Wednesday, June 09, 2010
The Second Bhopal Tragedy
Karl Marx had once said - History repeats itself, occurring first as tragedy, the second time as farce. The quotation cannot have been more aptly applied than to the Bhopal Gas Disaster where the farce in question is the so-called conviction of the perpetuators of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, which makes a mockery of the Indian sense of justice. More than 25 years after a deadly gas leak from a Union Carbide plant caused the world’s worst industrial disaster, which killed more than 15,000 and affected more than 5 lakh people (and many more unreported), a local court yesterday convicted all the accused to a 2 year imprisonment!!! The accused were fined a lakh each and immediately granted bail.
The sentence is not just distressing – it is absolutely shocking to see a crime on humanity escaping such a mild rebuke, under the Indian law. After years of suffering under an arrogant MNC and being ignored by that albatross called Government of India, the people of Bhopal have been delivered the final blow. The victims of the Bhopal disaster gain practically nothing from the judgment; even a moral satisfaction of seeing the big guys behind bars is missing.
The Indian judicial system does not seem to be capable of giving justice to its own people- the main accused has not even been brought to trial and seven others have been given punishments, which equates the crime to a road negligence act, instead of the actual heinous act that it is. If justice has eluded the victims, this is because the governments of the US and India have colluded to protect the guilty. Successive governments have been eager to please US business corporations in order to attract more investment rather than pursue justice.
Even by the standards of the Indian judicial system, a 25 year wait is an incredibly long wait and imagine this is the largest industrial disaster in the world. Will it be wrong to expect a speedy, detailed investigation into an even of such enormity but then we are bound by our law. The only fatalistic expectation that we can have is of Divine justice and karmic punishment for the accused!!!
Various investigations and studies show that a series of negligent decisions taken by the management lead to the explosion of the gas tank, leading to 40,000 kg of methyl isocyanide spilling over to the city. Investigations over the years have shown that the Bhopal plant design was faulty and that there was next to no emergency preparedness — issues that the parent company in the U.S. apparently knew about, according to the groups that conducted the studies. Union Carbide not apply the same safety standards at its plant in India as it operated at a sister plant in West Virginia, US but then you can do that in India and get away with it.
Initially, Union carbide offered $ 5 million as a relief fund but the Indian government rejected the claim and demanded $3.3 billion instead. The original criminal case was settled out of court in 1989, when both Union Carbide and the Government sought to terminate all court proceedings by agreeing for a $470 million settlement. Consequently, Union Carbide paid 713 crore to the government as compensation – 113 crore was paid to those with property and cattle damage while the remaining 600 crore was to be distributed to the kin of the death and injured. But some victims are still waiting to receive even this share of the money.
No scientific survey was done and an arbitrary casualty figure was estimated. As time progressed, the numbers reported started increasing but since the amount was already agreed upon, the fixed amount had to be distributed among the people leading to on an average, each victim just receiving 12,410 Rs!!! As part of this settlement, all the criminal charges filed against Union Carbide were dropped but the uproar caused due to this led to the reopening of cases in 1991.
However, in 1996, the Supreme Court directed that charges against the accused be converted from culpable homicide (which carries a maximum of 10 years) to death due to negligence (maximum sentence of 2 years). So, the trail court cannot be accused of going soft on the accused; the real slackness was demonstrated by the SC Bench (including the then CJI A M Ahmedi) for allowing prosecution only under nominal ground. By reducing the Bhopal disaster to the equivalent of a traffic accident, the prison term for the crimes of Bhopal was brought down from 10 years to 2 years.
The main accused Warren Anderson, who was the Chairman and CEO of Union Carbide at the time of the incident was not even in the list of those convicted. He was arrested and released on bail by the police in 1984 and since then he has turned his back to India. The Indian Government made a plea for his extradition in 2004, but it was rejected by the US Government on the grounds that under US laws, only someone personally culpable for a crime can be extradited. The American and Indian Governments claimed they had no whereabouts about Warren Anderson but Greenpeace traced him to a nine hundred thousand dollar luxury home in New York, where he still lives in ‘anonymity’.
The Indian government seemed to go out of its way to cushion the experience for Union Carbide. The various Union governments in the meantime have not taken on Union Carbide, which is now owned by Dow Chemical. Meanwhile, Keshub Mahindra, Chairman of Union Carbide India Ltd at the time of the Bhopal disaster and now chairman of Mahindra & Mahindra was even nominated for a civilian honor, the Padma Bhushan, in 2002!!! He had to decline in the face of widespread protests.
In 1999, Raj Sharma, a lawyer based out of US, filed a lawsuit in the US against Union Carbide and Anderson, and has been litigating since. And this is what he has to say about the Indian Government - "The Indian government refused to put in even a single line or letter for us. They did not want to be embarrassed in front of Union Carbide, embarrassed to be supporting their own people. I had heard of the government's collusion with the company before I left for Bhopal. I said to myself, 'Don't be naive, this cannot be true,' until I saw it happening with my own eyes," says Sharma.
In a separate US litigation in 2002, Dow Chemical set aside $2.2bn to compensate American workers who were exposed to asbestos at Union Carbide operations but the cost of an Indian life is really not worth anything – for all gung-go talks about being at par with the West, an Indian life is not worth even a mini-percentage of the various bailouts that the US Government does for its greedy financial institutions.
This is in contrast to the way the U.S. government is now confronting BP — holding it squarely responsible for the oil spill and accountable for all cleanup costs. Eleven people were killed when British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in Gulf of Mexico, compared to 20,000+ deaths in Bhopal. The oil spill has caused extensive damage to marine life, birds and the US coastline in the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. In Bhopal, 26 years after the gas leak, the soil and the water are still contaminated, with dangerously high levels of toxic chemicals, and thousands still suffering the aftereffects.
British Petroleum has already paid 69 million dollars, just as first installment for the damages caused. That figure could multiply several times, with the company's liability still being decided. In contrast, Union Carbide paid just $ 470 million in compensation for the deaths it caused.
There are disturbing echoes of this history in the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill, which the Manmohan Singh Government introduced in Parliament and is eager to push to please the Obama administration. The Bill not merely limits the civil liability of any company running a nuclear power plant to Rs 500 crore per accident (less than a quarter of the dollar equivalent of the Bhopal settlement two decades ago), with an overall cap of roughly Rs 2,100 crore; it also exonerates international companies that supplied the equipment and technology. No equipment supplier in any other industry has such exemption from liability, and no other industry functions with such a cap on the operator's liability. Doesn’t the Bhopal Conviction clearly expose how shallow such a Bill is and the risk that we are going to take to please the Americans?
Shobhan Saxena puts it appropriately when he says in a blog in The Times of India - Today, India proved once again that it doesn't care for its poor… Today, India proved that it doesn't really care for its people, particularly if they have been slaughtered by powerful people from the most powerful nation in the world. Instead of taking on America and fighting for justice for its poor, India is more than happy to sell its dead cheap. Today – on the day of Bhopal disaster judgment -- if there is a failed state in the world, it’s India. It’s not Iraq. It’s not Somalia. It’s not Sudan. It’s India.