Following the first set of protests by the gas-affected community against Tata’s proposed initiative, a Tata Group Spokesperson insisted that there seemed to be some misunderstanding. The spokesperson explained that they thought a fund should be established, “… to bring like-minded corporates to contribute …”, and insisted that such a fund would be “… independent of issues addressed in the court …”.
By way of clarifying the spirit in which they had hoped their proposition would be received, they noted that, “There is a risk that health issues may emerge, which impact not only the unfortunate victims of the Bhopal tragedy, but also those citizens of Bhopal who were not affected by the tragedy but who may be impacted by possible contamination of underground water”. As such they claim their offer is no different than any public-spirited initiative to clean-up a polluted site.
Why is this response unacceptable?
Ratan Tata’s claim that the proposed fund would be completely independent of any issues currently being discussed in the court does not hold up to legal scrutiny. Dow Chemical, which now owns Union Carbide, is currently in the midst of legal trials in which they are being held liable for the clean-up. A Government-sponsored clean up could, theoretically, recover costs from the polluter – Union Carbide Corporation/Dow Chemical, but a charitable clean-up cannot be turned into liability for another. A charitable remediation fund is a donation, which is impossible to recover from a third-party. In practice, Dow would be relieved of this liability.
Moreover, Tata’s assessment of the current situation in Bhopal regarding water contamination and the associated health effects, as expressed in his response, is vastly inaccurate and belies severe misunderstanding of the gravity of the situation and the research that has been done to date. While Tata speaks of hypothetical populations in Bhopal that “may be impacted by possible contamination”, the evidence in Bhopal conclusively reveals an environmental health catastrophe of far great magnitude, the health effects of which are already being suffered by sizable populations. It is scientifically proven that, not only has the abandoned factory caused severe contamination of ground water sources, this contamination has already had devastating health effects on the communities that have had no choice but to use this water supply.
Furthermore, using phrases such as, “health issues may emerge”, and “may be impacted by possible contamination”, is not only misleading but also, offensive to people in Bhopal who live with the imminent reality of illness and morbidity as consequences of contamination. Such comments make it unclear whether Tata is: (1) merely gravely ignorant about the severity of the present day crisis in Bhopal, (2) does not believe that the research to date is valid or (3) is reluctant to admit how severe the contamination is due to the legal implications it has for Dow.
Members of the affected community will almost certainly need medical treatment for the rest of their lives, and it is likely that their children will as well. Adequate treatment is not currently being provided. Given Tata’s lack of understanding of the current situation in Bhopal, there is a serious risk that, were his proposal to be accepted, this could lead to extreme neglect of the actual needs of the people of Bhopal. Tata’s proposal makes no mention of providing the much needed medical services. This means that, in functionally reducing, if not eliminating Dow’s liability, Dow, Tata and other “like minded corporates”, may be lauded for their charitable contributions, while thousands continue to suffer from inadequate treatment for health affects that have been caused by water contamination over the past two decades.