A largesse too late: Cong washes its Bhopal guilt with Rs 1500 cr

26 years after the disaster, the government sees it fit to hand out Rs 10 lakh to the kin of those who died

prasanna

Prasanna Mohanty | June 22, 2010




The Bhopal package announced by the group of ministers (GoM) is a welcome step in the sense that it will provide some financial help to the victims, who, by some estimate, received a measly sum of Rs 12,410 each as compensation for the biggest industrial disaster that struck the country in 1984.

Beyond that it is no more than a knee-jerk reaction aimed at containing the sense of outrage that sweeps across the country. Had that not been the caser, the GoM would have focussed on the core issues--rehabilitation of the victims and fixing responsibility for the disaster--which go completely unaddressed.

For example, 26 years after the tragedy, we have no idea how many people died or were disabled, either permanently or partially, because of the gas leak. The Madhya Pradesh government’s website still carries the official figure of those died at 3,787. Unofficial estimates vary from 15,000 to 25,000 deaths. The GoM, on its part, has arrived at a figure of 15,342 deaths, but on what basis is anybody’s guess. Same goes for those who were permanently or partially disabled. How will anyone ensure that the victims actually benefit from the compensation in absence of even a survey?

The GoM has announced Rs 10 lakh for the dead, Rs 5 lakh for the permanently disabled and Rs 3 lakh for the partially disabled. Can the money alone restore their lifestyle and their ability to lead a healthy life? Shouldn't the government even think of rehabilitating the victims who were not only denied justice for 26 years, but were left to fend for themselves?

Don’t forget, when that the Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udyog Sanghathan (BGPMUS) and Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti (BGPSSS) fought a bitter fight between 2004 and 2008 for additional compensation from the central government—as the Supreme Court had given them this right to recourse in its 1991 judgment—the central government dismissed it both before the Supreme Court and before the Office of the Welfare Commissioner of Bhopal. Why this change of heart now if not to deflect the ire increasingly aimed at a departed leader held dear by the present government?

The second key element of the package is to seek extradition of Warren Anderson, the then chairman of the Union Carbide Corporation, the US-based parent company. Given the long history of complicity of the political bosses and the bureaucrats in first facilitating a “free passage” and then not seeking his extradition, it sounds hollow and rather pompous for the GoM to make such a recommendation at the first place—26 years after the sin was committed.

If the GoM is serious about fixing responsibility, it should have asked the Dow Chemicals, which took over the Union Carbide, to pay for cleaning the toxic materials still lying in the pesticide plant in Bhopal. The GoM is silent on this. Instead, it is talking about setting aside Rs 300 crore for the job and floating tender for the purpose. Has any government, be it at the centre or the state, bothered to even assess the extent of damage the toxic material has caused in all these years? No. “It is a joke. Let them first assess the magnitude of the problem”, comments of ND Jayprakash of the BGPSSS.

It is alright to talk of filing a curative petition to challenge dilution of the charges against the Union Carbide executives but is it going to be of any use now? It was way back in 1996 that the then Chief Justice of India A.H. Ahmadi had not only diluted the charges to a mere road accident, he had even dismissed a review petition subsequently. If the first round of conviction took 26 years, imagine the time it will take for the curative petition to bear fruit, assuming that it does reinstate the “culpable homicide not amounting murder” charge. One of the eight convicts is already dead. And we are not even talking about 89-year-old Anderson who may not ever be extradited after such a delay.

Recall how the Supreme Court had dismissed civil and criminal liability of the Union Carbide in 1989 and how top most lawyers of the country defended the Union Carbide in courts in India and abroad. Also the role played by several ministers, some of whom are members of this GoM, and lawyers from both the ruling and the opposition parties, in trying to absolve the Dow Chemicals from its liability to clean up the Bhopal plant. Can this GoM or the central government or the judiciary be trusted to fix liability and bring justice to the victims? The history of the past 26 years tells us clearly they can't stand up to a multinational. The GoM doesn't even pretend to be doing so.

As far as the GoM’s recommendation about upgrading the Bhopal Memorial Trust Hospital goes, for which Rs 230 crore is proposed to be set aside and its management would be taken over by the government, one hopes the government is serious. Not only has this hospital, which is meant exclusively for the gas victims, turned into a private one under the very nose of the same Justice A. H. Ahmadi as its chairman, it has a long record of dismissing gas victims disdainfully and prescribing medicines which don’t have anything at all to do with their problems.

 

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