Govt urgency to address Bhopal gas tragedy woes worries activists

Sreelatha Menon, Business Standard, April 23, 2008
The Bhopal gas tragedy remains a live issue 23 years after toxic gases leaked out of a Union Carbide plant in December 1984. Recent developments indicate a desire on the part of the government to put an end to it. A series of reports looks at these developments and the continuing presence of 9,000 tonnes of toxic waste on the premises of the plant
There is a sense of urgency in the government to close the chapter on the 23-year-old Union Carbide gas leak case. There has been rapid movement on the government side even as 60-odd citizens from Bhopal, who walked all the way from the Madhya Pradesh’s capital, have camped in Delhi since last month.
The Prime Minister’s Office has held three meetings so far with the activists leading the agitation and a Group of Ministers on Bhopal, which seldom meets (it has met thrice so far in three years), decided to hold a hearing for the victims last week.
On April 17, the GoM headed by Union HRD Minister Arjun Singh, who was also the Madhya Pradesh chief minister when the ghastly chemical disaster took place, gave an assurance to the victims that their demand for a commission on Bhopal would be considered.
PMO sources now say that the PM is keen to address the issue as early as possible and is waiting for the recommendations of the GoM.
A delegation of the activists was heard out again by a PMO official on Monday.
The activists, though relieved by the progress, smell a rat in the sudden revival of interest in the issue and have already braced themselves with a petition signed by about 300 legal experts seeking legal liability for Dow Chemical.
Satinath Sarangi of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action says: “The government had in 1989 made a settlement with Carbide where the latter was allowed to walk away from all liability for a measly $470 million. Now, it is similarly contemplating another settlement to bail out Carbide?s successor Dow Chemical for small change.”
Dow had bought over the assets of Union Carbide and has maintained that it has no legal liability. However, the Union chemicals ministry has an application pending in the Madhya Pradesh High Court seeking remediation from Dow Chemical for the damage caused by the gas leak.
It has asked for an initial deposit of Rs 100 crore for cleaning up of the toxic substances left behind by Carbide in Bhopal. This includes 9,000 tonnes of toxic substances buried in the premises of the Carbide plant, which continue to pollute the groundwater in the area.
Groundwater in about 3-km radius from the area has been affected by poisonous substances buried there, says Sarangi.
The ministry has steadfastly stood by its petition that Dow is liable and has even crossed swords with other ministries that have approved investment by Dow in India.
“I have always been against doing business with Dow or Carbide till this issue of liability is solved,” Chemicals Minister Ramvilas Paswan told Business Standard.
“If it was left to me, I would find a solution to the whole issue of damage caused by Carbide, the pending clean-up and the relief measures in two days,” he added.
But the PMO seems to be keen on moving even faster. Activists link this haste to the investment plans of Dow in India and the memorandums which were sent to the PMO last year by various ministers pleading the case of absolving Dow of the liability for the Bhopal leak.
A GoM meeting last week gave an assurance that the court alone could decide on the liability of Dow. But the activists do not want to take chances.
On Monday, they brought out a petition signed by about 300 legal experts, including former Justice Rajendra Sacchar, advocate Prashant Bhushan and advocate Indira Jaisingh as a preemptive move against a possible bailout for Dow.
Bhushan said: “It is obvious from documents available that Dow has tried to get people, right from Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi (who is a lawyer for Dow) to Ratan Tata, Commerce Minister Kamal Nath, Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia and even Finance Minister P Chidambaram to plead on its behalf.”
“It means absolving an offender because it means billions of dollars of investment for India,” says Sarangi.

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