Bhopal Gas Tragedy Part II

Published: June 29, 2010 - 17:41 Updated: June 29, 2010 - 17:47

Barack Obama's aggression against British Petroleum over the spillage of oil in Gulf of Mexico, forcing it to create $20 billion for environmental damage, builds a disturbing contrast with the servile Indian response on Bhopal 
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi

Misery rained like a full monsoon in 1984. Death looked for different reasons and forms to visit this tragedy-scarred nation. A spike in Sikh militancy that challenged the might of the India State was met with an iron fist. Army entered the Sikh holy shrine of the Golden Temple in Amritsar in battle tanks, and the bloody engagement took the fight out of the secessionists. Hundreds died or got injured. What followed was worse. 

There were desertions by Sikh security personnel and a call for revenge against those who dared to desecrate the holy shrine. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her own Sikh guards. Murderous riots targeting the Sikhs spread to large parts of the country - Delhi witnessed, what is called, a State-sponsored massacre. Its simmering injustice, still lingers. Thousands perished in the hellish fires of hate. Barely had the embers in the smouldering pyres of the dead extinguished, death took the people of Bhopal in a tight embrace in the worst industrial disaster the world had seen. 

On December 3, 1984, the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal that manufactured pesticide leaked the poisonous Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) in the air. The people who lived around the plant and beyond inhaled the killer gas and died in thousands. Others, in tens of thousands, were crippled and damaged for life, their painful physical suffering inherited by their children.

The happenings of 1984 have reshaped India's politics and also the way people perceive the nation-state. In the events of that dark, momentous year, the underlying question has seldom been addressed: can the Indian State really safeguard the interests of its citizens and not fall prey to partisan politics, or succumb to corporate interests? On both counts the Indian government has fallen far short of expectations. 

Leavened by growing awareness about international governance practices and the worth attributed to ordinary lives, the hiatus between what the government offers and expectations has become wider. President Barack Obama's aggression against British Petroleum over the spillage of oil in Gulf of Mexico and the manner in which he has gone about arm-twisting the oil major to create a corpus of $20 billion for environmental damage builds a strikingly disturbing contrast with the servile Indian response to the tragedy in Bhopal.

Expectedly, the judgement delivered by a lower court on the Bhopal gas tragedy has shown past governments as well as the Indian judiciary in very poor and unsavoury light. After cross-examining 178 witnesses and browsing through 3,000 documents, the Chief Judicial Magistrate found eight people guilty and sentenced them to two years of imprisonment and a fine of Rs 25,000. As they were charged under a bailable offence, all the accused were promptly allowed to go scot-free. 

This judgement sent a wave of outrage all over the country. Informed public opinion found it difficult to reconcile to the idea that the worst industrial disaster in the world does not merit the owners of the Union Carbide plant even one day in an Indian jail! Suddenly, people woke up to the fact that the boss of the company, Warren Anderson, was allowed to walk away free by the government. 

Transparent complicity, subservience, corruption and lack of political will to mess around with the 'bossy, ugly, American': these were some of the adjectives used to rain abuses on the government. What compounded the misery of the central government was the manner in which many of those who played a role in the Bhopal mess began to succumb to their 'guilty conscience' and media pressure to blurt out facts which were earlier unknown. Former bureaucrats, diplomats and politicians - 26 year older and wiser - are now washing their hands off the disaster. Quite a parade of the guilty it is turning out to be. 

MK Rasgotra, then foreign secretary in the external affairs ministry - that allowed Anderson a visa to visit India - blamed PV Narasimha Rao, who was then Union home minister. He also categorically said that the then prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, was fully informed when the home ministry gave safe passage to Anderson.

 Among others, former Chief Justice of Supreme Court AM Ahmadi was blamed for diluting the criminality of the Union Carbide officials. What is truly dramatic is the manner in which the Congress leadership is publicly showing coyness in saving Rajiv Gandhi. This, despite the fact that Sonia Gandhi is Congress president, and Rahul Gandhi, the general secretary.

 It has been several days since the Bhopal gas judgement was delivered by the lower court, but the Congress or the UPA government has not chosen to present a proper defence for their assassinated leader. Simple details like Rajiv Gandhi visited Bhopal on December 5 in the morning to commiserate with the victims have not been placed in the public domain. Similarly, his decision to blacklist Union Carbide from certain fertiliser ministry contracts is not being highlighted. Also, the unique circumstances of his becoming the prime minister and how he was dependent on the advice of the likes of Narasimha Rao and others has not been given adequate spin.

 Initially, the decision of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to appoint a Group of Ministers (GoM) under Union Home Minister P Chidambaram was seen as an exercise to make amends when it came to handling the great disaster, and to ensure that the toxicity of Bhopal did not besmirch the memory of late Rajiv Gandhi. By the look of it, the enterprise to save Rajiv has not worked. On the contrary, the GoM might be seen to be turning upside down practically everything that Rajiv's government achieved on this issue. Worse, either due to nervousness or design, they are going back on the international commitments that they gave to Union Carbide. 

In 1989, the government of India managed to get a Supreme Court arbitered compensation of $479 million from Union Carbide. At that time, the money was in far excess of what Indian courts pay for those who die in such accidents. During that phase, India was cash-strapped and agreed to this amount, which works out to approximately Rs 2,000 crore. The government of India also extinguished criminal and civil liability charges against Union Carbide. 

When VP Singh came to power in 1989 and Justice Sabysachi Mukherjee was appointed as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, criminal liability charges were kept alive. That is why the CBI began its investigation. According to a source who was in the government in 1989, "The central government cannot reopen the civil liability issue. We have taken the money and given a petition in the court. If we are seen to be waking up to it after all these years then who would trust our criminal justice system?"

Under enormous pressure, the UPA government is likely to file a curative petition to see whether it can take another look at the $479 million compensation, besides seeking extradition of 90-year-old Warren Anderson to India. Both these issues had the imprimatur of Rajiv Gandhi. Hence, the fact that Manmohan Singh's government wants to file a curative petition suggests a vote of no confidence to what happened during 1984-89. "

Forces against Sonia Gandhi and Rahul have ganged up to de-legitimise the Nehru-Gandhi family and they are using the GoM for this purpose," alleged a family loyalist. 

Other recommendations of the GoM include cleaning up the deadly toxic waste from the site and cleaning up the groundwater which has seriously damaged the health of thousands of people and new-born children. Also, the government is increasing the amount of compensation for those who were killed or maimed.

Ironically, while the real victims and their relatives continue to run from pillar to post, as in the past, there is the fear of a thriving compensation industry thriving in Bhopal. Some corrupt bureaucrats, politicians and NGOs have really made merry in the last 26 years, even while the people, most of them poor, have been condemned, forgotten, and brutalised. That the same vultures will not again choose to parasite on the suffering of the people - there is no such guarantee. Even while the government makes promises which it might not be able to really fulfill.

Barack Obama’s aggression against British Petroleum over the spillage of oil in Gulf of Mexico, forcing it to create $20 billion for environmental damage, builds a disturbing contrast with the servile Indian response on Bhopal
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi

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