Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Bhopal: Twenty Years On

Economic and Political Weekly, December 4, 2004 (EDITORIAL)

Twenty years after the Bhopal gas disaster, accountability remains the principal casualty of a seriously misconceived litigation. And the mechanisms of succour for the victims, despite the windfall of a recent Supreme Court order, are rapidly winding down, never having performed with anything like the required efficiency and sensitivity. The two rather dim flickers that survive where accountability is concerned, are a criminal case proceeding fitfully in a Bhopal magistrate’s court, and a petition for an environmental clean-up being heard at a US district court.

The criminal case suffered a setback earlier this year, with the US government rejecting a demand for the extradition of Warren Anderson, chairman of Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) at the time of the disaster. The demand for extradition was itself made after much vacillation, and only after a severe indictment by the Parliamentary Committee on Public Assurances. But the prosecution obviously has little appetite to chase down the principle of corporate criminal liability and arrive at a definitive ruling on the issue. The charges that have been made out against executives of the Indian subsidiary of the multinational, Union Carbide (India) Ltd (UCIL) are for the relatively minor offences of negligence, rather than culpable homicide.

The decontamination of the UCC premises at Bhopal, which have over the last two decades become a festering witches’ brew of toxins, has been legally demarcated from the issue of damages for the gas disaster. This was a consequence of the demand made by the US district court that it would proceed with hearing the petition enjoining on UCC the responsibility for the clean-up, only if it obtained a letter of ‘no objection’ from the Indian government. The government, though keen to avoid any impression of insensitivity towards the environmental disaster of Bhopal, was also concerned that its rights as the sole litigant for damages should not be diluted. For this reason, the possibility of a linkage being drawn between the environmental clean-up and the gas disaster had to be neutralised at the source.

An unexpected bonus came the way of the gas victims early this year, with the Supreme Court ordering the disbursement of rupee balances that were held by the Reserve Bank of India out of compensation paid by UCC in 1989. But the medical symptoms suffered by those exposed to the lethal gas remain uncategorised and unrecognised, and their economic and social rehabilitation is an area of neglect. Compensation paid out has in most cases barely met the cost of treatment, and delays have meant that most sufferers have had to incur debts at prohibitive interest rates to merely exist on the margins of survival. Various independent inquiries have pointed to the persistence of adverse symptoms among those who suffered gas exposure.

If the tragedy of Bhopal continues to unfold, the reasons have to be sought in a sequence of institutional failures that go to the very heart of Indian democracy. The Indian government took on the onus of representing the gas victims, but treated them as an abstraction, not as living and struggling human beings. It filed a claim for compensation without attending to the basics of enumerating the number of the dead and injured. Under pressure from some smart counter-litigation by UCC, it capitulated. The Supreme Court, for its part, put the imprimatur of its approval on this abject capitulation. Confronted with public outrage, it retracted. It then went on, extraordinarily, to state, “the credibility of the judiciary is as important as the alleviation of the suffering of the victims”, as if there was an inherent conflict between the two. And it proceeded to live up to this grim prophecy in 1997 by hearing UCC, then declared an absconder by a lower court, and allowing it to dispose of all its shares in UCIL and effectively free itself of any encumbrance within the country.

The 20th anniversary of Bhopal should be an occasion not for recrimination, but for introspection. Above all, it should be an occasion to reflect on how India’s institutions have become thoroughly indifferent towards the sufferings of the poor and the indigent; indeed, how public functionaries do not feel obliged even to maintain an appearance of probity in matters that pit the rich and powerful against the poor. EPW

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