Reprinted from The Hindu – Kalpana Sharma
A two-page press release, issued on June 23 by the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers, marked the end of a week of high drama. It stated that the Government of India had no objection to a U.S. Federal Court asking Union Carbide to clean up the mess it had left behind 20 years ago. It was also the culmination of three months of intensive campaigning by the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB) and Greenpeace. The March 17 U.S. Federal Court ruling was in response to a suit filed by some of the victims of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy, when methylisocyanate leaked from a plant run by Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) killing thousands in its wake. The court ruled that the parent company, Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), should clean up the abandoned and heavily contaminated site of the now closed plant. For this to happen, the Madhya Pradesh Government and the Centre had to state that they had no objection. What seemed on the surface to be a straightforward affair, particularly as it did not involve any costs to be borne by either Government, became a protracted affair with three people going on a fast unto death. Was all this necessary? Given the tame manner in which the drama finally ended, it would seem not.
The ICJB and Greenpeace launched their campaign first in Madhya Pradesh, urging the State Government to issue a letter of no objection. They were given the run around and told it was outside the jurisdiction of the State Government. On March 25, a delegation from Bhopal met the President and he expressed concern and support. After that nothing moved forward, partly because the country was by then in the election mode.<br
Launch of campaign
Finally, on May 8, a campaign to petition the Government was launched. By early June, the Prime Minister, who had only recently assumed office, was inundated with over 4,000 such petitions. On June 7, after months of lobbying, the Madhya Pradesh Government finally sent a letter to the Secretary of the Union Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers, saying it had no objection if the U.S. Court ordered Union Carbide to clean up the site and that this would be “in larger public interest.”<br
With this letter in hand, the activists then met the Union Chemicals Minister, Ram Vilas Paswan, and he promised to take action. They waited for a week and on June 16 met the Union Law Minister, H.R. Bhardwaj. The latter apparently raised the non-issue of conflict with the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act, 1985. This law had allowed the Centre to represent the claims of the Bhopal victims and finally led to an out-of-court settlement with Union Carbide amounting to $470 million.<br
Despite the activists pointing out that this matter concerned pollution caused after the accident, the Law Ministry was unresponsive. In the meantime, several legal luminaries expressed the opinion that there was nothing in the law that need hold the Government back from issuing the letter.<br
By June 17, despite more reassurances from Mr. Paswan, the activists were beginning to despair. This is when three of them decided to go on a fast. Their decision caught the attention of the media, several members of the Government and leading trade unionists.
None of this made a difference, however, until the Prime Minister’s Office intervened. On its advice, the Bhopal activists again met the Law Minister on June 21 and found, to their surprise, a complete turnabout. He said he had no problem but that the Ministry of Environment and Forests had to deal with this. The latter threw the ball back at the Law Ministry. Representatives from the campaigning groups sat in all the different Ministries — Law, Environment, Chemicals — and the PMO on June 22, waiting for some definite word. This finally came late June 23 in the form of the press release. The three broke their fast and everyone heaved a sigh of relief. But the story does not end here and there are many important lessons to be drawn.<br
First, the Bhopal campaigners succeeded because they had the ability to launch a campaign at different levels. There are many civil society groups without such support or such a high level of organisation. Their representatives sit on dharna at various locations in State capitals and in New Delhi and often neither the Government nor the media pays any heed to them.<br
Secondly, the Bhopal activists were lucky that they conducted their campaign at a time when there was a responsive Prime Minister who intervened. It is evident that without a word from his office, the matter would not have moved.<br
Third, the issue did not involve either the Madhya Pradesh Government or the Centre incurring any costs. They will be borne by Union Carbide according to the U.S. court’s ruling. This also made the issue somewhat simpler. Yet despite this last point, it is surprising that the Bhopal campaigners had to resort to all the tricks in their bag to finally get the Government to agree. The matter should never have reached this stage and could have been settled through dialogue. The fact that the campaigners had to push things to such an extreme illustrates yet again the gap in understanding between governments and activists. The former will not respond until the latter pushes the issue to an extreme. As a result, the latter become convinced that reasonable dialogue cannot work and only extreme pressure will.