of these courts shows the judges are unsympathetic and even rude to the victims. Jabbar Khan asks, "How can you expect a poor Muslim woman who has never been outside the four walls of her house, to give sensible answers to an aggressive judge?"
Despite a Rs-143-crore medical rehabilitation plan that includes the construction of two new hospitals and eight dispensaries, the victims have not received adequate treatment. Victims' organisations contend medicines prescribed are substandard, which is borne out by the fact that none of them have any markings. Most similar drugs made by reputable companies have either the company's or the drug's name on the capsule.
M C Agarwal, cardiac and respiratory diseases specialist at the Jawaharlal Nehru hospital, says the response to their medication has been good. he and his colleagues treat only symptoms of the Bhopal Toxic Gas Disease (BGTD) -- a collective term given by ICMR to health problems caused by MIC. "It is difficult to say whether a particular disease is caused by MIC exposure," admits Agarwal, though he claims to be treating patients for BTGD. However, none of the ICMR-prescribed tests to determine damage to the heart and lungs are carried out by government doctors, who claim they are time consuming.
Most government doctors have a thriving private practice and prefer to see patients at home, where they are assured of hefty fees. In exchange, the patient gets a thorough check-up, effective medicine and, where required, hospitalisation. Sadhna Karnik says, "So shoddy is the treatment victims receive at government hospitals that nearly 80 per cent of them prefer to visit private practitioners, though many of them are not full-fledged doctors or have dubious medical degrees."
Madhya Pradesh's BJP government has tried to cash in on the disbursement, though senior government officials as well as some activists deny this. Raina says though ICMR's surveys have indicated 55 per cent of the gas victims are Hindus and 43 per cent Muslims, there have been attempts to reduce the number of Muslims in the city's 36 gas-affected wards.
In June 1991, the state government launched an anti-encroachment drive and evicted 800 families, only four of which were Hindu. These people have been relocated from their slum dwellings around Upper Lake to New Gandhi Nagar, some eight km from the city, which has adversely affected them as they have to spend more money travelling to and from work.

Eviction drive

In July 1992, the government closed down several stitching centres, putting out of work some 2,400 women, mostly Muslims, who made uniforms for different government departments at these centres. The centres were showing profits and each woman was earning at least Rs 400 a month. But activists contend that what the BJP government objected to was the fact that these centres were the main source of funds for Jabbar Khan's Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan as well as the venue for meetings.
The stitching centres formed part of the economic rehabilitation package drawn up in 1990 by the state government. The second phase of this package was setting up a special industrial area for gas victims. However, the scheme has been put on hold by a recent state cabinet decision because the Central subsidy of Rs 6 crore for the scheme did not materialise.
The Bhopal gas victims have put up with indignities and hardships while the government dithered for three years over deciding individual payments. Even now, when it has finally made up its mind, they do not expect much by way of justice, determining instead to take whatever sum is doled out by the 40 claims courts and then take the matter back to court if they feel the sum to be inadequate. The battle in Bhopal is still a long way from over.

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