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Since 1st March, 1999
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Ire over ‘cruel joke’

Bhopal, Dec. 3: For two hours this afternoon, the calculators were out as relief workers abandoned protests to work out the “fresh round of compensation” for the Bhopal gas leak.

Ahmad Ali could not believe his eyes as he shouted, still staring at the calculation on the screen of his mobile phone: “Oh my God! It is going to be Rs 52,800 crore.” Ali, in his late twenties, is a volunteer with the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan, an NGO that works for gas victims.

Rabia Ahmad, another volunteer, chipped in quickly: “Perhaps Dr Manmohan Singh should quit as Prime Minister to become mayor of Bhopal. Only a person of his integrity and economic acumen can handle this kind of money.”

But Singh did not have to consider resigning as BBC World, which had reported that Dow Chemicals Co. had promised a $12-billion compensation, said two hours later that its “inaccurate report” was an “elaborate deception”. Dow Chemicals now owns the Union Carbide plant from which the lethal methyl isocyanate had leaked at five minutes past midnight on December 3, 1984, causing the world’s worst industrial disaster.

In Bhopal, the false report raised tempers. An angry Abdul Jabbar, who runs the NGO, said: “It is a cruel joke.”

Echoing him, volunteer Ahmad Kamal said: “First a multinational ruins our life. Now the big media organisations are playing with our sentiments. What kind of a civilised world are we living in?”

Jabbar said the “cruel joke” has made them more determined. “Whatever be the circumstances under which the news was aired, we will get $12 billion from Dow sooner than later.” Dow has so far held that all its liabilities were resolved in February 1989 when Union Carbide paid $470 million to Bhopal residents.

But rights activists refuse to give up. Any compensation will be split among the five lakh victims of the gas leak.

Most survivors ignored the 20th anniversary of the tragedy. A government function in the morning set the tone for the “rituals.” Governor Balram Jakhar and chief minister Babulal Gaur attended an all-religion prayer meeting but not a single gas leak survivor was present. A candlelight march last night also lacked public participation.

Visiting Italian-born journalist Giuseppie Lugato said: “I am shocked and ashamed at the indifference.” Lugato, a freelance journalist who claimed to have covered the Vietnam War and the troubled zones of West Asia for various TV channels, asked: “Why should 1,000 people come out in the streets in a town that has a population of over 1.6 million?”

Activists defended the low turnout, pointing out that many survivors were getting old. “That they are not coming out does not mean that they are not supportive of us,” Ahmad said. “You must take into account their despondency and resignation too.”

At the candlelight march, there were no tears though quiet grief was etched on many faces. The candles were arranged in such a manner that they read: eight, four, zero, four. Activist Satinath Sarangi said: “This arrangement of candles signifies the passage of time from 1984 to 2004, marking the 20th anniversary of the tragedy.”

More than 3,500 people had died instantly after the gas leaked while many more succumbed later. Although official records claim the toll to be around 15,000, Amnesty International in a report released on Monday said 22,000 to 25,000 people had died.

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