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Mainstream, VOL LV No 50 New Delhi December 2, 2017

Grim Warning from Bhopal / Mother India beckons us All / By Decree Alone

Saturday 2 December 2017, by Nikhil Chakravartty


From N.C.’s Writings

Grim Warning from Bhopal

It was a massacre of innocents by all counts. What happened at the Union Carbide plant at Bhopal in the early morning of December 3 was not just a tragedy but a heinous crime which killed nearly two thousand and hospitalised countless others, brings out something much more ghastly than the hazards of modern industrialisation.

The enormity of the crime—unprecedented in our times—lies not merely in any negligence on the part of the workers and superintending staff behind the leakage of the killer gas that took such an unprecedently heavy toll of human and animal lives. The giant multinational company that the Union Carbide is—once acused by Ralph Nader of “environmental blackmail”—has, all these years, conducted itself with shocking impunity. The very location of the Rs 28-crore plant in a residential area was objected to in 1975 by the then Administrator of the Municipal Corporation, M.N. Buch, the well-known town-planner, who in 1975 issued a notice to the company asking for the removal of the plant to a safer area. But Buch was transferred and not the plant.

It has now come to light that leakage started in 1978 and there were a number of them in 1981-1983, but the Union Carbide seems to command extraordinarily powerful influence in political circles: all the incidents could be hushed up and in 1982, the Labour Minister of the State Government told the Assembly without batting his eyelid: “The factory is not a small stone, which can be shifted elsewhere. There is no danger to Bhopal nor will there be.” One wonders how this gentleman is faring today.

Conscience in politicians often turns to stone, as they are exposed to allurements from the business world particularly an affluent multi-national corporation. The Union Carbide guest house at Bhopal has been playing host to many a Minister, Central and State-level, while a local Congress-I leader is reported to have been engaged as the Company’s legal adviser and its PRO is the nephew of a former Education Minister. There are many other beneficiaries, perhaps less known.

It was meet and proper that the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh has ordered a judicial enquiry into the disaster. However, its terms of reference should include how the Union Carbide operates at the political level to cover up its misdeeds. It is quite obvious that the Company has blatantly violated the guidelines issued by the Department of Environment, and there is no report of it ever having been pulled up on this score. A PTI message datelined Washington says: “Environmentalists assume that the safety standards in the US and India must have been different. They have been warning of ‘double standards’ for quite sometime. Ken Silver, an environmentalist, said that one needs to be on guard to ensure that multinationals did not seek ‘pollution havens’ in the Third World.” A similar case as that of Bhopal, though on a smaller magnitude, took place in Mexico, where a refinery explosion brought out the fact that the building code banning gas tanks in residential areas was not followed, with disastrous results. Sometimes, safety drills enforced in the US are ignored by companies in India.

In the case of the Union Carbide, it is believed that the tank storage arrangement in its Bhopal plant is not upto the mark that is followed by the same company in the United States. With this is linked up the whole question of the code for transfer of technology whose terms, as proposed in UNCTAD, have been persistently blocked by the US on the pressure mainly of the giant multinationals.

The question of compensation to the victims has already come up and the Union Carbide management can by no means get away from it. The danger however lies in their coughing out petty sums for the purpose. On this point, the precedent set in Britain by the famous Thalidomide exposure should be adhered to. It is for the Union Government to take a firm stand both on the issue of punishing the guilty and that of compensation for the victims. Let it not be forgotten that Fortune, by no mens a Commie journal, once described the Union Carbide as “a reactionary ogre obsessed with profits”.

It is also imperative that the Centre should appoint a high-power body of scientists and engineers to immediately look into the state of affairs of every industrial plant and propose steps to eliminate or minimise hazards involved in their maintenance.

Out of this ghastly tragedy let the nation awake to the urgency of taking drastic steps to protect the environment from pollution. The time hs come for something more effective than seminars and discourses on this subject of life-and-death importance.

(Mainstream, December 8, 1984)

Mother India beckons us All

After forty years of the foundation of our independent republic, the Frankenstein has appeared again—the monster that is out to destroy democracy and plunge this nation into civil war that shall rend asunder thousands of towns and villages of this great country.

The term communalism does not convey the gravity of the crisis that confronts us today—let it be bluntly stated that what we face today is the demon of Hindu-Muslim hatred. Over a large part of this land, particularly in the northern States, straddles today this monstrous hatred of the majority Hindu—the Muslim must be subjugated and, if unbending, then liquidated. In response to that, the minority Muslim, in deadly despair, tried to hit back as a means of survival.

