Government unwilling to revise Bhopal tragedy toll

The government is not keen to change the classification of victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy in its curative petition before the Supreme Court and allow higher compensation for thousands or admit to a higher number of fatalities, although it is ready to consider doubling the relief demanded for the small number it currently accepts as dead and those permanently scarred due to the lethal gas leak.

The government seems to be reluctant to change the classification, which currently puts a vast majority of victims under the lowest ‘temporary ill’ or with ‘minor injuries’ category or admit to higher mortality figures, as that could also create a precedent methodology for all future cases of a similar nature.

The group of ministers on Bhopal will consider these issues on Friday.

Even though the note for the GoM suggests that the compensation could be doubled in some cases, it has warned that changing the classification of victims could jeopardize the chance of the curative petition in the SC. The curative petition was filed to seek higher compensation on the grounds that there were factual errors in reporting the number of people affected.

As per the curative petition of the government, 527,894 victims are classified as those with ‘minor injuries’ and 35,455 as those with ‘temporary injuries’. It classifies only 4,902 with permanent injuries, and 42 as utmost severe cases. This, despite the fact that the safety manual of Union Carbide notes that ‘major residual injury is likely in spite of prompt treatment’ if someone breathes the lethal Methyl Isocyante that had leaked in Bhopal in 1984.

The government is also not keen to alter the number of people it admits as deceased (5,295), despite the state government having admitted that 15,342 people had died till 1997 as a result of exposure to the leakage at the Union Carbide plant.

The curative petition puts the number of permanently disabled at six times less than the original numbers it had accepted in 1989 and those with utmost severity at 47 times less. The government does not want the methodology reopened despite the obvious lacunae. For example, people are only considered disabled if they are left unable to work. Consequently, 74% of those with serious injuries – like elderly people, students, housewives, otherwise unemployed people and children – were marked as disabled but got relief for only ‘minor injuries’ because the compensation form only accepted a disability if the people had also lost existing livelihoods.

The government stopped admitting any claims for deaths due to the tragedy after that even though the Indian Council of Medical Research showed that the death rates remained substantially higher (almost twice as high) at that time in these areas as compared to those that had not been affected.

The ICMR too wound up its research after 1997. Projections based on this higher death rate, which is attributed to the gas leak, could take the numbers of dead to more than 20,000.

But, the government has decided to go with the original numbers merely admitting to a factual error in counting in the first case and not admitting to a fault of the government in the process of identifying the affected.

The process of justifying the claim for compensation left the onus on the victims’ families at their own expense, and 10,047 cases were rejected at the time of paying compensation even though the district collector had accepted 15,342 cases. The appeals’ process was so tedious that only 2% of the rejected claimants ever did so.

Source: The Times of India

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