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Five Years Later, Bhopal Survivors Still Waiting for Help

December 2, 1989

BHOPAL, India (AP) _ Fourteen-year-old Mamta, who lost her parents and five brothers and sisters in the deadly gas leak at Union Carbide’s pesticide plant here, tried to commit suicide two weeks ago by setting fire to her house.

She was rescued by neighbors and sent to an orphanage in another town.

Many of the more than 20,000 survivors of the world’s worst industrial accident share Mamta’s despair, and five years later they still have not been compensated.

They have trouble finding work because their eyes and lungs were damaged by exposure to the white cloud of methyl isocyanate that passed over their crowded shantytowns on Dec. 3, 1984.

Instead, they wait for their shares of the $470 million the U.S.-based multinational Union Carbide gave the Indian government in ″full and final compensation″ of the disaster that has killed at least 3,598 people.

The government alleged the leak was the result of negligence by Union Carbide and sued it for $3 billion. Union Carbide said the leak was sabotage by a disgruntled employee.

India’s Supreme Court ultimately approved Union Carbide’s $470 million compensation, but many survivors bitterly contest the settlement as much too small.

The government’s right to agree to the settlement as the sole representative of the survivors has been challenged, delaying disbursement of most of the money.

Meanwhile, the deaths continue. At least 269 people have died in the past year of ailments blamed on exposure to the gas. S.R. Satyam, the Madhya Pradesh state government’s commissioner for gas relief, says 1,960 deaths await investigation.

The government still has not reviewed all of the approximately 570,000 compensation claims.

Some of the seekers were hundreds of miles from Bhopal at the time of the leak but say they suffered mental anguish worrying about the fates of loved ones.

A survey by a team of doctors found that 70 percent of the people who inhaled the gas still suffer from severe respiratory disorders, chronic eye diseases, cataracts, menstrual problems and neurological disorders.

The government’s figures of the permanantly disabled are ″grossly underestimated,″ the team’s spokesman, Dr. Nishith Vohra, told reporters Friday in New Delhi.

Dr. Gurbaksh Rai Dheer, Bhopal’s chief medical officer, said there is no known treatment for the gas. ″Our treatment is symptomatic. This has helped some of the victims to recover, but many are showing no signs of improvement,″ he said.

He said psychological disorders resulting from trauma are also common.

Satyam cites Mamta, who tried to burn herself to death by setting fire to the family home.

Her brother, Sunil Vishwakarma, 17, now sits brooding with his dog, Moti, in the tin-roofed house, across the road from the closed Union Carbide plant.

The Indian government has spent millions of rupees on relief and rehabilitation, but survivors say the measures are inadequate.

″The government began with dole of money, grains and milk,″ said Shankarlal Shrivastava, a grocer. But now, all assistance has stopped, he said.

″We cannot exert ourselves because of breathing problems, and it is difficult to find a job suited to our physical capability,″ he said.

Activist groups call the $470 million settlement ″grossly inadequate″ and organized demonstrations for more compensation after it was announced.

Protests have become rare. ″It is becoming increasingly clear that the amount will not be raised any further,″ said Alok Pratap Singh, who heads the Poisonous Gas Episode Struggle Front.

Satinath Sarangi of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action said the low compensation was offered because multinational companies feel ″life in the Third World (is) cheap.″

″All we want now is that the charges of homicide against the company should not be dropped and its officials should be prosecuted,″ he said.

″How can we allow this killer company to be exonerated from the charge of killing our family members and making our lives miserable,″ said Razia Bee, 40, whose husband and two daughters died in the gas leak.

″I just feel like dropping a bomb on the factory, but I fear there are still poisonous gases inside,″ she said.

Narmada Bai Rajoria, another widow, said the victims want jobs, not alms. She said she returned an early, stopgap award of $625, which was given by the government as compensation for her husband’s death.

″I want employment so that I can support my family and live with dignity,″ Mrs. Rajoria said.

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