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Thursday, July 1, 2010

Bhopal Gas Tragedy

Will We Ever Learn to Act Rather Than React?

It is often the late dawning of the ‘RIGHT’ that results in a tragedy—at least, that is what every reader of the Greek and Shakespearean tragedies understands.

Today, witnessing what the TV channels and newspapers are bombarding the viewers/readers with—the uproar after the Bhopal District Court convicted eight former top managers of Union Carbide India Ltd. (UCIL) for causing death by ‘negligence’ that resulted in the leakage of tens of thousands of pounds of methyl isocyanate, a highly toxic gas, from its plant in Bhopal on the night of December 2-3, 1984, which took the lives of more than 8,000 people and left thousands suffering its toxic aftereffects—and the cacophony that the political parties are making over the escape of Anderson from the country in 1984, demanding his extradition from the US, though he is not a subject of the current judgment of the court, one ends up with the same gnawing discomfort.

The predictable outrage of the victims at the perceived disproportion between the consequences of the tragedy that occurred 25 years back and the sentence of the court is, of course, understandable, for they have received a raw deal on all fronts. So is the case with the activists’ demand for action against Dow Chemical, the American company which acquired Union Carbide in 1991. But the fact remains that it is too late to be of any use. The issue has already taken too many twists during the intervening period of 25 years, leaving the victims high and dry. First, we must realize that the court has decreed as the law permitted it: a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court passed a direction earlier that the Bhopal gas case can only be tried under Section 304 A—rash and negligent act causing death—of the IPC, but not under Section 304 para 2, because of which the penalty came down from 10 years to two years.

Indeed, if one looks at the disaster from a right perspective, the underpinnings of the whole tragedy, which incidentally number more than one, lie strewn all around. The first and foremost question that strikes a conscious mind is: How is it that the government permitted the setting up of a plant that produces and handles a deadly toxic gas, day in and day out, in a thickly populated area? It was also a well-known fact by then that the gas proposed to be produced at the factory was discouraged by many western countries for its known toxic potential. Secondly, the technology to be deployed for its manufacture itself was in doubt. Yet, the permission was granted for its establishment in the city.

The next question that comes to one’s mind is: What did the government do for ensuring safety in its operation? What kind of inspections were carried out—did anybody, anytime, question the company about the sufficiency or otherwise of the safety measures adopted by the factory authorities? Were the people around the factory ever educated about the safety precautions to be taken if any accidental release of any irritating gas occurred? Reports indicate that people around the factory were never sensitized about the likely threats to their life from the factory. It is also said that a mere holding of a wet cloth by the victims of the gas leak across their face might have reduced the calamity substantially. But the fact remains that none of the authorities acted on any of these preliminaries to ensure the safety of people.

Now, moving to the post-incident legal action, the Government of India (GoI) took upon itself the right to litigate by exercising the power of parens patriae, and filed a suit in the US court against the Union Carbide Corporation USA (UCCA), claiming damages to the tune of $3 bn. Incidentally, American tort lawyers are known for their securing verdicts from their courts for huge sums that match the magnitude of the suffering inflicted by the offender. But the GoI lost the case on the very issue of jurisdiction; the judge of the US District Court sent the case to India.

Later, fearing that it would take long years for settlement under Indian legal system, and looking at the urgency in providing relief to the victims, the GoI agreed to a settlement with UCCA before the Supreme Court to accept $470 mn, a mere 15% of what it initially claimed in the US courts, in full settlement of all civil and criminal claims arising out of the disaster. With this, UCCA got itself extricated from the issue. At the outcry of the victims, the Supreme Court later resuscitated the criminal cases, but left the monetary settlement and cessation of civil liability undisturbed. As a result, criminal proceedings were initiated against those from India who were responsible for the operation of the plant on that fateful night.

But the real tragedy of the Bhopal gas disaster is, little has been done for the victims. Even the site has not been cleaned up till date, though the toxic waste is known to contaminate the ground water of the surroundings—already the lindane levels have reportedly crossed the permissible level by 40 times, and mercury by 24 times.

The net result of the whole episode is: first, the UCCA/UCIL betrayed the people of Bhopal; second, the GoI faltered in letting the victims claim commensurate compensation in a free-market system for their unprecedented suffering; and third, the legal system of the nation being what it is, no one is sure when the current verdict of the court will become effective.

Now, what does it all mean? It means: We must decide to ACT—to act rightly at the right time. If we practice this, things will automatically fall into place. And many tragedies can be averted.

                                                                                                                                    - GRK Murty. 


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