Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Bhopal Case: Some ignored facts

You know, so much has been written about the Bhopal Gas Tragedy; so many news channels and websites have given us the chronology of all these events, that most of them will have them on our finger tips by now. And then the inevitable discussions on TV followed - has the "system" failed us? Have we become less "angry"? Do we care no more? etc etc blah blah.

Now, this set me thinking. We conviniently talk about the "system" without actually discussing how exactly it "failed" us. It failed us because the persons entrusted with the responsibility of making sure it doesn't fail us, failed us! Look at the chronology again:

1. The Indian government filed a law suit in an US court and claimed damages worth $3.3 billion, in 1985. In February 1989, the Indian Government reached an out of court settlement with Union Carbide for $470 million. That's right - about 14% of what they originally claimed. That's what the Indian Government, led by Rajiv Gandhi settled for. Union Carbide's share price went up after this settlement. So the Rajiv Gandhi government's decision not only put a cheap value to citizen's lives lost, but also ensured that the stakeholders in the tragedy become richer. No rationale was given for this utterly shameful climbdown by the Rajiv Gandhi government.

2. Arjun Singh was the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh when the disaster happened. He made sure that the Chief of Union Carbide was treated as a state guest when he was "released" on bail, was put on a state government flight and was flown to New Delhi. Apparently he got a call from someone, and he just obeyed the orders. As expected he will not talk about it. He left the country soon thereafter, never to return back. Ever again. He went on to become the Union Cabinet Minister for Human Resource Development in the early 90's and in the 2004-2009 UPA government. Just in case we forget, it was Arjun Singh who introduced the OBC reservations into IIT's and IIM's, and raised a furore in the country.

3. There is justifiable outrage at the quantum of sentence given to the accused. 2 years imprisonment, and released on bail by evening. Has anyone ever wondered why their sentence was so low? That's because the charges filed were of such nature. Now, who files the charges? The government (in this case the CBI). When were the charges filed? Take a look at the chronology again.

4. Now, when there are court cases, obviously you should have a lawyer. Do you know who the lawyer for Dow Chemicals, which took over Union Carbide in 2000, is? Abhishek Manu Singhvi. Do you want to know what his official position now is? He is the official spokesperson of the Congress party at the national level.

It is nobody's contention that Rajiv Gandhi and Arjun Singh were responsible for the tragedy. Their utter disregard to the memories of those dead and living is what is shocking beyond comparison. And then this complicity by the media hurts so much. The "system" didn't fail us. The then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi did. The then Chief Minister Arjun Singh did. Why mask their failures as the failure of a "system"? Why make it sound like the "system" has a mysterious head whom we don't know, and therefore are not taking any names?

The media will make sure we will never know it was Arjun Singh at the helm; that it was the Rajiv Gandhi who was the Prime Minister when the out of court settlement was reached. It might even brand you as some right-wing negative thinker whose only fantasy is to ask moronic questions. Facts are facts, and it is important that we know them at face value - hence this attempt to bring them to your notice.

Lest we forget people, the after-effects of the that disastrous leak are still being felt by people of that area. Children are still born with disabilities. About 6 lakh people were meagerly compensated in 2004.That disaster just didn't kill thousands of people then; 26 years on it is still killing people. Generations have been affected. And should such a disaster happen again, the Dr. Manmohan Singh led UPA government (and not the "system") is making sure the guilty will get away, just in a similar fashion, by seeking to introduce the Nuclear Liability bill.

Apologize for repeating this time and again - The "system" didn't fail us people, those at the helm of affairs did.

PS: Today's Indian Express had this filthy editorial on the tragedy - "The accident, after all, could have happened anywhere in this country." it seems. What next? "Terror attacks can happen anywhere"? "Riots can happen anywhere"?


What's in a name? said...

Nice combative post.
The ICMR appointed a committee to look into the medical impact of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. It was abruptly wound up.
Headed by a toxicologist, the report was throwing up some critical insight into the LONG TERM medical impact of the disaster. Rajiv Gandhi was the prime-minister around the time the panel was asked to submit it's report. The report was done under the banner of Indian Council of Medical research and the experts brought in to assist with the report were serious "experts". Where is this report today? Why was it rushed?

Some additional comments -
Regarding Mr Manu Singhvi - it is creepy that he may have access to the PMO and at the same time defends the Bhopal case. A case that has serious political consequences (at several levels).

Now, the media is agog about Warren Anderson. In my opinion there are two other people that he needs to be bracketed with. The Chairman and the Managing Director of Union Carbide at that time. The board of a company needs to become liable for negligence. Looking closer at the Chairman - a leading financial paper gives him a life time achievement award and then goes on to editorialize the verdict and need for the executive accountability.

While most of us continue to be outraged by the verdict, compensation, and current state of the victims most of us continue to use Ever-ready batteries - a product of Union Carbide. We need to send a subtle message in that direction as well. A simple boycott.

It is well known that Ratan Tata lobbied to get liability for a clean-up lifted and away from Dow. I am not very comfortable with that approach, as every company that lands itself in deep criminal trouble will look for a distress sale and wash itself of liability.

Bhopal was the world's largest Industrial disaster. The Congress government through sheer negligence took away all options for legitimate justice and compounded the tragedy even further.

