On the eve of the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, more than a 100 Bhopal survivors arrived in Mumbai to remind the city that Union Carbide’s owner, Dow Chemical operates a 100 percent subsidiary in the city. They sought Mumbaikars’ support to make Dow Chemical honour its civil, criminal and environmental liabilities in Bhopal. Addressing a press conference today, representatives said they will embark on a two-day campaign to raise awareness in the city about Dow Chemical’s continuing liabilities in Bhopal.
Mr Jairam Ramesh, Minister for Environment and Forests, visited the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai on 28 June, 2010 to deliver an address. Students had planned to hold a silent protest outside the auditorium, but the Director dissuaded them, and offered a meeting with the Minister. Between 30 and 40 students attended the meeting and grilled Ramesh. Below is a transcript of that session.
Much of what Mr Ramesh said made little sense, but out of the muddle and evasions, certain themes emerged.
1. The European Union offer to fund a study of the Bhopal contamination is to be ignored – only NEERI’s writ will hold on the remediation proposals.
2. The ‘consultation’ is lip service, and has been pre-judged.
3. Even if Pithampur killed 20,000 people next week, the waste would still be going there.
4. It has been decided that the court will find UCIL/EIIL liable for the contamination – just as Dow has recently been saying it should.
5. Dow is to be exonerated, on the basis that it somehow insulated itself from Bhopal liabilities from the off.
Laxmidhar: About the Nuclear Liability Bill, is the corporation responsible or not?
Jairam Ramesh: According to an American Official Agency the cost of a nuclear disaster is 300 billion. Isn’t the corporation liable fully for that? If you see the bill the corporation has paid only half and rest is paid by the government. Part of the liability is to be paid immediately and part of it over a period of time.
Rupesh: With regard to the clean up, the GOM has recommended that the 350 tonnes be incinerated at the prithampur facility and only 3 days ago (Saturday 25th June) there was an accident while testing it using paint sludge and 6 people were injured, similarly there has also been accidents at other facilities namely the GACL in Ankleshwer in Gujarat. Even after these accidents why is the GoM still insistent upon incinerating the toxic waste ?
Jairam Ramesh: Accidents like these are not going to lead to another Bhopal. There are 33 incinerators in India and all of them are functioning smoothly, just a couple of stray incidents cannot make them bad. In regards to the Bhopal waste being incinerated, it is the “easiest and quickest way” to dispose of the toxic waste.
Rupesh: The European Union has written to the government of India offering support in terms of technical and financial support to prepare a pilot study on the clean up of Bhopal, the GoI has not responded to its request, can we know what why you have not responded?
Jairam Ramesh:(Makes completely no sense and talks of technical expertise) Social scientists do not have the technical expertise to comment. We have asked experts in that matter to do a study and prepare a report on the same.
Rupesh: Sir, but you didnt answer my question about the European union?
Jairam Ramesh: We will be calling for a global tender for the decontamination process in august and will have companies from all over the world and select the best for the same.
Rupesh: With regard to holding the corporation, Dow Chemical liable the government has taken no steps in either asking them to pay for the clean up nor the compensation amount?
Jairam Ramesh: The matter is under dispute in the courts in India, and right now we cannot talk about it. The corporation I am referring to is UCIL.
Rupesh: But UCC was taken over by Dow, which means the liablity of UCC and its subsidiaries were also taken over by Dow.
Jairam Ramesh: The corporation in question is UCIL and not UCC.
Rupesh: UCIL was a wholly owned subsidy of UCC and UCE.
Jairam Ramesh: We can’t discuss anything more on this and shall let the court decide.
Rupesh: But why should we as taxpayers shell out our money for the clean up, when we have a law which says that the polluter must pay?
Jairam Ramesh: If you don’t want to pay you don’t, I will pay from my tax money. Anyway most of you do not pay your taxes. In India very few people responsibly pay their taxes and I pay my tax and my tax money would be used for cleaning up Bhopal.
Other students raise their objection to this statement.
Krishna: It is going to cost 1300 crores to clean up Bhopal and the money is going from the taxes we pay. We don’t want our tax money to be appropriated for this purpose, instead DOW should be made responsible to write off the liabilities.
