In Madhya Pradesh polls, victims of Bhopal gas tragedy vow to vote for party that promises compensation

Bhopal: Survivors of the world’s worst industrial tragedy are still fighting a dual battle — one, internally, struggling with the health-related aftermath of the disaster, and second, on the outside, waiting for adequate compensation.

On the intervening night of 2 and 3 December, 1984, a leak from the Union Carbide India Ltd's pesticide plant in Bhopal exposed over five lakh people to methyl isocyanate gas. The highly toxic substance killed over 3,700 people and injured over 5.5 lakh people, which also led to permanent disabilities among scores of those affected. While these are the official numbers, others estimate that at least 8,000 people died within two weeks of the disaster.

While the Madhya Pradesh Assembly election was announced on 6 October, groups working for victims of the tragedy decided at a meeting on 18 September that in this poll, they will vote for the party that promises compensation. These groups, which included the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, Bhopal Gas Peedit Nirashrit Pensionbhogi Sangharsh Morcha and Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmchari Sangh, decided that the promise should be notarised, not verbal, so legal action can be initiated if the party did not fulfil the terms and conditions.

On 24 October, dozens of hoardings and banners sprung up in colonies where survivors of the Bhopal gas tragedy live in large numbers. A hoarding carried a historical representational photo of the disaster, with the slogan, "Jo muavza dilaega, vote wahi le jayega" (whoever provides compensation will get the vote)". The banner also claimed that it represented a combined voice of all victims and survivors of the incident.

In Madhya Pradesh polls, victims of Bhopal gas tragedy vow to vote for party that promises compensation

The Bhopal gas tragedy is the worst industrial mishap in India. AFP

"We have been betrayed by all political parties. For us, the BJP is no different than the Congress, which allowed Warren Anderson (the owner of the Union Carbide factory) to flee. Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan had promised Rs 5 lakh as compensation to every survivor of the disaster. More than seven years have passed, and nothing has been done yet," said Rachna Dhingra, convener of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action.

Explaining the survivors' strategy, Dhingra said there are seven constituencies in Bhopal district, where Narela and Bhopal North host the largest population of victims and survivors of the tragedy. Both constituencies have more than 80 to 90 percent voters with direct or indirect links with the incident.

Constituencies such as Bhopal Central and Huzur, too, have a sizeable population of families of victims and survivors, who still suffer from the aftermath of the disaster. There are around 40 percent survivor voters each in these two constituencies, and the numbers are enough to affect results.

Berasia could be considered the rural extension of Bhopal district, but Govindpura and Bhopal South-West, too, have a sizeable population of survivors who migrated.

"On the basis of the betrayal the gas tragedy survivors' community has faced, all organisations working for them have decided to ask for a notarised pledge from candidates contesting from these constituencies," Dhingra said, adding that they have been asked to ensure at least Rs 5 lakh compensation.

Rashida Bi of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmchari Sangh said, "We are insisting on a notarised pledge so that if netas backtrack on their words, we can take legal action against them."

These organisations have started campaigning and have been successful in convincing ward-level leaders from the BJP and Congress to agree to their demands. Vinod Kulhare, Sonu Manjhi, Sauraiya Ansari and Narayan Dubey of the BJP, who work at the mohalla level, strongly agreed to the demands. Similarly, Sajid Ansari, JP Naagar and Sanjiv Kumar, who have been promoting and working for the Congress, said they will try to convince their senior leaders to seriously consider the demands and warn them of consequences.

Of the two prominent constituencies with a high population of survivors of the gas tragedy, Bhopal North is represented by Congress MLA Arif Aqueel, while Narela is represented by BJP MLA and state cabinet minister Vishwas Sarang. Both legislators have avoided questions on compensation for the families, but speak about looking after medical and social needs.

Aqueel, who has been representing Bhopal North for the past 15 years, said he has been demanding justice for the victims, but the BJP government has not paid any heed to them. "I have tried to provide them with potable water and basic health facilities from my funds, but the BJP government has done nothing for them. Rather, their representatives have encroached upon playgrounds and community halls," he claimed.

Sarang claimed: "I have tried to ensure a regular supply of medicines in hospitals meant for gas tragedy victims, besides good doctors. My government has also tried to provide several measures for employment."

Dhingra, however, brushed his claim aside. She said Sarang, despite being the Minister for Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation in the Madhya Pradesh government, has done little to provide relief.

The convener of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan, Abdul Jabbar, said that Union Carbide gave a compensation of $470 million (Rs 715 crore), and the payment was received in March 1989. Meanwhile, the state government initiated work to fill the compensation forms of the survivors. The money began to be distributed in 1990 and has continued for more than a decade. However, most of the compensation was provided between 1990 and 1995.

On an average, 94 percent of the victims received Rs 25,000 as compensation in 1985. After a legal battle around 10 years later, they received Rs 25,000 from the interest from the compensation accumulated in banks, which means that the victims effectively received only Rs 25,000 as compensation, Jabbar said.

The activist added that even today, about 5,000 to 7,000-odd victims seek outpatient department services in seven specialised gas relief hospitals. Two lakh victims were permanently affected after exposure to the deadly methyl isocyanate gas. "The most surprising thing is that no medical treatment protocol has been prescribed for gas victims in 34 years," he said.

Interestingly, the data provided for compensation and loss by the state and Union governments did not match, and they were later revised on court orders. The final data is as follows:

Claim cases registered under various categories. Source: Welfare Commissioner, Bhopal Gas Victims, Madhya Pradesh government

Claim cases registered under various categories. Source: Welfare Commissioner, Bhopal Gas Victims, Madhya Pradesh government

The author is a Bhopal-based freelance writer and member of 101Reporters.com

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Updated Date: Oct 31, 2018 19:29:17 IST

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