When the Government of India assumed the role of legal guardian (Parens Patriae) of the 1984 Bhopal gas leak victims, it was expected that securing the interests of its ‘children’ would be its sole agenda. But 24 years later, with the Centre dragging its feet on legal, financial and rehabilitation issues and its ministries working at cross-purposes, the hope of getting justice and bringing the guilty to the dock looks like a mirage. Even the much-publicised visit of the Minister of State (PMO) Prithviraj Chavan to the protest site of the Bhopal victims and his assurances do not cut much ice, let alone evoke hope.
Mr Chavan, visiting on behalf of the Prime Minister, assured the victims that the government has agreed ‘in principle’ to the demand of setting up a specially empowered commission (which would subsume all existing panels) to carry out medical, economic and environmental rehabilitation of the gas victims and that the medical research on the adverse effects of the gas leakage will continue. But on the third demand — of taking legal action against Dow Chemicals (the present owners of Union Carbide, the company responsible for the leak) for environmental and health damage and soil and water contamination — the government again played it safe by saying that the matter is pending before the Madhya Pradesh High Court and it will take action as per the decision of the court. Clearly, other than the ‘in principle’ bit, there was hardly anything substantive in what the Minister said. However, the announcement of the commission was devoid of details, like its budget, its lifetime, etc. The survivors’ organisations want the panel to be extended and include rehabilitation to the victims of the contaminated water and an assured corpus of Rs 2,000 crore to enable its functioning over a minimum period of 30 years. They have also asked the PM to ensure that the commission is empowered through an Act of Parliament.
If we see these half-hearted promises in the light of certain other developments, it becomes clear there’s something missing somewhere in this fight against injustice. And what are these ‘other developments? In 2006, the Ministry of Industries and Commerce approved the purchase of Union Carbide (UC)’s Unipol technology by Reliance Industries — even though it is confiscable under a 1992 court order directing attachment of UC’s assets in India. Then there’s the $1 billion FDI carrot that Dow Chemicals has been dangling before the government. Also, there’s the pressure from within the government on the Ministry of Chemicals to take back the Rs 100 crore case that it has filed against Dow for the initial clean-up, and its lack of effort to bring UC and its former chairperson Warren Anderson, both facing charges of culpable homicide and grievous assault, before Indian courts. So what is the missing link to getting justice? It’s nothing else but commitment.