The map of India today is dotted with bloodstains—bloodstains of brothers fighting brothers. Bhagalpur, Bijnore, Hyderabad, Aligarh and Kanpur have today turned into not only the disgrace points but danger signals for India’s nationhood. The rule of the knife and the bomb has taken over from the so-called guardians of law and order. At every one of these places—and many others like Varanasi and Meerut are also coming under the spotlight of the media—frenzied hatred has been spread with cynical design to arouse the flames of insensate violence in which neighbours of yesterday have butchered one another and the administration itself got involved in the orgy.

It does not require any academic research to point the finger at the agitation over the temple-mosque controversy at Ayodhya for having polluted the political environment in which communal antipathy has become the order of the day. And once the winds of hatred spread, the flames of violence have caught on unimpeded. The BJP leaders plead innocence, that their plea was for the building of the Ram temple only, but they cannot exonerate themselves from the responsibility of having unleashed forces that have taken to murder and loot. Inevitably, the minority community, faced with such a grim situation, has at places hit back, which has only provided impetus for the fundamentalists in their camp. Hence, mutual hatred spread far and wide.

The time is over for the ideologues of the BJP to come out with the thesis that Islam does not fit into the national mould. They have to realise that the ponderous labour spent in building up such a thesis is being put to good use by those indulging in killing and looting in the frenzy of communal violence. This has also helped the bigots in the Muslim community in their communal campaign. All the prattle about pseudo-secularism has only added grist to the mill of those who are wielding the long knife in the dark night that has descended over a large stretch of this beautiful land of ours.

For leaders of major political parties, too, this is the hour of truth. The hands of many of them can hardly be regarded as clean as they too in the past have some time or the other indulged in pampering communal urges to secure votes, and quite a few in their respective camps are ready to do so again, once the elections are on the agenda. That is a matter for them to settle with their conscience. What matters today above everything else is that the beast of communal hatred has been let loose and is playing havoc. If this ghastly apparition is allowed to roam about unchecked, there shall be no question of democratic functioning, no elections to legislatures and Parliament, no civil liberties, but the drum-beat of communal fury with goose-step marching of the hatchet-gangs out to destroy civilised conduct of public life.

The disintegration of this republic of ours threatens us in a manner never seen before. The Valley of Kashmir and the fertile fields of Punjab have virtually come under the grip of secession-ists. The political base camp of patriotic elements in Kashmir has been swept away by the avalanche of bitter alienation for which all parties in power in the past have to share equal responsibility. In Punjab, all the official assurances about Khalistani terrorists being on the run, has turned out to be so much poppycock as one finds the terrorist killer literally gagging the media even to the point of silencing the government’s radio and television news in Hindi.

This threat of imminent disintegration can be rebuffed not just be despatching the Army but, more importantly, by mobilising the entire nation for a determined endeavour to win back the trust and confidence of those alienated. The responsibility for summoning such a national mobilisation rests irrevocably on the wisdom and patriotism of leaders of all political parties.

At this crossroads of India’s destiny, we put this question to our leaders of all parties, those in office and those outside: Can you not bury your hatchets and join hands to stir the vast multitude of this great nation so that the fiendish forces of communal hatred are put down and chased out of our public life for good? This is the moment when your patriotism needs to be tested. Let all other differences and squabbles, allergies and misunderstandings, be set aside, and all, really all, together come forward at the call of the nation.

For heaven’s sake, join hands and march shoulder to shoulder to fight the enemy that has entered the gates. Mother India beckons us all.  

(The Telegraph, December 16, 1990)

By Decree Alone

With barely a week to go before the Budget session of the Lok Sabha, there is naturally considerable trepidation about what’s in store for the common man. All the indications have made it abundantly clear that it many be a harsh Budget, at least for those in the middle and lower income groups, who constitute the overwhelming majority in our society.

A peculiar feature of the dramatic economic reforms of the last eight months has been that practically every major item has been sprung as a surprise upon the country, without preparing the public by explanations and discussions, not to speak of debates.

In fact, whatever debates have taken place were mainly after the decrees were announced and not as an exercise to psychologically prepare the public. One has to concede to the critics of the government’s reforms that they have been more active than their advocates, and it has been mainly at their initiative that the government has in some cases been compelled to respond. As one looks back, there was only one jamboree-like gathering of economists right at the very beginning which was noteworthy for the generalities uttered in support of what’s become a cliche’ today—namely, integrating the Indian economy into the global course. No details were given about the design and the pattern of the economic reforms in the offing.

