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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 25, June 12, 2010

After the ‘Judicial Tragedy’ in Bhopal

Editorial

Monday 14 June 2010, by SC

A friend of ours sent this SMS message late on June 7 following the judgment of a local court in Bhopal on the world’s worst industrial disaster that happened in the night of December 2-3, 1984: “The Bhopal verdict proves the Indian state—government, poll parties and judiciary—is slave of global capital. If Bhopal victims now take up arms, they’ll surely be called ‘terrorists’ and Green Hunt may be launched against them. Twentysix years, but should we forget?” The essence of what this friend has conveyed must not be lost: it is not enough to say justice delayed is justice denied—the common people, the aam aadmi for whom the present ruling dispensation sheds copious tears (at least in public and especially during election-time) cannot hope to get justice in the neo-liberal environment that currently prevails in our country wherein the value of life of those occupying the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder is getting progressively reduced with every passing day consigning them to the margins of society and leaving them with no other option but to take up weapons for their survival as well as redressal of their legitimate grievances. Howsoever much one hopes and prays for a different scenario (precisely when we claim to live in a functional democracy that is arguably the world’s largest), the fact is that in today’s general setting what has been conveyed in the foregoing is indeed the bitter reality one is confronted with at present.

What has been the ‘Bhopal verdict’? This was the first criminal conviction for the Bhopal gas disaster. After a marathon trial the Chief Judicial Magistrate of Bhopal sentenced seven former officials of the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) running the plant from where there was leakage of the highly poisonous methyl isocyanate gas in the night of December 2-3, 1984 resulting in about 20,000 deaths and affecting 5.73 lakh people—they were awarded a maximum of two years in prison as they were pronounced guilty under Sections 304(A) (death by negligence), 336 (endangering life and safety), 337 (causing hurt) and 338 (grievous hurt) of the IPC and not under Section 304-II (offence of culpable homicide). But all the seven left the court premises a few hours later after they were granted bail on furnishing a bond of Rs 25,000 each and a personal security of Rs 25,000 each. However, as has been noted in The Times of India on June 8, 2010,

It will be unkind to blame the trial court for handing out mild punishments to the Bhopal gas leak accused whose collective negligence caused an industrial catastrophe, For the court’s decision to frame charges against them under Section 304-II of the IPC—that attracts a maximum jail of 10 years—was set aside by the Supreme Court itself on September 13, 1996.

An SC Bench, comprising Chief Justice A.M. Ahmedi and Justice S.B. Majumdar, had then asserted that the “material pressed in service by the prosection does not indicate even prime facie that the accused were guilty of an offence of culpable homicide and, therefore, Section 304-II was out of the picture”, adding: “Section 304(A) on this very finding can straightaway get attracted at least prima facie.”

Yet the then Additional Solicitor General, Altaf Ahmed, appearing for the CBI, had a different viewpoint (that was summarily dismissed by the SC Bench); as he now explains, the management of the Union Carbide “knew that necessary safety measures were not in place and a leak of the kind that resulted in the tragedy was a distinct possibility”.

And what about the Union Carbide Corporation and its CEO at the time of the disaster, Warren Anderson? The Union Carbide is currently a wholly owned subsidiary of the Dow Chemical Company and Anderson retired in 1986. The company is now resorting to all kinds of verbal tricks to obfuscate the basic issue; according to its spokesperson (who spoke to Wall Street Journal), the “Union Carbide and its officials are not subject to the jurisdiction of the Indian court since they did not have any involvement in the operation of the plant which was owned and operated by Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL)”. As for Anderson, he now lives in his million dollar home in the posh Long Island neighbourhood of Bridgehampton while the victims of the tragedy (for which he and his company must be held accountable) continue to suffer in misery and humiliation having received ‘compensation’ whose paltry amount would shame any self-respecting nation.

The fact is that Anderson was the main accused in the case. He was arrested and immediately released in Bhopal on December 7, 1984. By now it is clear that the then Madhya Pradesh CM, Arjun Singh, directly helped him to fly to New Delhi and then leave for the US. It was Arjun who enabled him to go scot free. However, former Madhya Pradesh CM Digvijay Singh has publicly hinted at US pressure to set Anderson free—if this is true then Arjun was acting at the behest of the Union Government. Also the CBI officer in charge of the investigation from April 1994 to July 1995 has disclosed that he was categorically told by the authorities in New Delhi (he has named the MEA in this respect) not to press for Anderson’s extradition. All these have put the Union and State governments and hence the Congress on the defensive and they have a lot to answer. Anderson was declared a fugitive in February 1992 as he repeatedly ignored the summons after the CBI chargesheeted him and 12 others in 1987, holding them responsible for the tragedy. Thereafter Anderson was declared an absconder by the court making it a matter for the Centre to seek his extradition from the US. But the Government of India kept silent till 2003 when the request for his extradition was made but in June 2004 the US turned it down on the ground that this was not in conformity with the provisions of a bilateral treaty.

But the pressure to get Anderson was never relaxed. Two NGOs, the Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udyog and Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti, moved the court with the plea “to frustrate the concerted attempt of the Union of India and all the concerned public servants in office at the relevant periods, who have made a complete mockery of the judicial process and the criminal justice system”. Thereafter the court of the CJM directed the CBI to produce Anderson so that he could face trial and the last warrant for his arrest was issued on July 22, 2009.

Meanwhile it needs to be underlined that the Union Government reached a settlement with the Union Carbide over all claims and criminal matters. Under this deal the Carbide paid Rs 713 crores as compensation—of this Rs 113 crores was paid to those with damge to property or cattle deaths and the remaining Rs 600 crores was to be distributed to the 3000 dead and one lakh injured (according to preliminary estimates). These figures were arbitrarily arrived at. Later the figures rose to 20,000 (dead) and 5.73 lakhs (injured). So on an average each victim received a mere Rs 12,410. This is the value of an ordinary person in a Third World state aspiring to become a major world power.

There is justified outrage across-the-board at this latest “judicial tragedy” with the accused getting away with light sentences and the prime accused outside the pale of law while the victims’ tale of immense misery shows no signs of coming to an end as justice continues to elude them. Several NGOs have urged the PM to speak the language of US President Barack Obama to force Dow Chemicals and Union Carbide adequately pay for the Bhopal catastrophe. Obama held British Petroleum responsible for the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and on June 5 declared: “We will make sure they pay every single dime owed to the people along the Gulf coast.” Of course, the Congress too has joined the national chorus on the issue and Union Law Minister Veerappa Moily has stated that the case against Anderson has not yet been closed. The Union Cabinet has also constituted a Group of Ministers (GoM) to revisit the 1984 incident and make appropriate recommendations relating to relief and rehabilitation of the victims of the disaster and their families.

But if past record is any indicator nothing much is expected from the PM or his colleagues. After all, they are beholden for manifold reasons and in so many ways to both the US and India Inc. (which, incidentally, remained conspicuous by its silence in the matter).

As for the US, it is worried about the effect the general outrage in India on the Bhopal episode will have on the fate of the nuclear liability bill currently before Parliament. It cares little for the victims of the Bhopal gas disaster.

This being the overall situation the moot question is: what should the people do in this scenario? Wait in silence or rise up and wrest justice from the unwilling hands of the powers that be? Only the future can give a clear-cut reply. However, in the meantime the intervention of the civil society would become imperative in the days ahead.

June 10 S.C.

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