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Millennium Post

Waiting for deliverance

For the lakhs of gas victims, the last two years were a roller-coaster ride. Their hopes were aroused and then dashed to the ground. There was hope that the city would finally get rid of the lethal chemical waste lying on the premises of the defunct UCC plant. There was hope that those held guilty for raining death on the city will get stiff punishment. There was hope that there would be vast improvement in the functioning of the BMHRC after its takeover by the government of India. And there was the hope that the gas-hit would get higher compensation.

But all these hopes were shattered before the year was out. The chemical waste remains where it was, the culprits of the gas disaster got away with a light punishment-which too was not executed. The BMHRC continued to witness exodus of top doctors and the case for higher compensation pending in the Supreme Court continued to meander through the labyrinth of the Indian judicial system.

Studies made by Greenpeace and several agencies, Indian and foreign, on soil, groundwater, well water and vegetable samples collected from the residential areas around the plant show contamination with a range of toxic heavy metals and chemical compounds. A study found that the concentration of mercury in a soil sample was 6,000 times higher than the safe level! Already, the water of more than 100 tube wells in the area has been declared unfit for human consumption.

The source of all this gradual poisoning of the soil, water and vegetation in the area is the 350 MTs of lethal chemical waste lying on the UCC premises. The waste has been seeping into the soil and then spreading horizontally over the last 27 years. Many attempts were made to dispose of the waste but none succeeded.

However, there was much hope when, in June this year, it was announced that a German firm GIZ had agreed to cart away the waste to Germany and incinerate it there in return for Rs. 25 crore.

Within three months, however, the hopes were dashed. The German firm withdrew its offer, citing ‘uncertainties’ as the reason. This story of hope turning into despair was repeated in the case of punishment to the culprits of the gas tragedy case. After a legal battle that lasted for more than 15 years, Keshub Mahindra, chairman of UCC India Limited and seven others were held guilty for ‘causing death due to negligence’ and  sentenced to 2 years’ imprisonment each by a Bhopal court. However, they were bailed out within hours. That was in June 2010.

But hopes were aroused again, when in August 2010 the Supreme Court admitted a Curative petition filed by the prosecuting agency CBI and agreed to revisit its own judgment of 1996, that had diluted the charges against the UCC officials from ‘culpable homicide not amounting to murder’ (that carries a jail term of up to 10 years) to ‘causing death due to negligence’ under which the convict can be sentenced to a maximum of 2 years in jail. However, in a severe jolt to the gas victims and their organisations, the Apex Court, on 11 May, 2011, threw out the petition. ‘The curative petition is based on a plea that is wrong and fallacious,’ a five-judge bench of the top court said, adding that ‘no satisfactory explanation’ had been given for filing the petition after a gap of 14 years.

And of course, the villain-in-chief of the world’s worst industrial disaster -Warren Anderson, the then chairman of the Union Carbide Corporation-is enjoying a quiet retirement in the US. He never faced trial and the pleas for his extradition were never taken seriously by the government of India. Under an out-of-court settlement in 1989, the UCC had agreed to pay a compensation of 470 million dollars for the gas victims. The amount was arrived at on the basis of the casualty figures presented by the state government. The government had claimed that 3000 persons had died and 1,02,000 had suffered injuries in the disaster.

However, the gas survivors’ organisations argue that the actual figure was much higher. On the basis of the cases decided by the gas compensation courts, the number of deaths is 15,274 and the number of injured is 5.73 lakhs.

In 2010, a petition was filed in the Supreme Court seeking enhancement of compensation. But despite repeated pleas by the gas victims’ bodies, neither the state nor the Central government has cared to correct the figures of the dead and injured in the petition. (IPA)
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