AJOY ASHIRWAD MAHAPRASHASTA AND V. VENKATESAN, Frontline, Volume 25 – Issue 16 : Aug. 02-15, 2008
The survivors of the Bhopal gas tragedy secure from the government promises to implement part of their demands.
Akash Kushwaha, a seven-year-old boy who suffers from malformed eyes owing to contaminated groundwater, at a press conference held to highlight the plight of the gas victims, in New Delhi on April 29. Pic: RAJEEV BHATT
AT a small park in New Delhi on June 21, a few children, aged between five and 15, from Bhopal made paper hearts and wrote messages on them. It was their way of telling Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to have a heart and do justice to the survivors of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy.
These children, along with the survivors and activists, began a dharna at Jantar Mantar on March 28, agitated outside the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) on June 9, and courted imprisonment following their unique “die-in” protest by lying on the ground with shrouds covering their bodies. Nine activists began an indefinite hunger strike on June 10. They ended their fast after 22 days but nine others took over from them. The agitation, led by the Bhopal Group for Information and Action (BGIA), demonstrates what Gandhian methods of peaceful protest and self-inflicted suffering can achieve. The agitators undertook a gruelling 500-mile (800 km) walk, which lasted 38 days, from Bhopal to New Delhi on February 20 in order to strengthen their resolve to fight for their rights and also build public opinion.
Their peaceful agitation did not go in vain. A set of documents procured by the activists from the PMO under the Right to Information Act reveals the government’s thinking on some of the major demands put forward by the agitators.
These include a Commission on Bhopal, specially empowered by the Prime Minister, to plan and carry out medical, economic, social and environmental rehabilitation of the gas victims and civil action for environmental and health damage caused by soil and water contamination by taking appropriate legal action against Union Carbide and Dow Chemical Company (DCC), which owns it now.
The meeting of the Group of Ministers (GoM) on Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster, which was held on April 17, decided to take further action on setting up the commission in consultation with the Ministry of Law and Justice. It also decided to request the Health Ministry to consider continuing the research carried out by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) on the effects of the gas leak on the survivors and their families.
A contentious issue was the approval given by the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion for the foreign technical collaboration (FTC) between the Dow Global Technologies and Reliance Petroleum Limited, which would facilitate the import of UNIPOL-PP, a technological process patented by Union Carbide to manufacture polypropylene, a thermoplastic used chiefly for electrical insulation and packaging.
The Department of Chemicals and Petrochemicals, (DC&PC), the nodal department dealing with the aftermath of the gas tragedy, sought a reconsideration of the approval. It submitted that any future investment of Dow Chemical should be allowed only after the company met the Central government’s submission in the ongoing case in the Madhya Pradesh High Court. In this case, the DC&PC has, as an interim measure, sought Rs.100 crore from the DCC towards environmental remediation of the gas leak disaster site.
The Law Ministry has, however, disagreed with the DC&PC’s view. It held that the two issues of site remediation and approval of the FTC were unrelated. The Ministry also opined that it was almost impossible to foresee what view a court of law might take in the absence of any precedent.
The Law Ministry, nevertheless, shared the DC&PC’s stand on the question of Dow Chemical’s liability. It opined that it was doubtful whether by virtue of any clause in a merger agreement, companies could wipe out any liability incurred under any law or judicial decisions. “Any such liability unless extinguished by discharge of the liability or by any law, cannot evaporate in thin air. Any clause in an agreement between parties will be against the public policy and will be void and unenforceable in Indian courts,” it said in its opinion given to the Department of Chemicals.
On May 29, Prithviraj Chavan, Minister of State in the PMO, revealed on behalf of the Prime Minister that the government had sanctioned a project under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission to provide safe drinking water through pipelines from the Kolar Reservoir to the 14 localities situated in the vicinity of the abandoned site of Union Carbide of India Limited (UCIL). The Bhopal Municipal Corporation would be responsible for executing the project, which is slated to be ready by the end of the year. This was one of the long-pending demands of the gas victims.
