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Victims of gas leak in Bhopal seek redress on compensation

BMJ 2004; 329 doi: (Published 12 August 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;329:366
  1. Sanjay Kumar
  1. New Delhi

    Thousands of compensation claims relating to one of the world's biggest industrial disasters, at the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal in 1984, are being taken to India's Supreme Court for revision next week.

    The move comes in the wake of a Supreme Court order of 19 July, which asked the government to distribute the remaining 15 billion rupees (£176m; $325m; €263m) lying in the coffers of the Reserve Bank of India.

    In the incident, poisonous gas leaked from the factory, killing thousands and injuring about half a million people. Their injuries ranged from breathlessness and gastrointestinal problems to neurological disorders. The official death toll is 5800, but campaigners say that more than 20 000 people have died from gas related illnesses.

    In 1989, the Union Carbide Corporation paid $470m as full and final compensation to the Indian government for disbursal to the people affected. Although the individual compensation claims (from just over a million claimants)—which have still not all been settled—have dragged on in Bhopal's lower courts for two decades, the undistributed money held in US dollars since 1989 has continued to earn interest, compounded by the growth of the dollar in relation to the rupee.

    Victims' organisations point out that although $470m was paid by Union Carbide for 102 000 injured people and 3000 deaths as part of the settlement, in fact far more claims have been made than this. Although officially only 5800 compensation claims for death have been paid out, more than 9000 further death claims have been paid out, but under the injuries category. The total number of successful claims for injuries, including these deaths, amounts to more than 550000.

    Embedded Image

    Victims of the 1984 disaster

    Credit: REX FEATURES

    The Bhopal Gas Tragedy Relief and Rehabilitation Department said that by the end of October 2003 judgment had been made on more than a million claims, with compensation being awarded to 554895 people for injury and 15310 claims for deaths.

    “Almost half a million victims have been paid a paltry amount of 25 000 rupees by the Indian courts, while for deaths a shameful amount of 100 000 rupees has been paid on average,” said N D Jayaprakash, co-convenor of Bhopal Gas Peedit Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti, a victim support organisation.

    More than 4000 victims still visit health facilities every day for treatment of gas related ailments 20 years after the event.

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