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Bhopal victims bogged down by corrupt system, measly relief
Amberish K Diwanji in Bhopal |
December 03, 2004 22:47 IST
Twenty years have passed since the world's worst industrial accident occurred in Bhopal, which has claimed as many as 20,000 lives and affected another 570,000, but the maladies caused by the disaster linger on.
A measly compensation and a corrupt system have not helped to assuage the suffering of the survivors, most of whom are poor.
Naseeruddin and his wife Shahjahanbi say they received only Rs 25,000 as compensation. "It is so little and came so late. With it, we paid off the debts accrued in the aftermath of the gas tragedy when we borrowed money to buy medicines. Now we have nothing to live on," says Shahjahanbi.
Like her, many other victims complain that the compensation is too little, too late. "We ran up huge debts to buy medicines and to pay doctors," says Shahjahanbi. "What we get as compensation goes towards paying off our loans," she reiterates.
Even those who were entitled to greater relief found the compensation amount dwindle by the time it reached their hands.
Mattunanbi, a victim, says she had run away on the night of the tragedy on December 2-3, 1984. She found her husband unconscious when she returned the next day. She shouldered the burden of the expenses on his treatment till he died three years later. Mattunanbi then applied for compensation and was eligible for a minimum of Rs 100,000. "But, I had to pay my lawyer Rs 35,000 to get my paper work done and pay off others, too. So in the end, I got just about half the amount," she says.
That little amount was barely sufficient for her to pull on for the next few years, even though her three sons began working as soon as they could. Today, Mattunanbi complains of breathing difficulty and gas in her stomach, causing it to bloat up.
She survives on the little money her sons, who work as painters, give her and spends the day at the office of Abdul Jabber, who runs the Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti. "Here I am able to kill my time and get something to eat," she says.
Matters are made worse for the benighted victims by the corruption plaguing the relief process. "The greatest legacy of the gas tragedy has been that even doctors became corrupt, demanding a share of the compensation for issuing a certificate that was necessary to claim relief," laments Abdul Jabber.
The gas victims were forced to bribe officials to acquire papers necessary to claim the compensation. "They possessed no papers and knew little about how to acquire them. And when they had to get them, they were forced to pay at all levels, so much so that they had little left for their actual rehabilitation," Jabber says.
While genuine victims had to face harassment from corrupt officials, there were also cases of false claims for relief. There were instances of victims exaggerating their injuries. Also, some included many names in the list of affected family members to claim more relief.
"One person put the names of relatives who were not in Bhopal when the tragedy occurred. He bribed the official concerned and was thus able to claim more," says a victim, who retired from the Indian Navy and moved to Bhopal in October 1984, just two months before the disaster.
The ex-navyman also recalls assisting doctors on the night of the tragedy. "One doctor asked me to buy as many syringes as I could, and I bought some 28 of them. A few months later, I learnt he had claimed Rs 5,000 for the syringes, when in fact he had not even purchased them. Such was the level of corruption."
Though he was also asked to pay bribe if he needed compensation, he refused. "Soon my file was declared missing and I had to make umpteen rounds to get them [the officials concerned] to open a new file and then seek my compensation," he says.
For long, the victims have been demanding that the government provide suitable employment for them, since they are unable to do regular full-time work.
The demand finds support from Dr Vinay Mishra, head of the psychology department, Bhopal School of Social Sciences. "Money given in such lump sums is spent quickly," he says. "Worse, many victims, who were children during the tragedy, are now young adults and are suddenly getting a lot of money. They will just spend it rather than use it fruitfully."
The government should instead use the money to invest in training schemes for youngsters to make them suitable for employment, he suggests. The administration should also concentrate on generating employment for the gas affected who are unable to work long hours, he adds.
After activists' and victims' organisations petitioned the Supreme Court, the survivors of the tragedy are now due for another round of compensation. The Reserve Bank of India had informed the SC that it was still holding over Rs 1,500 crore meant for the victims. This is now being disbursed on a pro-rata basis -- that is, only those who had claimed compensation in the first round in 1991 are eligible for the same amount now -- following an order from the court.
However, for Mattunanbi, who, in the wake of the order, is eligible for a relief of Rs 100,000 more, getting the second round compensation could be an uphill task. That's because her file is 'lost'.
"The clerk at the gas relief commissioner's office told me that my file is lost. I'll have to make a new file all over again. I just don't have the strength and energy," she says.
For her and many such hapless victims, battling the ill-effects of the gas was just the beginning. The other battle was, and is, against institutionalised corruption in the administration, which has made the relief process a travesty.