26 YEARS AND STILL WAITING FOR ANDERSON

Letters from Ministry of External Affairs to CBI, brought to light by an RTI activist, show how bureaucratic reluctance in pursuing Union Carbide ex-chief Warren Anderson's extradition helped deny justice to victims of the world's worst industrial nightmare
M Reyaz Delhi

While allowing the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to once again seek the extradition of former Union Carbide chairman Warren Anderson in connection with the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy, a Delhi Court observed in March this year, "The chronology of steps taken by the CBI from 1992 till July 2010 in the case reveals that the CBI was not sleeping over the matter and was conscious about its duties to bring Warren Anderson to book."

Facts, however, tell a different story.

Documents available with Hardnews reveal that the CBI and Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) allowed the first extradition attempt to be delayed by bureaucratic hurdles, at least from 1992 to 1994. Correspondence between MEA and CBI from the period clearly shows that in those two years the documents could not be put in order for 'further proceedings'.

RTI activist Afroz Alam Sahil, who is associated with an 'alternative' news portal BeyondHeadlines.in, got the copies of letters written by MEA to the CBI through Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005. Sahil had sought copies of all correspondence on the disaster exchanged between the ministry and all other government departments until 1995, when the Supreme Court judgement came.

MEA had earlier refused to divulge details saying that requisite information was not "readily available with the Ministry",
and that "furnishing any information in this regard could impede the process of extradition".

On December 2-3, 1984, at the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal, a leak of methyl isocyanate gas and other chemicals from the plant resulted in the exposure of hundreds of thousands of people. More than five lakh people suffered injuries and at least 23,000 people are reported to have died in the continuing aftermath since then. Warren Anderson was the chairman of the company. In 1999, UCIL was taken over by Dow Chemicals.

However, the Chief Information Commission (CIC) had observed after the applicant filed an appeal that the "matter sub judice is not ground enough for denying information about the matter", adding that the information sought is of "significance to the general public, especially the families of the victims who have been awaiting justice since over last two decades." Information Commissioner Annapurna Dixit hence directed the MEA to "provide all the information as are available with them in their official records relating to the matter".

Reluctantly, MEA sent copies of letters it wrote to the CBI, but copies of the responses have not been made available. MEA writes that it had "approached CBI but they intimated... (that) CBI has been exempted under section 2(u) of the RTI Act, 2005."

A vexed Sahil says, "But MEA certainly needs to explain why they do not have copies of responses in their own record." The response sent, it appears, had been prepared in haste, as MEA furnished a letter dated April 28, 1992, despite writing that it has no record of "any papers prior to the year 1993".

Ninety-year-old Anderson is a US national, who was first arrested in Bhopal on December 4, 1984 on his arrival, but granted bail within days on condition that he would be available when required. He is charged with culpable homicide under section 304 (part-II). This was, however, diluted to section 304A by a Supreme Court Bench, comprising the then Chief Justice AM Ahmadi and Justice SB Majumdar on the plea of the accused on September 13, 1996.

In a letter dated April 28, 1992, OP Gupta, then joint secretary of MEA, wrote to the CBI requesting for details on the extradition of Anderson as the ministry was not aware of "any such decision". Although the MEA did not provide copies of the letters it received from the CBI, a letter it had sent on August 4, 1993 acknowledges the receipt of a letter dated July 22, 1993 from the CBI. In this letter, MEA reminds the CBI that it was yet to receive the "extradition documents", and raises objections against a statement of CBI's senior counsel in the media that "all formalities for extradition have been completed, and only a letter remained to be written" by MEA.

The CBI thus took a good 15 months to reply to the MEA letter and even then, it could not send the copies of the essential documents in proper order.

Finally, the CBI dispatched the extradition documents on September 23, 1993. But according to another letter from MEA, the documents did not contain the "court order dated the March 27, 1992". The ministry, therefore, requested the CBI to dispatch it at the "earliest for processing the case".

Similarly, a letter dated February 11, 1994 suggests that the court order of the Bhopal magistrate regarding the extradition of Anderson that MEA received was not duly signed, and hence the ministry requested the CBI to send the "signed copy of the court order... for further action".

However, ignoring its own tardy actions, AK Suri, then assistant director, CBI, wrote to MEA on November 7, 1994 – nine months after the above letter was sent to the CBI – asking for the "present status" of the case relating to the extradition.

Homi Saha, then director of the Consular Passport and Visa (CPV) division in the MEA, replied to this letter on December 2, 1994, reminding Suri that the "CBI had been asked to furnish to us (MEA) all the required documents in proper form" and added, "that is where the matter still stands."

Clearly, both CBI and MEA could not put together the requisite documents and papers for the extradition of Anderson for more than two crucial years.

In fact, although Anderson was declared a fugitive by law for ignoring court summons in 1992, it was only in 2003 that a formal extradition was requested, which the US rejected in 2004 clarifying that the request did not "meet requirements of certain provisions" of the bilateral extradition treaty. At the time of filing this story, a renewed extradition plea has been sent, but the US government is yet to respond.

Meanwhile, after fierce criticism last year for allowing Anderson to 'flee' and delaying his extradition, the Indian government is seeking 'enhanced compensation' for the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy. The curative compensation petition raises the official figure of death to 5,295 from earlier 3,000 and "the number of cases of minor injuries" to 5,27,894 from earlier 50,000. "...Accordingly, the amount of additional compensation to be claimed should be $1,241.38 million or Rs 5,786.07 crore at present value," the government's petition reads. The hearing was earlier expected to begin on October 17, but it has been postponed.

However, organisations working with survivors of the tragedy regard this number as a gross underestimate. Five of them – Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karamchari Sangh, Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila-Purush Sangharsh Morcha, Nirashrit Pension Bhogi Sangharsh Morcha, Bhopal Group for Information and Action, and Children Against Dow/Carbide – have come together and filed a petition in the Supreme Court, referring to the Indian Council of Medical Research figure for the number of deaths: 23,000 as of 2009. "That is why we have demanded an enhanced compensation of Rs 37,000 crore," informed Rachna Dhingra of Bhopal Group of Information and Action. 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: NOVEMBER 2011