PRAFUL BIDWAI, KHALEEJ TIMES, JANUARY 14, 2007
JUDGED by any objective yardstick, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s environmental record is poor. While paying lip-service to reversing global warming, it has refused targeted reductions in India’s greenhouse emissions, which are rising almost four times faster than the global average.
It’s recklessly promoting private transport and energy-intensive air-conditioning and other wasteful technologies.
The government has passively watched the pollution of India’s rivers and rapid melting of the Himalayan glaciers which feed the Ganga, Yamuna and Brahmaputra. It has relaxed environmental regulations and promoted ultra-hazardous ship-breaking.
Ship-breaking at Alang in Gujarat routinely kills and maims wretchedly poor workers. Last week, three men died in accidents. Last year, the government welcomed French naval ship Clemenceau for dismantling, although it carried thousands of tonnes of asbestos. Receiving it would have violated the Basel Ban on movements of toxic wastes. Ultimately, French public opinion scuttled the illegal operation.
The UPA has been complicit in Narendra Modi’s illegal raising of the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam to 121.92 metres — in violation of the Supreme Court’s stipulation against further construction until the displaced are fully rehabilitated.
Raising the height flagrantly breaches Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s commitment of last April too.
When the Narmada Bachao Andolan launched a hunger strike, Singh dispatched three Union ministers to survey the Valley’s situation. The Ministers reported that rehabilitation was incomplete. Singh then set up an “Oversight Group” under ex-bureaucrat VK Shunglu, overriding his Cabinet colleagues.
Despite flaws, the Shunglu report conceded that 25,000 families haven’t still been rehabilitated. Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra don’t have the land.
Modi now wants to build dam gates up to 138.68 metres. This will displace about 200,000 people. It’s not clear if the UPA will resist the pressure of entrenched interests hell-bent on this destructive misadventure.
The UPA is also vacillating under industrial lobbies’ pressure to further subvert justice for the 1984 Bhopal gas victims — by letting US corporations evade their responsibility to clean up the factory site of poisonous chemicals which have contaminated the city’s water.
Under Indian law, Union Carbide, which owned the Bhopal plant, is criminally liable for the world’s worst industrial accident. It’s also duty-bound to cleanse the plant site of toxins, including cancer-causing agents.
After Carbide was bought by US giant Dow Chemicals, its obligation stands transferred to Dow. India’s Department of Chemicals and Fertilisers has filed a Rs 100-crore claim on Dow.Dow wants to duck this. On December 8, the US Embassy in India urged the government to withdraw the claim.
Now, Dow has found an ally in Ratan Tata, who has offered “to lead and find funding” for the “remediation” (cleansing) of the site so that Dow can invest in India.
Dow has long eyed India’s market. It has repeatedly tried technical collaboration with Indianoil. But it was stopped. Now it’s worming its way back through Reliance Industries and offers to set up plants in Madhya Pradesh, where it has darkly hinted, it could employ relatives of the Bhopal victims!
That would add insult to injury. The disaster killed over 3,000 people within a week. Chemical damage hurt another 100,000, causing 15,000 deaths and terrible suffering for the survivors.
After 1984, a second tragedy visited Bhopal through a grossly unfair, collusive settlement, which settled the victims’ compensation for a paltry $470 million and totally extinguished Carbide’s civil liability.
Most victims got as little as Rs25,000 for a lifetime of suffering. The bulk of this went to corrupt officials and moneylenders.
All that now remains of Carbide/Dow’s liability is criminal prosecution of its directors, including former Carbide chairman Warren Anderson, and the cleaning-up obligation. The Indian government has tried to subvert the prosecution. It claims it cannot serve a warrant on Anderson — although his address in suburban New York is known.
Letting Dow off the liability book will rub even more salt into the Bhopal victims’ wounds. Yet, Dow insists it’s not legally liable despite being Carbide’s successor. This claim mocks at the elementary “polluter pays” principle.
Dow is attempting crude blackmail. The UPA will disgrace itself if it succumbs to it.
Ratan Tata is pursuing a deplorable pro-Dow role as co-chair of the Indo-US CEO Forum, of which Dow president Andrew Liveris is a member. Liveris has met Manmohan Singh at least twice. Congress party spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi is Dow’s lawyer.
Top UPA functionaries are lobbying for Tata’s proposed corpus fund, to be established by Indian and US companies, to clean up the Bhopal site.
The Forum and US-India Business Council say that resolving such “legacy issues” would “send a strong positive message to US investors” — by letting Dow off the hook.
There are numerous links between the concerned parties. Keshub Mahindra, Union Carbide-India’s former chairman, and an accused in the Bhopal case, has served as director of several Tata companies. Former State Department official David Good, who worked against Anderson’s extradition, heads the Tatas’ US office.
Ratan Tata’s new role raises questions about the changing nature of Indian business groups. Tata’s family set up India’s first steel mill and ventured into engineering, civil aviation and other fields. They were committed to indigenous industrialisation and did not solicit governmental favours.
JRD Tata kept a dignified distance from influence-peddlers. But he had his weaknesses: obsessions with population control, and the conviction he expressed during the Emergency to The New York Times, namely, “the parliamentary system is not suited to our needs.”
The present globalising phase of capitalism has produced further distortions in Indian businessmen’s attitudes. The Tatas used to proudly contribute to the larger community through education, housing, and cutting-edge research. They no longer do. Once tolerant of trade unionism, they have become hostile to it.
The Tatas now actively solicit generous government support and patronage, and threaten to pull out of projects if they don’t receive it. Singur is a prime example of this.
The Tatas’ environmental record, whether in Orissa, Andhra, Gujarat or Jharkhand, is disappointing. They shouldn’t tarnish it further by working against Bhopal’s victims.
Praful Bidwai is a veteran Indian journalist and commentator. He can be reached at email@example.com