BHOPAL ’84 GAS TRAGEDY: For a few pieces of silver

From Tehelka Magazine
Vol 7, Issue 25, Dated June 26, 2010

Burial of an unknown child after the gas tragedy

Sometimes the breaking news is not as important as the old record. In a small, box-shaped room in the shanty colony of JP Nagar in Bhopal, Leelabai, a tiny sparrow of a woman, sits crying. She doesn’t care about Warren Anderson. She lost her ailing 27-year-old daughter a month earlier to an undiagnosed disease. Her frail 23-year-old son looks like he’s 14 and her one-year-old grandson is lying on the floor sucking at a pacifier. Her husband is a day laborer. “It would have been better if my children had died right then. We bring them up with so much difficulty, it’s worse to lose them at this age. And what’s the point of having all these hospitals in our name if they can’t even diagnose why we are dying. They might as well shut the hospitals and let us die in our homes.”

Leelabai is just one of lakhs of people across three generations who’ve been destroyed by the evil white cloud that floated out of the Union Carbide factory in 1984. Survivors are suffering from breathlessness, failing eyesight, painful stomachs, missing limbs, angry skins. Children of exposed parents are born with incapacities of varying degrees.

But it is pointless to talk of the suffering of these people because, as it turns out, it seems the real story of Bhopal 1984 is not the devastation it brought. Or the legitimate search that should’ve been undertaken to ensure such a thing never happens again. The real story of Bhopal is the perceived impact it had on India’s “investment climate” and the distorted, ways in which successive Indian governments have worked to manage that.

Over the last week — ever since a Bhopal trial court read out its verdict on the criminal case against Union Carbide functionaries on June 7 — there has been a series of shocking confessions. Twenty five thousand people dead, 5 lakh affected and the accused only get two years in jail and bail on a bond of Rs 25,000? This was too little justice to stomach for the world’s worst industrial disaster. The verdict seemed to unlock a sleeping consciousness. Outrage spilled across the country. Key people, silent for too long, began to speak up. Old facts tumbled into the media: how Warren Anderson, the CEO of Union Carbide USA and now chief absconder, had been flown into Bhopal on December 7, 1984, arrested ceremoniously at the airport, taken to the Union Carbide guest house, given tea, then on the orders of then Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Arjun Singh, put on a State aircraft back to Delhi and out of India to safety.

The real truth about Bhopal is that these recent revelations are not isolated events but part of a continuing story whose outcome will have far-reaching implications for our collective life as a nation. Talking about Rajiv Gandhi’s culpability in letting Anderson go, Arun Nehru said something that seems to have escaped majority attention. To paraphrase loosely he said, it might be wrong to judge events in the 1980s with the perspective of India in 2010. India was poor and it was very difficult to get money invested into the country. Punishing Anderson would have sent out a bad signal to the US business.

Nothing has changed in India 2010. A cluster of official letters from 2006 to as recently as 2008, accessed through RTI, shows that what was done for Union Carbide in 1984, and after, is still being done for its successor company Dow Chemical today. These letters show some of the most powerful men in government and industry, from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to P Chidambaram (then Finance Minister), Kamal Nath (then Commerce and Industry minister), Ronen Sen (then Indian Ambassador to the US) Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Deputy Chairman, Planning Commission, Abhishek Singhvi, Congress spokesperson and Ratan Tata, among others, consulting each other on the best way to allow Dow Chemical to evade liability in paying for the remediation (or clean-up) of the toxic contamination in Bhopal.

Even as this travesty unfolds — driven by the same logic of wooing investors — the government is simultaneously pushing for a dangerous Nuclear Civil Liability Bill that excuses foreign suppliers from all criminal liability and seeks to cap their maximum financial liability at Rs 500 crore in the event of a nuclear disaster. (The rest to be borne by the Indian taxpayer.) It further states that potential victims will have no right to take foreign suppliers to court and only the Indian operator — Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) — can sue the suppliers if it so wishes. Further, it deems that all nuclear disaster related litigation will be outside the purview of ordinary Indian courts.

According to sources, the reason the lethal Union Carbide factory came to Bhopal in the first place in 1975 is because the then Industries Minister Shankar Dayal Sharma, who later became the President of India, insisted it be set up in his constituency rather than the more deserted Jagdalpur, where it was intended. RK Sahi, who was then Deputy Director in the ministry, confirmed this when he told The Hindu that the entire department was against granting the industrial license. “We knew that discarded technologies were being transferred to India. It was obsolete in the US, but it was being dumped in our country. We all knew that,” he said. “These things were finally decided at a high level… Union Carbide had been trying for a license since 1970 & got it during the Emergency, which was not a democratic government. So, whatever somebody wanted to do, he or she did it then.”

“Carbide — and consequently Dow”: that is the evident (and self-confessed) relationship Bhopal campaigners are trying to insist on in their search for justice. But the weight of almost the entire political establishment is against them. The BJP may be shouting hoarse about the Congress’ culpability in letting Anderson off, but its own senior MP, Arun Jaitley has written a detailed note on why Dow should not be made liable for the remediation cost in Bhopal.

No one in government seems to be embarrassed, either, about the fact that around the time Indian ministers were writing to each other with awe about Dow’s potential investments in India, Dow was being penalized by the US Securities and Exchange Commission, under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, for paying $200,000 in bribes to Indian officials to fast-track the registration of their controversial pesticide Dursban (which it sells for residential use in India though it is banned everywhere else). Dow meekly paid $325,000 as civil penalty to the American SEC, while India did nothing.

There is a common axiom among corporations: the business of business is business. This idea allows companies to make money under any circumstances.

As this goes to press, US President Barack Obama has got UKbased energy major BP to commit $20 billion toward cleaning its oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; and $100 million compensation fund for oil industry workers left jobless. India had asked UCC for only $3.3 billion: it came away with $470 million.

A few years ago, the Prime Minister had famously declared Maoists as “the greatest security threat to the nation” and said the unrest in the heart of India was spoiling the “investment climate of the country.”

Now, Leelabai is contemplating the gun too — even if only as a joke.

Bhopal tragedy deepens as farce

By Raja Murthy
Asia Times dated 25th June, 2010

Recommendations by India’s Group of Ministers for action on the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy, handed over to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Monday, represent the latest injury in a farce that has heaped insult on the estimated 10,000-plus killed and over 500,000 affected by the world’s worst industrial disaster.

Twenty-six years after the poisonous explosion at its Indian plant, offender Union Carbide continues to escape accountability, while the ministerial report asks Indian taxpayers to foot a US$328 million compensation package for the victims. Union Carbide is now a subsidiary of the Michigan-based Dow Chemicals Company, which reports $45 billion in annual sales.

The Indian government had originally demanded $3 billion compensation from Union Carbide in 1986. Three years later, it mysteriously settled for a paltry $470 million that later shrunk to about $500 per victim.

Why successive Indian prime ministers have dawdled through quarter of a century over the Bhopal gas tragedy is in itself a mystery wanting investigation. A strange somnolence paralyzed nine Indian prime ministers and their administrations – from assassinated former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s government, which let Anderson flee India, to incumbent Manmohan Singh, Reserve Bank of India governor during the Bhopal gas disaster and perhaps the most pro-US prime minister in Indian history.

Indian politicians appear fearful of ruffling US governmental feathers and scaring away American investors, with activists saying the new ministerial report protects American corporate interests rather than serving the Bhopal victims.

Courtesy:  Tehelka Magazine, Asia Times


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