Just months after the 1984 gas leak at Union Carbide’s plant here, the Indian government agreed to the “terms” set by the company on compensation to be paid to victims, a Right to Information (RTI) activist has claimed. Not only that, the government treated the world’s worst industrial disaster as a “railway accident”.
“We have obtained top secret documents dated Feb 28 and March 5, 1985, that show that Union Carbide was proposing a settlement within three months of the disaster,” Satinath Sarangi of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action (BGIA).
According to documents accessed through the RTI Act, the deal was struck Feb 28, 1985, between the then chemicals and fertilisers secretary and top Union Carbide functionary Rolf H. Towe and its Indian subsidiary’s managing director V.P. Gokhale.
“Union Carbide had proposed a payment of Rs.1 lakh for each death in 1985 and six years later this is the amount the government actually paid the Bhopal victims,” said Sarangi.
Ironically, Union Carbide had calculated the compensation on the basis of the Railway Act, which the government did not object to, thus equating the gas leak with a train accident, he said.
“Because of its collusion with the American company, the Indian government introduced injury categories and later paid the minimum amount of Rs.25,000 as compensation to 93 percent of the victims with lifelong injuries by arbitrarily assigning them temporary injury category,” he added.
On the intervening night of Dec 2-3, 1984, tonnes of methyl isocyanate gas had leaked from the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal, leading to the death of 3,000 instantly and 25,000 over the years. Over 500,000 people have been affected so far.
Activists say even 26 years after the accident, the union government’s curative petition in the Supreme Court did not present the true picture of the horrors of the incident.
“On the basis of the figures published by the government’s apex medical research organisation, the Indian Council of Medical Research, at least 20,000 people have died till 2009,” said Balkrishna Namdeo of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Nirashrit Pension Bhogi Sangharsh Morcha.
“ICMR’s research shows that between 1984 and 1989, there were 3,500 spontaneous abortions as a result of gas exposure and these need to be included in counting disaster-related loss of life,” he said.
Namdeo said in the curative petition filed in the apex court, the government has gone against the findings of its own research agency and presented a ridiculously low figure of 5,295 deaths.
Organisations working for Bhopal victims have demanded that in place of the current figure of Rs.3,000-6,000 crore, the government should ask Union Carbide’s current owner Dow Chemical to pay over Rs.37,000 crore for deaths and personal injuries.
They said the government should seek at least Rs.6 lakh as compensation per victim.
“In the curative petition, the government has not asked for any compensation for damage caused to the next generation of victims,” Rashida Bee of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmchari Sangh, who is involved with the rehabilitation of children of gas affected parents with congenital malformities.
“Studies published in international scientific journals such as the Journal of American Medical Association and the American Journal of Industrial Medicine show that the poisons of Union Carbide leakage have affected the next generation too,” she said.
Rashida Bee pointed out that in October 1991, the Supreme Court had directed the Indian government to provide medical insurance coverage to the next generation of victims, but this order remains to be implemented.
“For the last one year we have been writing to the prime minister and group of ministers on Bhopal on the specific issue of deaths and health damage caused by Union Carbide, but we have not received any response so far,” Rachna Dhingra of BGIA.