Gas tragedy: Guilty may never be punished
Times of India, June 6, 2000, The Times of India News Service
By Sudhir K Singh

BHOPAL: Going by the prevailing levels of public concern, the catastrophic Bhopal gas tragedy of December 2-3, 1984, may well end up being nothing more than a footnote in history.

Over 22,000 people have reportedly died so far from the effects of inhaling the toxic gases belched out by Union Carbide's pesticide plant that fateful night: hundreds and thousands of others still suffer from persistent breathlessness, cough, diminished vision, menstrual irregularities, loss of appetite, insomnia, depression and other problems. Over 4,000 persons still visit the OPDs of ill- equipped "gas hospitals'' every day and another 18,000 are admitted and discharged every year.

The governmental response can be judged from the fact that of the 22,146 death cases filed, only 7,000 had officially died due to exposure to toxic gases. And of these 7,000, only 100-odd victims have been paid more than Rs 1 lakh when the Gas Relief Act permits hand-outs up to Rs 5 lakh.

The "injured'' have by and large been left to fend for themselves: 95 per cent of the 5.50 lakh persons who fall in this category have received a paltry Rs 25,000 each (which works out to a measly Rs 2,500 at 1984 rates) against the permissible Rs 4 lakh each.

Not surprisingly, there is a sneaking fear that the rest of the compensation money - a whopping $ 470 million or Rs 800 crore given in March 1989 - may be claimed back by Carbide in case the money goes undisbursed. What's worse, says New York-based attorney Himanshu Ranjan Sharma (who has been representing the survivors of the Bhopal tragedy in US courts), is that there is little hope that the guilty will ever be brought to book. Though the preliminary briefings have been completed in the southern district of New York, it is only last month that Carbide agreed to accept summons on behalf of former chairman Warren Anderson who continues to be an absconder ("there are no leads on his whereabouts'').

The Carbide management was originally trying hard to get the case dismissed. The acceptance of Anderson's summons, however, implies acceptance of responsibility. That is the limited gain. But a judgment isn't expected before another six months. Sharma also blames the Indian government for not living up to its duty towards the victims in keeping with the legal doctrine of parens patriae (like a parent). "None of them was given the right to counsel in the claims procedure, or even allowed to be personally heard.'' Many genuine cases have been deprived of their compensation.

In fact, judged by the manner in which it has discharged its responsibility, the government's behaviour towards the sufferers, the US-based lawyer observes, could be likened to "child abuse''.

That the attempt all along has been to brush the matter under the carpet is apparent. No formal demand, he says, was ever made by the powers that be in India to extradite Anderson or the other guilty Carbide officials when US law specifically permits such an eventuality. And should the request have been refused, the matter could have been pursued at the International Court of Justice.