Jairam Ramesh: The whole concept of compensation is “liability to the polluter”. We are paying 1300 crores and it’s a case under the judiciary which needs to be intimated to the Supreme Court. 470 million dollars as compensation is grossly inadequate. The responsibility of any sensitive government would be to clean up Bhopal and that is what we are trying to do.
Rupesh: You did a commendable job on the Bt Brinjal issue and held consultations across the country to get views of all the stakeholders, would you also do something like this on the Bhopal clean up and get the participation of the Victims during the clean up? Also, would you bring the clean up under the purview of the EIA notification and have a public hearing??
Jairam Ramesh: Why are you assuming what I will do on the Bhopal clean up? I put the clearance for Bt Brinjal on hold as I was not positive about the tests that were conducted to ensure that Bt Brinjal was suitable for human consumption. NEERI is currently preparing a report and will be submitting it on the 30th of this month, and as soon as they submit it I will make the report public, for peer review and public review. Am going to Bhopal on the 5th to have a meeting with 7 of the victims’ groups and discuss with them about it. We will also organise a technical workshop in Bhopal about the clean up procedure with representatives from the groups. I have been very supportive and sensitive on the Bhopal issue. On my first day in office 29th Apr 2009, I raised this question in the parliament asking what we will be doing about Bhopal..
Rupesh ( interrupting): When you were in Bhopal you held a fistful of mud and said “Look I’m holding the mud in my hand and I am still alive and not coughing.”
Jairam Ramesh: My comment was blown out of proportion and it boomeranged. (What he inferred is that he wanted people to think the waste is not toxic and it is not dangerous to transport it to Prithambur.)
Shazia: Why do we need so many nuclear power plants in our country.
Jairam Ramesh: India has a huge population and it is a “romantic idea” to rely just on wind/solar energy; we cannot do without nuclear power.
Student: Why are we not looking at the polluter pays act strongly, and why is the government not taking action against polluting violating corporations?
Jairam Ramesh: The centre has brought this new bill called the green tribunal bill and the head office of the Green tribunal would be Bhopal. Anyone in the country can file a case on behalf of the victims. There would be fast track courts for environment cases across the country which would deal with the civil liability and dispose off the case in 6 months, but the criminal liabilities will still be done at the normal courts. If there are intergenerational impacts then a case can be filed for compensation. It could be 25 lakhs or 25 crores. The case would be like a PIL. I strongly believe and agree, The polluter must pay but in the case of Bhopal, we do not know who the polluter is. When DOW took over UCC they did not stand liable towards the compensation because they took over only the assets and not the liabilities.
(This is not true. At the time of the merger, Dow set aside $2.2 billion to meet UCC’s asbestos liabilities in the United States.)
Shazia: Vendanta had constructed 40% of their aluminum refinery at Langigarh even before they obtained the environment clearance was given (raises the poster on Vedanta).
Jairam Ramesh: Did the Ministry Of Environment and Forestry approve or give clearance?
Shazia: No, but why is the ministry not asking them to stop?
Jairam Ramesh: Then the debate is closed. (In response to the poster). Do this ‘Naatak’ in front of the Supreme court not in front of me.
India’s worst terrorist attack occurred not in Mumbai last month, but in Bhopal 24 years ago – and it’s the kind of carnage that goes unheeded.
What determines the gravity and enormity of an outrage? Is it the number of casualties? Is it the brutality with which the attack is carried out? Is it the ideology of the perpetrators along with their religious affiliation that determines the scale? Or is there some other yardstick, like the magnitude of human suffering and its long-term consequences?
Last week’s terror strike on Mumbai, according to a well-orchestrated campaign, was India’s 9/11, the equivalent of the al-Qaeda attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in the US eight years ago. The facile logic offered for this claim is that the three-day siege of the hotels and a guesthouse in Mumbai were the worst terrorist attacks on the country, and thus India’s 9/11. As such it also seeks a Rambo-like response of hot pursuit and vengeance in which India slams terrorist cells here and across the border.