Although the Finance Minister was at the beginning vociferous in claiming that his reforms packet was entirely swadeshi and not a Fund-Bank model, it was later found that his prescriptions have been largely dictated by the IMF conditionalities. The persistent tardiness in the government’s release of the correspondence with the IMF and the copycat submission to the IMF diktat as revealed in that disclosure, had led the public to believe that whatever the Finance Minister’s personal credentials as an economist, there is no gainsaying that he and his team have totally identified themselves with the Fund-Bank position, without the least orginality on their part. There were many distinguished people in the government in the past who were inclined to the IMF line, but none of them carried out so totally, to the very dot, the IMF behests.

Leaving aside this bankruptcy in the thinking on economic issues in the government, what is strange is that there has been no effort at conditioning even the ruling Congress party, not to speak of the public at large, about the entire packet of proposed reforms, and the implications of each of the measures. Obviously, nobody in the government or in the Opposition questions the need for economic reforms in principle. But there are widespread misgivings about the impact of the specific reforms programme of the present govenment on different sections of the people, particularly the lower income groups.

The overall impression so far created by the government’s economic measures is that these will widen the existing disparities to a point which is likely to generate unrest that may have serious social consequences. This is a question which the Finance Minister seems to evade answering all the time. The Prime Minister has been talking all this time that the new process is irreversible, but little has so far been done to enlighten the public about the totality of the actual reforms and what these are supposed to bring about for the country, and for different sections of the people living in this country.

This is by no means an unreasonable complaint. When in the early fifities, Jawaharlal Nehru’s government decided to go in for industrialisation in the classical Industrial Revolution model of first building the heavy industries, he assigned it to Mahalanobis to openly interact with leading economists in the country together with many distinguished figures from different countries of the world so that there could emerge out of their collective wisdom a model suitable for a developing country of our complexity and diversity and level of development.

This debate was purposely kept on for nearly two years, before the Second Plan-frame was produced and that Plan-frame was widely debated in many forums apart from Parliament before the specific measures were enacted. The entire intelligentsia of the country—not merely a band of economists—were involved in this nationwide debate.

Compare that exercise with the present one under Manmohan Singh. On every issue, the government has been fighting shy of talking to the public in detail. There is a conspicuous lack of any interaction whatsoever. Even Ministers are not clear what to say or not to say. The distance between Mahalanobis to Manmohan is the difference between open, democratic debates and the abject carrying out of the Fund-Bank orders.

One Minister talks of the rupee being soon made a convertible currency. The present writer has asked as many as four senior Ministers who denied any kowledge of such a move, while one of them totally discounted such a pssibility in the near future. The point to note is that the ruling establishment itself is kept in a state of ignorance on such a major issue as bringing structural reforms in the economy of the country.

Coming to the more specific questions, there has been an equally conspicuous absence of any effort at elaborating, for instance, the Exit policy. For one thing, the Finance Minister chose to announce it categorically, not in the country but in the assembly of Fund-Bank bigwigs at Bangkok. Since then, the trade unions and others concerned with labour have been asking the government to spell it out. But the government has throughout been fighting shy of explaining its position. When cornered, the Ministers promptly say that nobody would be thrown out of job.

What sort of Manmohan Exit policy is this that nobody would loss his job? Such a mystery needs to be cleared up particularly in a democracy like ours. One can of course understand the government’s predicament and consequent hesitation in announcing any policy that would be patently unpoular. But if the government is in no position to muster public support for a policy, would it not land itself in a situation of large-scale discontent which ultimately would strike at its own precarious stability?

Accountability is essential in a democracy. The Finance Minister confidently assured only seven months ago that there would be no double-digit inflation. But now inflation, by official calculation, is reported to have gone beyond 14 per cent.

In these intervening months, nothing extraordinary has happened that could have upset the Finance Minister’s estimate of last July. Then, does he not owe an explanation to the public as to what went wrong, why his Ministry had gone so wrong?

This is not just a simple question of a ministerial lapse. If at such a crucial moment, the Finance Minister can make such a serious mistake, what confidence would the public and Parliament have on his being given such a major assignmnt as overhauling the entire economy? Are we in safe hands? Such a question will neither be unfair nor far-fetched.

It is all very well to talk loudly about integration into the global economic trend, but to carry out such a gigantic task while maintaining one’s economic independence, requires competence of the highest order—not those borrowed from the Fund-Bank storehouse, which has a rather unsavoury record of ruining many of the developing economies. Above all, such an undertaking has to be in the open, by patiently explaining to the public all its implications, and enlist their trust and confidence. Otherwise Yeltsin-like anarchy will destroy the fabric of our democracy.

(Mainstream, February 22, 1992)

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