On June 3, Manmohan Singh convened a meeting to discuss the issues relating to Bhopal gas survivors. The minutes of this meeting, as revealed under the RTI Act, show that the government took several decisions. Those present at the meeting included, Prithviraj Chavan; K.M. Chandrasekhar, Cabinet Secretary; V.S. Sampath, Secretary, DC&PC; and senior officials from the PMO. The decisions taken at the meeting partly satisfy the demands of the agitators.
The meeting decided to ask the DC&PC to submit to the GoM a detailed proposal to set up the Commission on Bhopal. The Department was also asked to obtain from the State government a detailed plan of action for the rehabilitation schemes as decided by the GoM and take appropriate action.
It was decided that the DC&PC would expedite the site remediation, particularly the task of transporting the toxic waste for incineration and to the designated landfill. More important, the Department would request the Law Ministry to appoint a senior lawyer to pursue the application filed by it before the High Court seeking an advance of Rs.100 crore from Dow Chemical and two other companies for remediation of the site of the gas leak.
The meeting directed the Ministry of Agriculture to pursue the investigations into the allegation that its officials had taken bribes for the registration of four pesticides by DCC, with the Central Bureau of Investigation for an early and appropriate resolution of the matter. The Ministry has registered three pesticides patented by Dow to be sold in India. They are Dursban, Pride and Nurelle. The Committee of Secretaries convened by the Cabinet Secretary on May 30 recorded that the Registration Committee in the Ministry did not find any compromise on the efficacy of the pesticides.
The United States Securities and Exchange Commission filed a settled civil action in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on February 13, 2007, alleging that DCC violated the books and records and internal controls provisions of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) in connection with an estimated $200,000 in improper payments made by a fifth-tier foreign subsidiary of Dow Chemical to Indian government officials from 1996 through 2001. Without admitting or denying the allegations in the commission’s complaint, DCC consented to pay a $325,000 civil penalty. ’
The police remove children who staged a demonstration outside the Prime Minister’s residence in New Delhi. Pic: V. SUDERSHAN
The gas leak survivors and the activists working among them are satisfied that their five-month-long agitation has yielded at least partial results. The BGIA wants the proposed Commission on Bhopal to be set up through an Act of Parliament, with a tenure of 30 years and a budget of Rs.2,000 crore, to deal with the rehabilitation of the survivors of the disaster and their progeny and provide them with proper living conditions. According to Satinath Sarangi of the BGIA, the 30-year term is necessary as there will be many more people, yet to be born, who will still be affected by the harmful effects of the disaster.
It appears that there will be considerable debate over the proposed terms of reference of the Commission. According to Sarangi, the commission should have the power to summon the officials of DCC so as to make the company liable to the survivors of the disaster. It remains to be seen whether the government will agree to this suggestion from the activists, who are likely to be involved in drafting the terms of reference of the commission.
The activists are also satisfied with the government’s decision to pursue the case of legal liability for the disaster against DCC despite pressures to dilute this charge to facilitate investments in India by DCC.
However, the activists are unhappy that there has been no substantive commitment on reversing the approval given to Reliance Industries to purchase the UNIPOL technology.
At the GoM held on July 11, Union Ministers Arjun Singh and Ram Vilas Paswan agreed that the permission given to Reliance Industries should be revoked, but a decision could not be taken as another Minister, Kamal Nath, reportedly disagreed with the suggestion.
But the meeting, according to informed sources, decided that there would not be any more transfer of UCC-patented technology to India.
The activists are also disappointed that the government has not been sincere in seeking extradition from the U.S. of Warren Anderson, the UCC chief at the time of the disaster. He continues to be a fugitive before the Court of Chief Judicial Magistrate, Bhopal, where the criminal case regarding the disaster is being heard.
The activists and the survivors of the disaster will end their current agitation in the national capital once the PMO issues a directive to the DC&PC to prepare a blueprint for the proposed commission.
So far, they have secured only a limited victory, and this was made possible by sheer perseverance, good organisation and novel forms of protests.