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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 26, June 19, 2010

Bhopal Verdict—A Cruel Joke

Sunday 20 June 2010, by Soma S. Marla

Twentysix long years after the gruesome accident of methyl isocyanate (MIC) toxic gas leak from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, the district court of Bhopal has finally delivered its verdict. Eight persons, including the former Chairman of the plant Keshub Mahindra (who is next to the CEO of the plant, Warren Anderson), were found responsible for negligence that led to the death of countless innocent citizens of Bhopal. But to the dismay and frustration of the world and the families of victims, the sentence is for a maximum of two years in prison and/or a fine. Adding salt to injury all the seven prosecuted have been released on a mere bond of Rs 25,000 for each in the same evening of the judgment. The charges framed against the guilty were under Section 304 A of the IPC, that is, the provision used often for traffic accidents. The cruel joke is equating the death of 20,000 innocent civilians equivalent to the offence of a traffic accident. This judgment clearly shows whose side the judiciary is taking and the class interests it is serving shamelessly.

But Anderson, the prime accused no. 1 in the 1987 charge-sheet, got away without any prosecution and punishment. He was directly responsible for causing deaths to 20,000 innocent people, recognised as the worst industrial accident the world has ever had. Anderson had been heading the plant since its inception in Bhopal in 1969 and personally approved the design, equipment and installation of safety devices in the operation of the plant. The irony is that soon after the disaster (December 3), Anderson was under house arrest by the Bhopal Police, but he was released, a special plane was immediately arranged that flew him to Delhi (from where he fled to the United States the same evening) by the special instructions of the Chief Secretary of Madhya Pradesh Government. This was revealed a couple of days back by the then Collector of Bhopal. It is being alleged now that Arjun Singh, the then Chief Minister of MP, personally gave the above instructions.

A Pandora’s box is opening up revealing hard facts about how our governments, judiciary and the Central investigation agencies went out of their way completely oblivious of the lives of innocent fellow citizens just to please the American business masters. On June 9, in an interview to a television channel Mr Lal, the CBI officer who was incharge of the gas tragedy case at that time, revealed that they had clear instructions from the Ministry of External Affairs not to obstruct the safety passage of Anderson from the country.

The buck did not stop there. The CBI, to whom the case was handed over on December 3 by the MP Government, tried to undermine the seriousness of the case and remained inactive. In 1996 the CBI had downgraded the framed charges of “culpible homicide’ (causing death to thousands of civilians) under Section 310 of the IPC to Section 304A, equating it to a case of negligence. Thus it reduced the Bhopal disaster case to that of a traffic accident. This has brought down the sentence from 10 years to two years of imprisonment. Besides the Government of india never acted honestly in demanding deportation of Anderson to India. Had the government acted timely and demanded that from the USA, it could have secured and prosecuted him in Indian courts.

Initially our government sued Union Carbide for Rs 3 billion towards compensation for the victims. But ironically it got settled for just 15 per cent of this amount, as a consequence of which the survivors received an average not more than Rs 15,000. Maybe in the eyes of the American big business the lives of poor innocent Indians are cheap and not worth more!

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Almost twentysix years ago in the midnight of December 2-3, the American chemical giant Union Carbide’s pesticide plant in Bhopal leaked poisonous methyl isocynate gas killing 3500 men, women and children in their sleep. Some victims drowned in their own body fluids, others were trampled to death while trying to escape. This was followed in the next few days by the death of another 17,000 people due to injuries and toxic effects of the poisonous gas. Some activists even put this figure at 33,000. Nearly a lakh of Bhopal’s population became perma-nently disabled. The leaves of trees turned black and remained so for a month after the accident mutely mourning for the dead of Bhopal.

Established in 1969 in Bhopal to produce carboryl and other chemical pesticides, the Union Carbide plant was owned 59.9 per cent by the parent American Union Carbide (headed by Warren Anderson) and the remaining 49.1 per cent by its Indian partners (headed by Keshub Mahindra and others). On the fateful night of the accident a storage tank at the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal got overheated and burst releasing the highly toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas. Hydrogen cyanate and a mixture of 65 other gases leaked and spread over the city in a cloud, killing thousands of innocents in the three days after the accident.

