The neo-liberal assault on Bhopal


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Guest blogged by Anil Sadgopal

India’s ruling class refuses to learn any lessons from the biggest industrial genocide in human history that took place in Bhopal more than 25 years ago

Within two days of the Bhopal verdict amounting to burial of justice, the Government of India, at Washington’s request (read ‘US nuclear corporations’ insistence’), agreed to dilute a key provision of the draft Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill, now before the Parliament. This related to Section 17 (b) of the Bill, the only provision that had the teeth to deter the nuclear industry from taking its safety obligations lightly. Not that the rest of the Bill had drawn any lessons from Bhopal either. The Bill provides for only a limited liability of the operators of the nuclear plants by putting a ‘cap’ of Rs 500 crores for the compensation to be paid by them, the rest of it to be borne by the State out of public funds. If the Bill is passed by the Parliament in its present shape, the people of India would be required to pay for being killed and maimed by transnational corporations! This is the latest government model of Public Private Partnership (PPP).

The powerful Indo-US CEO Forum, co-chaired by William Harrison of JP Morgan Chase and Ratan Tata of Tata Sons Ltd., icons of the American and Indian capitalism respectively, in its March 2006 report ‘directed’ that a dispute settlement mechanism “be set up by India (with) specific focus on resolving legacy issues such as those impacting Dow/ Bhopal tragedy of 1984…. (this) would send a strong positive signal to US investors.”
 Let us recall that the Dow Chemical Company (“Dow”) has now taken over the Union Carbide Corporation, thereby becoming responsible for the latter’s liabilities and its assets. A petition is pending in the Madhya Pradesh High Court requiring Dow to cough up Rs 100 crores for cleaning up the chemical garbage lying in Bhopal factory and poisoning the city’s soil and water. Yet, ignoring both the law and the interest of the people of Bhopal, Ratan Tata, empowered by the Indo-US CEO Forum mandate, wrote a series of letters in 2006-07 to Chidambaram (then Finance Minister), Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia, and finally, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh proposing the creation of a Site Remediation Fund, and put forth Dow’s view, quoting a letter from Dow CEO Liveris, urging the Government to withdraw its application in the High Court for a financial deposit, and to ensure an appropriate investment climate.

RTI revelations

Documents released under the Right to Information Act reveal that in 2006-2007 both Chidambaram and then Commerce Minister Kamal Nath recommended that a Site Remediation Trust be set up to let Indian Inc fund and implement remediation activities, leaving Dow free of any obligation. This would send “an appropriate signal to Dow Chemicals, which is exploring investing substantially in India and to the American business community,” Kamal Nath wrote in February 2007. Chidambaram’s recommendation came in the wake of the Indo-US CEOs Forum meeting in October 2006. “I think we should accept this offer and constitute a Site Remediation Trust,” he said in his memo.

We now know that, three years later, soon after the Bhopal verdict, the Government of India reconstituted the existing Group of Ministers (GoM) on the Bhopal Disaster, now headed by Home Minister Chidambaram, and gave it a vastly expanded mandate, which includes remediation measures at the site of the 1984 disaster. The GoM is now free to recommend implementation of “remediation measures”, a proposal that originated from Dow’s lobbying to escape its liability. It is no wonder that the GoM has been nicknamed a “Group of Andersons” or a “Group of Corporate Servants” in the internet discourse.

Judicial disasters
To be sure, the Bhopal verdict of June 2010 constitutes the second judicial disaster. The first judicial disaster took place on  February 14-15, 1989 when the Supreme Court put its stamp of approval on a cynical agreement signed by the Central and state governments, on the one hand, and Union Carbide, on the other. Through this agreement, the Union Carbide achieved its three-fold objectives of: (a) being freed of both civil and criminal liabilities; (b) getting away with payment of the paltry sum of US $ 470 million (Rs 715 crores), in contrast to what the Indian government had originally computed to be US $ 3.3 billion (Rs 5,000 crores) and this, too, not as the corporation’s legal obligation for compensatory damages but as a ‘corporate succour’ for the ‘hapless and suffering gas victims’; and (c) preventing the establishment of legal precedence in the Indian judicial system of punitive damages for spreading misinformation and disinformation about the toxic materials that leaked and their medical impact on the victims, which could be several-fold higher than even the compensatory damages.

