Jairam Ramesh, union minister of state for forests and environment, visited Bhopal last week. And his first port of call was the Union Carbide's rusting pesticide plant that was shut down 25 years ago after it spewed poisonous gas killing more than 15,000 people.
He made a shocking statement after the visit.
"If I were to tell you why the Bhopal tragedy happened," he said, "the truth is very uncomfortable. The truths about how it happened is itself very questionable."
He was responding to a journalist who asked why taxpayers should be made to pay for the cleaning and disposal of the toxic waste lying at the facility.
Ramesh's insinuation was clear: The US conglomerate may not be the only one responsible for the disaster. Probably, he believes in the half-baked “conspiracy and sabotage” theory. The theory was part of the multinational corporation's campaign to extricate itself from the legal abyss it found itself in and possible bankruptcy due to thousands of damage suits. The company could not survive the disaster and had to sell its business, eventually.
Ignorance is bliss.
Here are some “uncomfortable” truths:
* The transnational had different safety standards for its pesticide plant in West Virginia and Bhopal.
* The company’s internal correspondence intercepted by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) shows that there was a debate about lethal design deficiencies at the Bhopal plant.
* The CBI has come across a letter showing that at the time the disaster took place the multinational was trying to shift the Bhopal plant to another location in Asia because it was obsolete and running up losses.
* Company officials had embarked upon a series of cost-cutting measures — under pressure from their bosses in Hong Kong — to curtail its losses. Among these, was closure of the refrigeration plant, used for cooling the highly volatile and toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas during winter nights so that the plant could save a paltry Rs 3,000 per month at that time.
* On the fateful night of December 2, 1984, the MIC plant's gas scrubber had been taken off for maintenance even as another safety equipment — the flare tower for burning escaping gases — had been shut down in gross violation of company's own safety manual.
In short, it was a disaster waiting to happen.
And who was responsible for it? Certainly not the 540,000 survivors of the disaster.
The minister's statement indeed raises some uncomfortable questions. The government of India, which he is very much a part of, has filed a criminal case in a Bhopal court to fix criminal liability on the part of Union Carbide and its officials.
One only hopes that Ramesh has heard of something called “collective responsibility” of the council of ministers.