Thursday, June 17, 2010

Does Anyone Care About Bhopal's Real Victims?

The sense of urgency Prime Minister Manmohan Singh displays in taking stock of the court verdict on the 1984 Bhopal gas leak is to appease anti-capitalists of various persuasions. Few people care about the real victims of the Bhopal tragedy. There is much outrage over the fact that Warren Anderson, the then chairman of the parent company has not been charged. My article titled Does Anyone Care About Bhopal's Real Victims? was published in The Wall Street Journal on June 14th 2010.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asked senior ministers Monday to take stock of last week's court verdict on the 1984 Bhopal gas leak and report back within 10 days. This belated sense of urgency is meant to placate everyone from anti-American groups to anti-industrialists, antitrade advocates and antitechnology believers who are up in arms over the court's light sentencing of executives implicated in the accident. Lost in the public outpouring are the long-suffering victims of the tragedy—and the issues that Indians should really be angry about.

The Bhopal disaster was a seminal moment in India's modern history. On December 3, 1984, about 40 tons of methyl isocynate leaked out of storage tanks at the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal. The gas spread through low-lying areas of the city, killing people in their homes and on the streets and in the railway station as they tried to flee. The death toll is estimated between 15,000 and 20,000, with over half a million said to be affected in some form.

Yet no one has asked how the disaster was tacitly aided and abetted by government neglect. The plant was established in 1969 to produce pesticides. In the 1970s, the company was allowed to implement vertical integration to produce hazardous ingredients such as methyl isocynate.

Back then India was a highly controlled economy with a web of licenses and permits and an inspector raj to ensure that regulations were followed. So how did Union Carbide acquire the land, then on the periphery of the city, for the factory? Why did the civic authorities allow the growth of slums and settlements in such close proximity to it? Prior to the 1984 tragedy, the factory had a series of minor accidents and leaks, so what was the army of inspectors doing? Why was there was no disaster management plan in place?

The government's post-crisis actions were equally irresponsible. In a bid to fend off U.S. trial lawyers eager to file class-action suits in American courts, India passed the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster Act, which made the government the sole representative of the victims. Delhi also convinced a U.S. court to agree to transfer the jurisdiction to Indian courts. Such a legal restriction on victims' right to have a say in determining the quantum of compensation would be impossible in the U.S.

Victims' compensation was restricted when the Supreme Court approved the $470 million deal between government of India and Union Carbide in 1989, and quashed all further civil and criminal charges. The figure was based on the assumption of 3,000 deaths and 100,000 injured. Until recently, compensation had been awarded for over 15,000 deaths, and to 500,000 injured, reducing per-capita payouts dramatically. Many genuine victims had to pay bribes to access their compensation money.

Then there's the role of the various environmental activists and bureaucrats who made a career out of showcasing the tragedy. If they are so concerned about the victims, then why does ground water contamination allegedly continue to affect thousands of people who live in the vicinity? Why does the unused factory continue to stand without any effort at dismantling it, reclaiming the land and decontaminating the soil? Why does the hospital set up to care for victims remain understaffed? Why have many victims accused the hospital of refusing care? Ordinary Indians are right to be irked when they see cash splashes for any en vogue government program, but not for the victims of Bhopal.

Indians are also right to feel outrage over the two-year prison sentence handed out to the former non-executive chairman of Union Carbide's India operation, 87-year-old Keshub Mahindra, and a clutch of senior managers and plant operators, last week. In 1996, the Supreme Court had approved the prosecution of some Indian officials of the company's local subsidiary for criminal negligence. But not so for the American executives. There is greater anger that Warren Anderson, then chairman of the U.S.-based parent company who was accused of knowing about safety problems, has not been charged.

The Bhopal gas leak case undoubtedly exposes the shortcomings of India's broken judiciary. Court cases can drag on for decades, with about three million cases pending at various levels, including over 50,000 in the Supreme Court. Many smaller Bhopals get buried in this quagmire each day.

Prime Minister Singh and other government ministers may move in the coming days to paint Mr. Anderson as the main villain. That may help to score a few brownie points among professional anti-American protest groups, but such a move would hardly reduce the woes of long-suffering victims of the gas tragedy. It would only serve to divert the public's attention away from policy makers' responsibility toward their own citizens. Aside from the victims' terrible suffering, this would be a woeful way to pay tribute to their legacy.

No comments:

Post a Comment