Political memory short
The third issue of punitive damages, to be paid by a corporate house for misinforming and disinforming the people, seems to have been completely erased from our political memory. It is this issue that is related to the third Bhopal disaster viz. the scientific disaster. Immediately after the Bhopal catastrophe, the central government took over complete responsibility and control over all scientific, including medical, investigations that were required to reveal the cause of the toxic leak, chemical nature of the toxins that spread in Bhopal’s environment and the medical impact of the poisonous chemicals on the victims. As expected, Union Carbide systematically spread misinformation and disinformation in order to minimise its civil liability for compensatory damages.

What is shocking, however, is not Union Carbide’s behaviour but the role of the Indian scientific establishment, led primarily by Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). These scientific mega-bodies, receiving huge public funding, apparently failed to establish in time i.e. within the critical period of next 5-10 years (a) the chemical nature of the toxic chemicals that leaked and their pattern of dispersion over various colonies of Bhopal; (b) the multi-systemic chronic toxic impact on the victims, including the gynaecological, carcinogenic and mutagenic consequences and (c) recommend a scientific programme of medical treatment and rehabilitation. All of this is documented in the three successive Monority Reports of the Supreme Court Committee submitted in 1987-88.

This does in no way imply that India did not have the necessary scientific expertise, equipment or funds for this purpose. Indeed, several scientists worked with a sense of patriotism and contributed significantly to the body of knowledge. It is precisely because we had all what was needed to meet the scientific challenge that it becomes a scientific disaster. This is why when the compensation case finally reached the Supreme Court in 1988-89, both the Central and State governments could not provide the necessary medical, particularly toxicological data that were required for computing the compensatory damages. The beneficiary was clearly Union Carbide. We lost the historic opportunity to establish the linkage between medical treatment and toxicological data, on the one hand, and compensatory and punitive damages, on the other.

It is clear that what happened in Bhopal cannot be explained in terms of maladministration, legal lacunae, corruption or individual misjudgments alone. That would amount to over-simplification and, therefore would not help us to build an effective strategy for future. What happened in Bhopal was a pre-condition imposed on India by the global capital and market forces so that the future foreign investments in our economy would be safe for uncontrolled profit making, plunder and loot, especially of our natural resources.

 By surrendering before the corporate greed and compromising India’s sovereignty, the Indian ruling class rolled out red carpet in 1991, when the policy of ‘globalisation’ was declared, for unregulated entry of the neo-liberal capital and its political agenda in all spheres of India’s life. It is still not too late to recognise this and reconstruct India’s economic policies and the related self-destructive development paradigm.
For this, we would gain immensely by taking a cue from Hind Swaraj which Gandhi wrote more than a hundred years ago as his response to British imperialism. The central lesson of Bhopal would be to begin writing a new Hind Swaraj for the 21st century. That would be the best tribute we can offer to the Bhopal victims.

There have been successive governments at the Centre and in the state and these have to be questioned as well,” says Congress spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan, sidestepping several questions regarding charges against the then Congress governments at the Centre and in Madhya Pradesh for granting safe exit to Anderson.

I will go to whatever extent possible to get maximum relief for Bhopal gas victims. Arjun Singh (Cong CM in 1984) has the missing links. He should explain the circumstances under which this happened” –
Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who heads BJP govt in Madhya Pradesh.

The real sting : Political culpability questions

Arjun Singh, then MP chief minister, defied all warnings and evidence that a disasterwas imminent and assured the Assembly that he had personally inspected the Carbide plant and there was no problem just months before the gas leak.

The government accepted a settlement with Union Carbide for US $470 million, money not enough to compensate even a fraction of the gas victims.

Digvijay Singh government in Madhya Pradesh allowed Carbide to return the land with tons of toxic waste when the lease clearly said the land would have to be returned in the same condition that it was leased.

Former joint director of CBI B R Lall said the agency was asked not to pursue Anderson’s extradition; then CBI Director K Vijayarama Rao rejected the claim.

Warren Anderson, the chief of Union Carbide, was given then Chief Minister
Arjun Singh’s own aircraft to leave India, just four days after the leak and with a charge of 304A (culpable homicide not amounting to murder).

Dr. Anil Sadgopal was a Member of the Supreme Court Committee on Medical Relief and Rehabilitation of Bhopal Gas Victims and former Dean, Faculty of Education, Delhi University.

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