Bhopal’s ongoing tragedy

Sreelatha Menon, Business Standard, November 25, 2007
23 years on, the decision on who’s going to clean it up is the subject of a court case
Survivors of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy, the country’s worst industrial mishap when 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas leaked from Union Carbide’s pesticide plant, continue to cope with serious health problems and contaminated water, but the government doesn’t seem too concerned. It believes its responsibilities are over now that each of the 5.7 lakh victims has been given around Rs 40,000-45,000 in two tranches (the last in 2004, based on the interest that had accrued on the undisbursed Union Carbide funds). There is another petition in court asking for a five-fold increase in the original $470 million compensation that came in 1989, since it didn’t change while the number of claimants rose four to five times the original estimate, but that’s another story.
Indeed, while a recent survey of children below the age of 12 in the area around the erstwhile Union Carbide factory by the Chingari and Sambhavna Trust found that 112 had cerebral palsy, cuts in their lips and cheeks and some even a hole in the heart, the government has not come up with any ongoing free medical follow-up treatment plan to deal with the condition of the second and third generations of Bhopal survivors. In most other countries that have had similar accidents, tracking and treating the medical and psychological problems of the second and third generations of survivors is almost par for the course.
Indeed, the 396 metric tonnes of toxic waste inside the factory remain untouched to this day, and activists say an even larger amount is lying outside, slowly leaching down and contaminating the ground water — around 25,000 persons live in the vicinity of the factory. The government, both at the state and the Centre (both are respondents in the Madhya Pradesh high court, along with Union Carbide and its new owners, Dow Chemical), is sticking to its old stance that the polluter must pay.
While the court has asked the Gujarat government to take the toxins to the Ankleshwar-based incinerator, the state is not too keen since it is not certain it will be able to deal with it. Many argue that this is the correct strategy as shipping the toxins to Gujarat could well lead to a mini-Bhopal there — the view is that Dow should take the toxins back to the US and destroy them there using advanced technology.
State government officials also say, informally, that NGOs are exaggerating the exposure to contaminated water, and that the 25,000 persons living around the old Carbide factory are actually encroachers — and therefore, by implication, the government doesn’t owe them anything.
Of course, the cynical attitude of the government is best seen from the fact that Dow Chemical’ counsel on the case is Abhishek Singhvi who is also the official spokesperson of the Congress party. Singhvi, on his part, is of the view that his clients bear no responsibility as there were other companies between Dow and Union Carbide, and since the companies had not merged, there was no transfer of liabilities.
Lawyers such as Prashant Bhushan, however, say the argument is fallacious and, if the corporate veil is pierced, the argument will be seen to be hollow. Activist Nityanand Jayaraman of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal argues that the US law believes in ‘successor liability’ — so Dow is responsible for cleaning up the mess in the city. Dow’s corporate relations official in India, Nandkumar Sanglekar, repeats the official company line that Dow has not inherited any liability, that the compensation and settlement had already been reached before Dow even entered the picture.
At another level, Ratan Tata who heads the Investment Commission has suggested that a way be found out without putting all the responsibility on Dow — the commerce ministry is also pushing the same line at the Group of Ministers which is looking into the matter. The argument given here is that while Bhopal happened 23 years ago, Dow’s very large investment plans in India could get compromised — if only someone could make Bhopal go away!
A letter by Dow’s Andrew Liveris to India’s US envoy Ronen Sen in November last year was dug out by activists in Bhopal using the Right to Information law. The letter says representatives of the government had agreed at the US-India CEO Forum that Dow was not responsible and would not be pursued. Liversis, in his letter, urged Sen to take the matter forward and get local CEOs and others involved to tilt public opinion in Dow’s favour. Liveris also asked Sen to look into getting the central government to withdraw its application in the Madhya Pradesh high court asking Dow to pay for the cleaning up.
For the survivors of the six lakh victims, and the 25,000 persons living in the immediate vicinity of the old Carbide plant, however, whether Dow pays for the cleaning up is perhaps of secondary importance. The case can go on, they argue, but surely the government can spend the few hundred crore required and buy the necessary technical expertise required to dispose off the toxic waste that is leaching into the ground water as well?
But, if successive governments, at both the Centre and in the state, have not even bothered to get ongoing free medical help for the survivors of the awful tragedy, perhaps that’s asking for too much. As Rachna Dhingra of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal says, “Whatever the government and Dow do in the court, the reality is that kids are born with deformities.”

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