Dow’s Bhopal legacy under scanner

Economic Times, G Ganapathy Subramaniam & Gireesh Chandra Prasad, TNN, 27 Jul, 2007
Editor’s note: The following story signals a potentially key event in Bhopal’s long fight for justice and economic and environmental rehabilitation. If the PMO files caught numerous Indian officials en flagrante with Dow, the following news signals preliminary plans for a shotgun wedding, with the law ministry as registrar. Though Bhopal survivors are unlikely to receive an invitation, it will not prevent them taking a role in the ceremony…
NEW DELHI: The Cabinet is all set to take a final view on the legal liability of multinational giant Dow Chemicals in the Bhopal gas tragedy.
The Trade and Economic Relations Committee (TERC) headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has decided that the issue should be considered by the Cabinet since it is turning out to be a contentious one, hampering economic ties between India and the US. The government is also trying to resolve a dispute between another US company, McDermott International, and Kolkata-based Burn Standard.
The TERC has directed the department of chemicals and petrochemicals to consult the law ministry and draft a note on the legal liability of Dow so that the Cabinet could take a decision thereon.
Chemicals and fertilisers ministry officials said they are finalising their opinion by taking legal advice and keeping in mind the perception of NGOs. The note would be ready very soon, said an official.
The development is significant in view of the 123 agreement between India and the US being finalised. The US side has emphasised that the uncertainty faced by Dow — which plans to invest $1 billion in India — is a major irritant that needs to be tackled as a priority.
As ties between the two countries are expected to hit a new high after the 123 pact is concluded, New Delhi wants major disputes related to US corporations to be resolved without any delay. In the case of a commercial dispute between Kolkata-based Burn Standard Company and McDermott International of the US, the ministry of heavy industries has been asked to expedite a decision.
The heavy industries ministry has already circulated a note for the consideration of the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) to take a final call on the disputes associated with McDermott International.
The external affairs ministry highlighted the disputes related to Dow Chemicals and McDermott International during a presentation to the TERC earlier this month, highly-placed government sources said.
The meeting was attended by finance minister P Chidambaram, commerce and industry minister Kamal Nath and Planning Commission deputy chairperson Montek Singh Ahluwalia. A number of senior bureaucrats were also present, the sources said.
Earlier, Tata Group chief Ratan Tata, in his capacity as Investment Commission chairman, has proposed cleaning up of the Bhopal Union Carbide site through a settlement plan. In view of the litigation over the issue, the government did not go ahead with the proposal.
Leak of poisonous gas from the Union Carbide factory killed 4,000 people in 1984 and a settlement over compensation was arrived at after a protracted legal battle. However, a dispute over clearing the site of toxicity still persists.
In 1994, Union Carbide sold its stake in its Indian company to Kolkata-based McLeod Russel. In 2001, Dow bought Union Carbide for $9.3 billion. The Bhopal unit of Union Carbide remains shut since the 1984 tragedy.

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