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Sudhir K Singh
Have Bhopal's gas NGOs become a vested interest?
Posted: Monday, 30 May 2011 at 11:05 AM
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More than a quarter century after the catastrophe the mere mention of Bhopal still conjures up visions of that hellacious night of December 2-3, 1984, when 42 tons of the deadly methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas escaped from a tank in the infamous Union Carbide plant, officially killing nearly 3000 and maiming 15,000 people.

Egregious credit for preserving harrowing memories of the nightmare must necessarily go to a well-known brace of non-government organizations (NGOs) who continue to run a shrill campaign inside and outside courts to get the survivors justice beyond the $470 million compensation awarded by UCIL in 1989. Their “struggle” in Indian and American courts to bring the guilty to book, however, has in the eyes of many permanently stigmatized the still largely unpolluted city of lakes.

Says Rajendra Kothari, director of the PHD Chamber of Commerce: “The city’s economic development took a severe beating due to the vested interests which proliferated around the gas industry”. Availability of easy money sapped initiative and enterprise. With the purse strings of foreign donors liberally loose, some NGOs prospered, with no visible improvement in the plight of the survivors to whom living off charity is now a birthright. Hundreds of survivors are still under treatment at gas speciality hospitals.

It is these interests, he says, who are stonewalling moves by the Group of Ministers (constituted to see oversee matters pertaining to the gas disaster) that the factory site make way for a park or a suitable memorial; Rs 110 crore had been earmarked for this. The NGOs, on their part, want the ruins of the MIC plant be preserved for posterity, and be an integral part of the planned memorial. This, despite the fact that allowing the structure to stand would come in the way of ridding the site of the mercury buried beneath. With nearly 350 tonnes of toxic waste awaiting disposal, the NGOs have been crying hoarse for a clean-up all these years.

Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udyog convenor Abdul Jabbar feels there is nothing exceptional in their demand. In support he pulls out the photo of the ruins of a church in Hiroshima. “Don’t we have memorials of Hitler’s gas chambers or Jallianwala Bagh?”

His comrade-in-arms, Satinath Sarangi (Satyu) the familiar face behind the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, wants the clean-up operations be conducted by Carbide’s successor, Dow Chemicals. The well funded Sambhavna Clinic for gas victims which he runs with his NRI wife Rachna Dhingra is a virtual oasis amid the scabrous slums of old Bhopal. An outsider, the peripatetic and well networked Sarangi made Bhopal his home after the tragedy.  

Both Jabbar and Sarangi are vocal that the $470 million (Rs 713 crore at 1989 prices) settlement coughed out by Carbide to the 1.05 lakh victims, including 3000 dead, is chicken feed since the amount was actually disbursed among 5.73 lakh victims, the figure decided by the courts after completion of hearings in 2007.

So in place of Rs 67, 867/ per head at 1989 prices, what the victims got in hand between 1992-2004 was a paltry Rs 25,000/ each, roughly one-fifth to what should ideally have changed hands at today’s rupee value. This discrepancy needs to be redressed, said Jabbar.

The GoM chairperson had been informed of the survivors' (read  NGOs) expectations vide a letter dated 17th April 2008. But now since the Supreme Court has already turned down the gas victims’ plea to unilaterally decide on additional compensation, the chances of an early resolution seem bleak. Jabbar and Sarangi are thus bracing for another longish “struggle” for justice. 

(Published in the Delhi edition of Sunday Standard, a publication of the New Indian Express, on 29th May, 2011) 

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