“The record settlement of $18.7 billion that the oil company BP has arrived at in the Deepwater Horizon environmental disaster case in the United States has naturally revived the debate on the denial of justice to the victims of a far bigger catastrophe — the Bhopal gas leak. As industrial accidents go, the blowout in BP’s well in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 was staggering, killing 11 people and spectacularly devastating an already stressed marine ecosystem with millions of barrels of oil. Five State governments and the federal government of the U.S. have been vigorously pursuing penalties and compensation claims with the company, resulting in the settlement. Yet, the impact of the oil spill pales in comparison with the magnitude of what happened at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal in 1984.
The Narendra Modi government blandly told Parliament recently that the Office of the Welfare Commissioner had recorded 22,151 casualties in the gas leak under the death category, but after scrutiny of documents, medical records, affidavits and so on, only 5,474 deaths were acknowledged, while 6,809 claims were rejected and the rest were treated as cases of disability or injury. Independent accounts, however, have maintained that there are medical professionals on record who certified 10,000 deaths soon after the gas leak. What contrasts the BP settlement with the Bhopal case is the role of the state and its readiness to pursue justice for citizens and remediation for the environment, with demonstrably errant commercial entities.
The egregious neglect in securing compensation for the victims of Bhopal, who continue to suffer, is evident from the fact that the original settlement of $470 million for tens of thousands of people absolved the Union Carbide Corporation of all future liabilities. The Centre, which adopted a paternalistic position on the issue and assumed responsibility for all victims, now says Rs.1,548 crore (about $258 million) has been awarded as original compensation in about half a million cases, a similar sum as pro rata compensation, and ex-gratia payments of about $100 million for medical treatment. On the ground, some victims say they have received as little as Rs.35,000. Medical facilities are grossly inadequate, and the Centre has brazenly neglected a festering problem: the site of the leak with some 350 tonnes of chemical around has not been cleaned up. Under the U.S. settlement, individual claims can still be pursued. Regardless of whether it represents the best model to address industrial accidents — often caused by short-sighted cost-cutting steps to boost profits — the Deepwater Horizon outcome has some pointers to advance the cause of Bhopal’s long-suffering victims. Dow Chemical, which assumed Union Carbide Corporation assets, reported rising earnings last year and cannot evade its liabilities. The Centre and the Supreme Court should ensure that justice is done for the hapless families of Bhopal.”