Class has a lot to do with this perception. The current hysteria emanates mainly from a slice of society that suddenly finds itself as vulnerable to massacre and mayhem as the working class travelling in overcrowded commuter trains have been. For the rich it has been a disaster without parallel: their iconic playgrounds have been violated and nothing appears secure any more even in their gated universe. The hitherto unstated fear and loathing is out in the open now, with society’s elite seeing terror slithering out of the slums sprawled at the foothills of their luxury towers.
But there has to be more than class at play when a country can chose to turn its back on the worst disaster of all times and pretend that it is part of the civilised world. December 2 marked the 24th anniversary of the Bhopal gas leak tragedy and not all the terrorist strikes in recent years can equal the horror and magnitude of that event. On the night of Dec 2, 1984, a date that ought to be seared in the collective Indian memory, around 30 tonnes of methyl isocyanate and hydrogen cyanide, deadly gases both, leaked from Union Carbide’s pesticide factory and enveloped Bhopal, turning parts of the city into a gas chamber. The International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB), a solidarity of volunteers fighting for redressal, says around half a million people were exposed to the gas and over 20,000 have died so far as a result of their exposure. Among the 150,000 seriously affected, at least 50,000 are too sick to work for a living. Worse, children born to gas-affected people suffer from serious congenital defects. Some have no lips, ears or noses, others no hands or feet.
Around 3,000 are estimated — does anyone keep a proper body count in the slum areas? — to have died in the siege of Bhopal as people ran blindly across the city on that bitterly cold winter night with no official assistance or security forces to guide them. Would TV cameras have provided non-stop coverage of this terrorist strike by an American corporation and their Indian partners who have refused to accept culpability? It would have called for battle-like readiness, gas masks and all, to venture into such a zone where no sound bytes would have captured the full horror of the scene.
As TV channels go ballistic about an inefficient and inept government that allows Indian territory to be used for increasingly daring terrorist strikes, there is a deep irony in this for survivors of the gas tragedy. For 24 long years they have been fighting for justice, thwarted at every stage by their own government that has done little to bring the US multinational to book. Instead, it brokered a shameful deal with Union Carbide for an out-of-court settlement that provided compensation of just $470 million against an initial claim of $33 billion. Yet, yesterday, they were celebrating the hardy spirit of women who have battled companies destroying the environment with their annual Chingari Award.
Their courage and determination offer many lessons. This is something that the class of people who are hoping for a US-like response to the terror strike and government need to learn. The crisis of survival for millions in Bhopal, in the wake of what many consider the worst peace-time disaster of the last century — albeit one perpetrated by a corporate entity — poses a tremendous challenge for India. It requires a wholesale clean-up of the government machinery and not just the security set-up, as indignant Mumbai citizens are demanding. It involves getting something as basic as clean drinking water for the sick and dying victims of Bhopal to a more complex environmental, economic and medical rehabilitation programme. To prevent other Bhopals, one would need to tighten the working of practically every department and enforcement agency of the government, from state pollution control boards to the sanitation and water departments. Does Middle India, myopic and self-serving, have the stomach for a campaign of this nature?
The Bhopal survivors have shown courage and perseverance of a rare order, battling legal systems here and in the US, official apathy and corporate deviousness with steely resolve. Earlier this year, they managed to wrest a landmark victory by getting the government to agree to set up an Empowered Commission on Bhopal, and take legal action on the civil and criminal liabilities of Union Carbide and Dow Chemical. This commission, however, is yet to be set up, marking what could be another phase in the battle for justice.
It would be interesting to see how far Corporate India is willing to go in rebuilding systems and society. To the Bhopal crowd and their global supporters, multinationals and Indian companies have become synonymous with deceit and irresponsibility. In 2001, Dow Chemicals took over Union Carbide but it has rejected the claim that it is responsible for Union Carbide’s liabilities. Instead, it has sought the help of industrialists like Ratan Tata to bail them out of a sticky situation. This has only served to besmirch the Tatas, who have become a target of the Bhopal campaign.
Frustration and anger is the zeitgeist of the times. At both ends of the spectrum, Indians are disenchanted with a system that is indifferent to their well-being and security. How the government responds will determine how successful the terrorists have been. If the government can undo the damage in Bhopal, then it would have learned to take on the terrorists as well.
An international coalition working to address the grave injustices suffered by half a million Bhopalis.