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The Rediff Special/Ipsha Sharma
December 06, 2004
Diwali and Eid just got over. But for traders in Bhopal, the festive season has just begun.
With the administration commencing the distribution of the second round of compensation of Rs 1,567 crore (Rs 15.67 billion) to victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy, traders expect the beneficiaries to go on a spending binge.
The disaster happened on the intervening night of December 2-3, 1984, when 40 tonnes of noxious methyl isocyanate gas leaked from Union Carbide's pesticide plant in the city.
The Hiroshima of the chemical industry has till date claimed the lives of more than 20,000 people and maimed several hundreds of thousand others.
The relief, being distributed since November 15, 2004, following a Supreme Court order, is the balance of the compensation amount of $470 million deposited by the Union Carbide Corporation in the Reserve Bank of India following a settlement with the Government of India in 1989.
A part of the compensation was paid in the early nineties. The remaining amount, in the RBI dollar account, had accrued to Rs 1,567 crore by July 2004, when the apex court, on an appeal by gas victims' organisations, ordered its disbursal.
The affected families expect Rs 100,000 to Rs 200,000 each or more as compensation. On an average, each member of a family is entitled to Rs 25,000. In the cases of bereaved families, the kin of the deceased will get Rs 100,000 to Rs 300,000 for each dead member.
Many victims, who have been leading a life of penury all these years, now want to fulfil some of their desires, like owning a television or a bike or even a cell phone, with the amount they will receive.
"I wasted the entire money (received in the first round of compensation) on medicines and doctors. This time, I will comply with the demands of my children. I will get them a colour television. I feel bad when they go here and there to watch television," said Berkhedi resident Basant Malviya.
People like Malviya are the best bet for electronic goods and cell phones traders, who have come out with various schemes. While some are giving away freebies with a television set, some are offering insurance on the products.
"If one buys a colour television set, or even a music system, we will gift him a branded wrist watch," said Brijesh, a salesman with Chitrahar, a shop selling television sets in Bhopal.
Two-wheeler dealers, too, are providing add-ons to customers. While some dealers provide free servicing over and above the one offered by the manufacturing company, others have announced finance schemes with zero per cent interest.
Bablu, a general merchant and a resident of Kainchi Chola locality, said, "I will buy something for my wife and children from the Rs 50,000 compensation money. This will include a self-start scooter for my only daughter."
The shops in the old city, most hit by the gas leak, are putting up banners and placards announcing various offers to lure customers. "Purchasing a mixer-grinder from us will mean that the customer will get five other utility items, like an iron box, for free," said New Awadh General Store owner Surya Bhushan.
"When the first round of compensation was distributed in the nineties, sales had risen by about 35 per cent," said Ahmad Bhai of Om Auto and Sons.
Builders too want a piece of the pie. They are trying to convince the victims that investing in real estate offers the best security.
Some builders, like Girija Colonisers, have been keeping tabs on beneficiaries by going through the lists published in newspapers. With the information obtained thus, they are approaching the beneficiaries directly, trying to sell them homes.
Some builders operate through property dealers while still others place advertisements in newspapers offering various concessions.
"But only a few victims will invest in real estate, as most of them belong to the middle and the lower income groups of the society, people who don't invest keeping the future in mind. A large number of people will waste the money on consumer goods, which will be of no use to them in the long run," says economist Dr D K Tiwari.
Not only consumer goods dealers and builders, even banks are approaching the 105,000 victims. Representatives of many banks, like IndusInd, Centurion, HDFC, Standard Chartered and, of course, the State Bank of India, besides other nationalised banks, have been visiting the homes of the victims. Some have even promised separate counters for them.
All victims, in any case, must, according to the Supreme Court's directive, have a bank account, as the compensation money will be credited to their accounts to ensure that the relief reaches only genuine victims.
The postal department has also entered into a pact with the State Gas Relief Directorate to deliver notices to gas victims through Speed Post. Victims can claim their second instalment of compensation only after getting this notice.
Even as traders, builders and banks are wooing the victims, there are concerns that the beneficiaries may not use the relief amount properly.
"Wasteful expenditure, including in vices like boozing, womanising and gambling, will increase. It happened last time also (after the first round of compensation). Some people had, in fact, stopped working after receiving the money and wasted most of it on such vices," recalled Inspector D S Chauhan.
The government and activists working for the victims have been urging the beneficiaries to refrain from indulging in extravagant or wasteful expenditure.
Design: Rahil Shaikh