Bhopal Gas Tragedy Disbursement
Union Carbide India Limited's plant at Bhopal designed by its majority holding company union carbide corporation was set up as a formulation factory for UCC's Sevin pesticide. Midnight of December 2-3, 1984 marked one of the largest disasters of the world in the form of leakage of the deadly gas Methyl isocynate from the factory. Litigation followed in the coming years, as a result of which a settlement of $470 million was reached at to compensate the 2000 dead(reliable unofficial figures suggest it to be 6000 or more dead within 48 hours of the disaster and by 2003 over 15,000 deaths have been claimed) and over 30,000 injured(figure now stands at 5.5 lakhs).
Thereafter much legal wrangling took place and new enactment and legislation were reached at to make good the loss and avoid similar disasters in future. The victims, who had still not been given their fair share at least to compensate their financial loss, persisted and followed up the matter vigorously , as a result of which the supreme court in 2004 ordered the state government to disburse the compensation money amongst the victims between November 15th 2004 to April 1st 2005. The state government had before it the arduous task of pro rata distribution and decided to approach the entire task in collaboration with the National Law Institute University, Bhopal.
As volunteering students we were expected to assist the courts and administration in checking and coordinating the compensation applications of victims and also collecting key information and penning down experiences. The students were divided into groups of 8 or 10 and sent to the different courts in the city along with a teacher incharge. I was assigned to the Tulsinagar court which was to deal with the death cases on that particular day. As mere student volunteers and distanced from the tragedy by almost 20 years we really could not imagine an iota of their suffering.
However a single day's experience at the court did at least initiate us into a better understanding of the entire catastrophe. We seated ourselves on the wooden benches placed for us and stacked our survey forms in place. The judge, the court staff and the teacher incharge had briefed us on how we were to check the documents of all the victims for the purpose of getting the additional compensation amounts. Photocopies of documents like form 12, identification documents such as ration cards, election cards or smart card copies, other additional documents like medical prescriptions, death certificates etc were to be checked and submitted. The names of all applicants were also to be matched with either the official list or the entry numbers published in the daily.
After initial moments of hesitation the crowd started pouring in and we found ourselves with our fair share of work load coming in from across the wooden tables. People approaching us were predominantly from the lower or middle class families. Many applicants came with the entire set of documents and many were sent back for photocopies and other missing papers. Old couples and sons with their aged mother came in numbers to seek relief. While sharing their experiences and looking back 20 years and the changes in their lives, remembering a deceased daughter or son or another loved one many people shed tears of sorrow, suffering and disbelief. It was quite painful to see some handicapped and disabled aged men and women come with their documents and explain how they were blinded , paralyzed or suffered strokes on that fateful day.
There was also much skepticism among some applicants as regards the affectivity and efficiency of the distribution process and many such applicants brought with them a local advocate for assistance. Not only did this reflect mistrust in the system, posed an additional burden of advocate fee on the low income applicants and also defeated to some extent the purpose of our presence in the courts. Interestingly, we noted that the advocates did suggest unnecessarily long courses and not to mention the few surprise side glances that we got. Due to the lapse of 20 years, applicants did face trouble in recollecting exact details regarding their property, sufferings, medical records, earnings at the time of the tragedy, age of children and self etc. Many had also misplaced their documents and therefore were a little stranded.
Most persons had received the initial amount of Rs. 25,000 and not been given any other form of aid thereafter. The use of the initial money seemed primarily to meet the day to day needs and in some cases buying certain luxury items, for daughters' weddings, dowry etc. Many applicants were illiterate, unable to give their age or other details regarding change of address and relied completely on us to decipher their details from the documents. Some applicants had given their papers for certain other formalities and were thoroughly entwined in complicated administrative and judicial procedures involved in all types of claims, medical treatment. The responses to our in house survey forms, revealed many conflicting views and clearly indicated the multiple anomalies of the Indian society, economy and development strategies.
While most claims did seem genuine, there were couple of applicants who were clearly fabricating facts and were essentially trying their luck at collecting funds for an additional colour TV set or a new motor bike for the family.
Once the documents were verified and arranged by us, the applicants were to wait for their call for the hearing. After a successful hearing many would come out partly relieved, pass on a nod of gratitude and move on hoping that their application would materialize into something fruitful and not remain a mere token of elusive justice. We ended our day with a quick tea with the judge, giving him a general feedback and a few plausible suggestions.