I along with two of my other scientist friends visited Bhopal a couple of months back in order to compare the present trip with my last visit to the city in late October 1987. Twentythree years later, the survivers and their families still suffer from neurological disorders, breath-lessness, menstrual irregularities, early cataract, persistent coughing, loss of appetite and panic attacks, to name a few. Any experimental biologist knows cyanide is not only a toxic compound, it can in low doses cause irreversible mutations in the human body. It is not surprising that children of the surviving victims are born even today with various disabilities. It is observed that approximately 15 to 20 from the remaining survivors die each month. Tonnes of poisonous substances are still exposed to the environment in the factory premises. Soil samples collected from very area surrounding the factory and analysed by volunteer medical experts and chemists show that the hazardous chemicals leached under- ground are contaminating the ground water supply to the people living around the factory site. Activists allege that the victims have neither been adequately compensated nor have the dangerous open factory site been cleaned up and made safe till today. The estimated cost of the cleaning up operation would amount to US $ 30 mn. The plant was taken over from Union Carbide by another American multinational Dow Chemicals. But the Dow management refuses to bear any liability as it was not responsible for the accident and hence feels not obliged to clean up the environmental mess.

Union Carbide refuses to respond to the legal actions lodged in Indian courts against it for the accident. It is simply escaping its guilt by saying that the accident happened due to the illegal actions of one of its disgruntled workers in charge of the storage tank operations on the fatal day of the accident. The company also refuses to produce the accused Anderson, the CEO of Union Carbide at the time of the accident in 1984, in Indian courts to face the trial. Anderson lives in a posh suburb of New York in a secluded island with full protection from the US Police. Attempts to locate the whereabouts of Anderson by scanning the New York district telephone books was futile during my long stay in the USA.

The safety precautions in the pesticide plant were not only ignored but relegated to a dangerously low level at the time of the disaster. All the three safety devices were either dysfunctional or switched off due to ill-management and an effort to cut expenses on production. This deliberate mismanagement and gross violation of safety norms to gain easy profits happened when Anderson was heading the company. Had it been the same case of violation of safety production norms in any of its subsidiaries in the US, Union Carbide would have been seriously prosecuted. Perhaps industrial safety norms and corporate morality change with geographic location simply based on the worth of human life in a specific country. What is disturbing to note is that even after many years of the accident there are no medical facilities adequately provided for the surviving gas victims who are suffering from various cancers, respiratory problems and mental disorders. In a hospital surrounding the slums near the factory intended for treatment of victims there are no gynaeco-logists, paediatricians nor psychiatrists appointed so far. The prescribed medication is general in nature—treatment of symptoms is with general medication rather than providing long-term treatment even for ailments like cervical cancer and asthma.

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What is striking is that even after 25 years of the Bhopal gas tragedy there is no concerted effort from the side of the state to prosecute the accused and ensure justice for the victims. The people living in areas surrounding the factory drink and consume contaminated ground water. It is not surprising that early this year some two hundred surviving victims walked 800 km all the way from Bhopal to New Delhi with only two demands—provision of clean drinking water and prosecution of the accused. A similar padayatra was undertaken in 2006 from Bhopal to New Delhi by the gas victims who met our Prime Minister. The Prime Minister had then promised to make all arrangements to provide clean water immediately to the inhabitants living near the factory in Bhopal. Several years have passed since then, but we have been told only seven municipal water tankers are providing water to 30,000 people in the slums around the factory. In a country where national pride is magnified in media headlines when a few rich Indians join the league of billionaires and are listed in the Forbes magazine, the common man still cries for a simple basic need, that is, clean drinking water. Determined to fight again for these two simple demands fourteen of the victims sat on indefinite fast near Jantar Mantar in the Capital. Nearly 200 of the surviving victims also chained themselves to the gates of the Prime Minister’s residence. They were arrested and imprisoned for 10 days in Tihar jail in the company of deadly criminals for demanding clean drinking water.

The verdict is a clear sign to the multinational big business firms that there are no limitations of any kind (safety, environmental, labour regulations, profit plundering) for them for establishing industries in India and they can get away with any crimes including murder they happen to commit on the way, that is, without any prosecution. Today several Special Economic Zones are operating in various parts of the country. Many multinational firms have established industries and are operating freely. They have not been subjected to any labour law (even the Minimum Wages Act is not being implemented and does not fall under the purview of labour courts), environ-mental and safety regulation. They are exempted from paying the many types of taxes that are to be normally paid and need not be under the control of local municipalities and panchayats even for law and order. Primitive exploitation of workers and local population is taking place in these SEZs, violating the Indian Constitution. This Bhopal verdict is a welcome invitation to all Western multinationals that they are free to come here, invest, make profits (and take away 100 per cent of those profits back home) and they would not be held responsible for any sort of violation of the law of the land in the process.

The Bhopal verdict is thus nothing but a cruel joke at the cost of our teeming millions.

Dr Soma S. Marla is a Professor and Principal Scientist, Bioinformatics, DNA Finger Printing Division, National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources, New Delhi.

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