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Without a plan

Print edition : Jul 02, 2010 T+T-
A shanty town near the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal.-SAURABH DAS/AP

A shanty town near the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal.-SAURABH DAS/AP

MADHYA PRADESH Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan did not waste time in expressing his dissatisfaction over the June 7 judgment in the Bhopal gas disaster case. Twenty-five years have passed, but the punishment is not satisfactory, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader said, and went on to demand new laws or amendments to the existing ones so that those responsible for disasters like the gas leak from the Union Carbide plant got severe punishment. He said he favoured sustainable economic and medical rehabilitation of the victims but was constrained by lack of funds.

The Central government has not given us any funds in the past 10 years, he said. However, activists representing the survivors of the gas victims held successive governments in the State guilty of neglecting the victims and their families.

The level of rehabilitation has been abysmally low. Today, the Chief Minister has expressed sympathy for the gas victims, whereas even the areas around the Union Carbide factory, which bore the burnt of the chemical disaster, do not have drinking water and sanitation facilities. The hospitals meant for treating the victims are in a very bad condition. They either do not have proper infrastructure or are understaffed, Abdul Jabbar of the Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udyog Sangathan said.

He said the State government had the first responsibility towards the victims. The Centre should be pressured to release funds because we have elected you. He said there were reports that Dow Chemical [which took over Union Carbide in 2001] had sponsored the BJP's campaign in the last Assembly elections. We brought this to light, but nobody took note. Instead of doing something tangible, the Chief Minister has come out with apologetic statements about the Chief Judicial Magistrate's verdict which has not done any justice to the victims. This is adding insult to injury, Jabbar said.

The State government, which has a dedicated Ministry for Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation, claims that over a million people have already been compensated. We have spent Rs.3,058 crore to provide compensation to 574,000 people. About 11,800 people have not claimed their compensation money, S.R. Mohanty, Principal Secretary, told Frontline last December.

While everything seems good on paper, the gas victims decry bureaucratic insensitivity at every level. We are supposed to get free medicines. Most of the time the hospitals do not have these medicines and we are forced to buy them from outside, Shamshad Begum, a gas victim, said, producing the medical reports of her daughter obtained from a private clinic. It cost her about Rs.5,000.

The BJP government made a fleeting attempt at evolving an action plan for the gas victims early last year. The Planning Commission rejected it on the grounds that it was not convincing enough and diverted the responsibility to the empowered commission promised by the Prime Minister in 2006. The commission is yet to be formed.

The action plan for rehabilitation was divided into four components medical, economic, social and environmental. While it is well known that the victims receive poor medical care, not much headway has been made as far as the other three components are concerned. Forty independent worksheds and a special industrial estate with 152 worksheds to employ the victims according to their decreased capacities, owing to their medical condition after inhaling the toxic gas, were proposed under the economic programme. The plan flopped because of the State government's lackadaisical attitude. An industrial training institute was constructed for the gas victims but it was transferred to the Technical Education Department. The degrees obtained from the institute did not fetch the victims jobs, mainly because the institute did not have national accreditation. Similarly, tailoring centres were started, but they functioned only for 13 months.

Not much was done on the social rehabilitation aspect as well. Ten schools were opened for the victims. The funds promised for anganwadis and a monthly compensation of Rs.750 allotted to the victims were withheld.

The government claims that it has spent Rs.50 crore on environmental rehabilitation by planting trees, securing proper sanitation and providing drinking water for the 36 affected wards. However, none of this is visible even to a resident of Bhopal.

Farzana Begum, who was exposed to methyl isocyanate poisoning in December 1984, complains of water contamination in JP Nagar, a slum outside the Carbide factory, where she lives. Contrary to the State government's claim, she says, The drinking water pipeline was laid only a few years ago and water supply is restricted to half an hour every alternate day. Some 10,000 people live in this slum cluster. Similar stories of groundwater contamination are heard in other areas in the vicinity of the factory.

Independent research, including a study by the Centre for Science and Environment in December last year, has shown that the groundwater around the factory site was 1,000 times more toxic than the set standard available in India. Even the Central Pollution Control Board admitted that it had found severe contamination of groundwater.

Jabbar said 95 per cent of the proposed budget of Rs.982 crore for the action plan was set aside to buy medical equipment or carry out construction activities and not to provide sustainable livelihood to the people.

According to Satinath Sarangi of the Sambhavna Trust and a member of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, this is not an action plan for the welfare of the Bhopal survivors. The plan illustrates all that is wrong with the State government's role in providing rehabilitation to the victims.

While the Supreme Court monitoring committee recommended increasing the number of doctors and specialists, computerisation of hospitals, development of effective treatment protocols and improvement of the quality of drugs, the action plan of the State government does not address any of these issues of medical care. Instead, 95 per cent of the budget for medical rehabilitation is proposed to be spent on purchasing equipment and carrying out construction so that the people concerned can make money in the form of commission, said Rashida Bee of the Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Stationery Karmchari Sangh.

Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta