Bhopal disaster survivors revive compensation demands

As Indian state prepares for polls, victims remind political parties that justice has not been served
Bhopal disaster survivors revive compensation demands

A protester walks by a poster commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster in the capital of Indian state Madhya Pradesh on Dec. 3, 2014. Four years later, victims are still fighting for compensation for the world's deadliest industrial disaster. (Photo by AFP)

Survivors of India's Bhopal gas tragedy have demanded politicians seeking their vote in a Dec. 28 state election make a commitment to settle their three-decade-old compensation claims.

They say a generation of people have lived and died without compensation since the disaster in the capital of Madhya Pradesh state 34 years ago, proving political promises to be futile.

"The new slogan is we will vote for candidates who will help us get compensation," said Rashida Bee, who leads the organization fighting for female survivors of the tragedy.

An estimated 5,300 people were killed and more than 500,000 injured when 40 tons of poisonous methyl isocyanate leaked from the Union Carbide Company plant on the outskirts of Bhopal on Dec. 2, 1984.

Activists working with survivors say about 25,000 more people have since died from exposure to the toxic gas in the world's worst industrial disaster.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been leading the state government for 15 years, is attempting to retain power in the state 231-seat legislative house. Its rival Congress, which led the state government during the tragedy and later years, accuses the BJP of neglecting survivors.

"Even our second and third-generation people suffer from the side effects of the poisonous gas. Young couples give birth to children with severe birth defects," said Bee, who takes care of 300 such children.

"Unless the new government finds a permanent solution, how long can the survivors fight?"

Bee and her group are demanding that each survivor be given 700,000 rupees (US$10,000) each as a final settlement.

Seven years ago, Bhopal's Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan promised to pay survivors 500,000 rupees (about US$10,000 then) but failed, said Rachna Dhingra of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action.

In the current election campaign, survivors have demanded candidates contesting the five constituencies where survivors play decisive roles in polls to present legally valid pledges to work for just compensation for all survivors.

Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal supported the demand for a permanent settlement of compensation "rather than keeping it as a never-ending saga."

However, he said, demanding a written pledge would not solve the issue. "A candidate may give it in writing just to win the election. It's no guarantee of compensation. He can later claim the government was against it," he said.

He said political parties should have been pressurized to make promises of compensation.

Union Carbide in 1989 paid US$470 million to India as a settlement for the disaster. Despite U.S.-based Dow Chemical owning the Indian company, the U.S. Supreme Court would not allow victims of the Bhopal disaster to seek damages in a U.S. court.

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In 2004, India's Supreme Court ordered the Indian government to release any remaining settlement funds to victims and in September 2006 the government announced that all claims, original and revised, had been settled.

However, people such as Mohammed Farah Shareef, a 24-year-old graduate, believe that the settlement claims are a sham.

"My father is suffering from throat cancer. His two elder brothers and sister-in-law died of cancer. We have received collective compensation of 150,000 rupees (US$2,200) in the past three decades," he said.

"We need a final solution. If the political parties cannot solve it, tell us so that we can look for alternatives."

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