The poor can wait. Most of the thousands who died or were permanently maimed on December 3, 1984, in Bhopal, after Union Carbide emptied a tankful of lethal MIC gas into the city, were poor and illiterate people. Twenty years after the Bhopal gas tragedy, with the effects of this industrial disaster still unfolding in the lives of lakhs of Indians, the full amount of the compensation paid by Union Carbide is yet to be properly distributed among the survivors. It is a measure of the profound and protracted injustice done to the damaged that the Supreme Court has had to direct the government, a couple of days back, to ensure the proper distribution of Rs 1,503 crore to the victims and survivors. This is the last portion of the money that Union Carbide had paid as part of the 1989 settlement. That original sum of $470 million had raised countrywide protests because of its paltriness, and also because the money seemed to have absolved the multinational of all responsibility for the tragedy. Since then, Union Carbide has been bought over by Dow Chemicals, the second largest chemical company in the world, which too refuses to take any further responsibility for the disaster. No one has so far been deemed culpable for it. And the matter would have ended there, had it not been for the persistence of the survivors and the activists supporting them over the decades. To these survivors, most of whom have already been victims of the red tape around the processing of claims, even a crore is too large a sum of money to give any sense of how inadequate the actual compensation has been according to international standards of redressal. And this is the real disgrace of the entire Bhopal affair in which every kind of inequity, global and local, shows its most brazen face.
Several local obstacles can now come between this money and those who must get it. First, the Madhya Pradesh government wants some of this money to improve the city. An NGO has contested this, claiming the money for those wards of the city which have been directly affected by the tragedy. By no means should the money get mired in another legal wrangle. The entire matter of who could now claim compensation has also become far more complicated. Now that the long-term effects of the poisoning are beginning to make themselves evident, the extent of the damage looks far wider. Working out who is entitled and to how much will also demand a sense of fairness and honesty which is difficult to associate with the Indian bureaucracy. The political strength that the survivors have acquired over these decades, and the will of their non-governmental activist-supporters, might again be put to test over the actual disbursal of this money.