Robert Gates today literally threatened us saying that Bhopal should not come in the way of Indo-US ties. By mentioning this he brought to the table an un-necessary threat. I don't like being threatened. I don't like the idea of them influencing how we deal with environmental crimes either.

kppradeep said...

We should procure this gas and let it into the parliament when in session and then the study which was stopped can be continued. Jokes apart if we take xray of our beloved "HONEST" PM's back none of the spine will be seen as he is a SPINELESS person. If USA tells us to sit we stand and if it asks us to Stand we crawl

VOX INDICA said...

It's hard hitting. It's incisive. It's a rapier thrust. Enough to make MSM hate IHs!

The past can not be undone. However if we are able to exert enough public opinion pressure on GoI to make it rethink the Nuclear Liability Bill, then we would have achieved something.

Anonymous said...

Here's a set from the Tehelka archives you might want to revisit regarding the issue:

Also: still unbelievable that the 8 people are already out on bail!

B Shantanu said...

Great post, Sudhir...

Kris said...

Hard hitting article which clearly shows the way our beloved country was administered earlier. There seems to be no accountability at all. Twenty six years to give a verdict is way too much.We can only pity the state of affairs.

cbcnn_Pilid said...


I am not in possession of all the facts but my understanding is that the SC downgraded the charges from culpable homicide not amounting to murder to negligence which carries a maximum sentence of 2 years. I have not seen the judgment but I suspect it had something to do with the available evidence. Activists have been arguing that it trivializes the crime making it no different from a traffic accident but the gravity of the consequence does not necessarily alter the nature of the crime itself. In principle, there may not be a difference between someone who, say, forgot to take proper precaution with handling the poisonous gas and a driver who ended up with a head-on collision because he did not notice the dividing line and veered off his side of the road.

It is important to distinguish the civil liability of the company for what happened from criminal liability of its officials. The culpability of a CEO or some higher official who is not directly responsible for maintaining the equipment and may not have been able to prevent it in any event may be different from someone lower down the hierarchy who commits such an act either due to negligence or deliberately though managing officials ought to have a legal and moral obligation to the victims of the disaster regardless of their own personal culpability.

It is also important to study the consequences of this disaster to find out if the incidence of disabilities has increased. Unfortunately, nothing of the sort has been done.

The government's act of reaching a settlement with Union Carbide cannot be entirely faulted because the govt. has the infrastructure to deal with its fallout and it is more efficient for the government to set up a redressal mechanism to exclusively deal with it than for every victim to file suit in court and go through the legal process. The government's gross underassessment of the extent of the disaster is what is at fault here but at this point, there may not be much that can be done to rectify that. It is more important now to study the consequences and draw up assessments of its total economic cost so that some estimate is available as a guideline in the event of future disasters.

Memoirs said...

This is another detailed one from you Sudhir! Got to spread this so that the public are aware of the issues with the Nuclear Liability bill!!

quietist said...

our "activist" media will never ask the real questions like: how was the figure of $470 m arrived at? why was it also not settled that who would do the clean up?

thota said...



Sudhir said...

Anand - thanks for those additional informative details. I didn't know that Union Carbide manufactures Ever-Ready batteries. I agree with you - from now on no everready batteries at home. And also true is the fact that the negligence of the government post the disaster is as henious as the negligence of the management which caused the disaster.

Pradeep - I guess expecting our PM to show some spine is hopeless now. The only hope is to wait for his exit from the office.

Vox Indica - IBN just had "breaking news" that Salman Kursheed said they will re-look at the Nuke Liability bill. But my point is this - they knew the verdict was going to be this. I mean, you file a case for which max punishment was 2 years, what else did they expect. So why wait for the actual verdict and then behave all sanctimonius about "relooking at the bill".?

Anon- will take a look.

Shantanu - Thank you very much for the nice words :) Thrilled to hear from you.

Kris - Lack of Accountability has become the bane of our system

Pilid - totally agree with you about SC downgrading the charges based on evidence provided, which is why the government is to blame for the weak case against the 8 people convicted. Just saw the then CJI A.M.Ahmadi defending his action saying the judgement was never revisited nor challenged by anyone. He also used the example of him not being culpable if his driver meets with a fatal accident in his car. Also, my point was about the then Rajiv Gandhi's government climb down on the compensation without any explanation that is hurting people the most. True, there is nothing we can do about it now, but the least is placing the blame at the right door is what me thinks.

Memoirs - Thanks :)

Quietist - I think IBN had a debate on the $470m figure, but didn't get to catch it. Will watch it and then comment more on it.

quietist said...

@sudhir the question rajdeep sardesai asked was, is indian life cheap for MNCs? i didn't see the whole debate, mostly rhetorical, but was nauseating enough for me, how can you have a deal without both parties agreeing on the price?

How do we know said...

lovely post.. am linking it to my facebook and blog. Thanks a ton!

Anand said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ashutosh said...

When the powerful politicians and their clan are involved, their is no scope for justice.
Who can take on Congress and its spokesperson Abhishek Sanghvi head on?

Adesh's blog said...

it will be interesting to see how US govt acts against the BP, which is another industrial disaster by foreign company on US coast? I am sure the justice will be very different?

Anonymous said...

Abhishek Manu Singhvi was the lawyer for Dow Chemicals?! Shocking.

gujarativichar said...


Post a Comment