Residents of Bhopal complain relief projects are paltry

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Almost a year after the worst industrial disaster in history killed nearly 2,000 people and injured some 200,000 others in this central Indian city, many poor slum-dwellers are still suffering from its effects. Local state agencies and volunteer groups are making efforts to set up rehabilitation projects and administer medical relief. But many people believe these programs are paltry given the magnitude of the disaster.

Laxman Sahu, who lost his wife and two of his children in the accident, is one.

Mr. Sahu says that the Bhopal Relief Commission set up by the state of Madhya Pradesh with funds from the central government has been unable to provide effective treatment for those who were injured when a leakage of toxic gas from the local Union Carbide chemical plant occurred last December.

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The paucity of information about the toxicity of the methyl isocyanate gas has caused a controversy in the medical community over what the proper treatment should be. Effective treatment and rehabilitation require ``comprehensive documentation'' and ``research'' which are not available, says Mahesh Buch, an official of the National Center for Human Settlements and Environment. The conduct of such medical research could take several years.

Meanwhile, many victims are finding it difficult to adjust to their heightened poverty and physical impairments.

For many of the victims, who were mostly unskilled laborers, daily wages averaging 40 to 60 rupees ($3 to $5) decreased by at least half or were whittled do to almost nothing because of their inability to work. Like other victims, Sahu can work only one or two hours a day -- buying and selling vegetables. ``I'm willing to work if the job does not require lifting heavy loads,'' he says.

Since the accident, the state has been supplying monthly rations of wheat or rice to more than half of Bhopal's 1 million residents. Many complain, however, that other basic needs like milk and firewood, clean water and sanitation, are not being provided.

The state also disbursed death payments of 10,000 rupees (less than $850) to victims' relatives and injury payments of 1,500 rupees. But not everyone has received them.

Mr. Sahu, for instance, received payments for the death of his two daughters but not for his wife. The money he did get he put into a bank for his three remaining children's education -- ``if they get better.'' He could use the extra money to set up a general provisions store.

The state has begun to build two or three vocational ``worksheds'' where people can be trained in tailoring or handicraft manufacturing.

Relief commissioner Ishwar Dass says about 50 more worksheds are planned. Eventually, a government spokesman says, the training will help build up skills for people to go into self-employment with aid from state banks.

But, he says, ``there are so many constraints in providing loans because these people are so poor and unskilled.''

A volunteer women's welfare group has made a bit more progress in setting up ``self-reliance'' projects like tailoring, bookbinding, and candlemaking for women victims. So far, about 250 women have been taken in, and it is hoped that the number may increase to 1,000 later.

Another volunteer group, the Citizens' Committee for Relief and Rehabilitation, set up a self-help project by distributing pushcarts for vending to some of the less disabled victims. Income from vending sales should pay for these and other carts as well, says J. P. Diwan, a local volunteer.

Other people are not as fortunate. As Mahesh Buch says, ``thousands more need some type of long-term rehabilitation. Many of them may need mechanical aids due to disabilities.''

At the Union Carbide plant, which the state officially closed in July, about 630 employees who lost their jobs staged a sit-in on the premises to demand greater compensation than that offered by the company management (15 days' salary for each year of service). The plant is a subsidiary of the United States-owned Union Carbide Corporation.

``The company said this is the maximum they can give,'' says R. K. Yadav, general secretary of the Union Carbide Employees Union. ``The state government has offered alternative employment, but they have offered jobs as office clerks to technicians for less than half of previous salaries. And they have to relocate miles away.''

If negotiations between the union and Union Carbide managers fail, Mr. Yadav says, ``we will take the law into our own hands. We can start selling the equipment and materials in the plant. We are not afraid of the police or the government.''

Union Carbide-India's own rehabilitation and medical relief efforts have had limited impact. ``Union Carbide's name is so tarnished in Bhopal, no one wants to be associated with it,'' says a local social worker.

However, the Indian government believes Union Carbide is ultimately responsible for a comprehensive financial settlement and long-term medical care for victims. In April, the Indian government announced it had refused a $200 million out-of-court settlement offer from Union Carbide as unacceptable. But until the legal case is resolved, or a settlement agreed upon, the Bhopal victims have to wait.

Like many others, Sahu feels devastated by the tragedy and let down by everyone. ``My only hope,'' he says, ``is that we survive.''

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