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Saare jahan se Nchha

Ever wonder why the Government of India is going out on a limb to please Dow Chemical? Nityanand Jayaraman examines...

india Updated: May 22, 2008 23:21 IST

For those passing by 7 Race Course Road on Wednesday, a wet day in the national capital, a strange scene may have greeted them outside the Prime Minister’s residence. People had chained themselves to the railings of the perimeter gate of the PM’s residence and before too long, were hauled into police vans by the dozen. Who were these people? And why were they there on such an unnaturally cool summer day with freshness in the air? These people were survivors and victims of the Bhopal Gas ‘tragedy’ protesting against the cacophonous silence on their two-point charter they have demanded from the man who lives inside the premises they were gathered outside.

These people had walked 800 kilometres from Bhopal to reach New Delhi in late March and are still on dharna at Jantar Mantar. But more than the distance, it is the matter of time — nearly quarter of a century — that has worn them down, that has made them tired. Their charter asks for two things: one, that a special commission be set up to rehabilitate families of gas tragedy survivors and those affected by the contaminated water in Bhopal; two, that the Government of India pursue legal action against Union Carbide and Dow Chemical. Just in case the government gets too nervous, compensation doesn’t even figure in the list of demands of these people.

A special commission, they say, is the only mechanism that can ensure the implementation of assurances of successive PMs that rehabilitation will be done. The fact that the plight of the survivors has gone from bad to worse over the last 24 years is proof enough that previous attempts to coordinate rehabilitation measures — through a Group of Ministers on Bhopal and, since 2006, by a Coordination Committee — have failed.

Legal action against Dow and Union Carbide is necessary not just for closure for those bereaved and hurt by the gas and poisoned groundwater. Survivors say that is the only way to ensure that future ‘Bhopals’ are not repeated elsewhere. But what has the government done to hold the guilty accountable? Nothing. Union Carbide and its former chairperson Warren Anderson, both of whom face charges of culpable homicide and grievous assault, are absconding from Indian courts since 1992. No fresh attempts have been made by the government to enforce their appearance in court.

Unrelated to the gas disaster, but arising from the routine operation of a poorly maintained chemical factory, Union Carbide has also created environmental liabilities for itself — involving the clean-up of toxic wastes and contaminated groundwater, and compensating people hurt by the consumption of the poisoned water. By virtue of its acquisition of Union Carbide in 2001, Dow Chemical has inherited Carbide’s civil liabilities — of clean-up and compensation for water-affected people. Also, in acquiring Union Carbide, Dow was well aware that it was inheriting an absconder. While Dow cannot be held responsible for the original crime of causing the disaster, it is guilty of harbouring an absconder — an offence under Section 212 of the Indian Penal Code.

In April 2006, when the survivors and victims of Bhopal met Manmohan Singh after a 35-day walk, 15-day sit-in and a six-day hungerstrike, the PM promised to explore all options within law to hold Carbide and Dow accountable. Barely a few months later, the Union Commerce Ministry approved collaboration between Reliance and Dow for the transfer of Union Carbide-owned and patented technology. A 900,000-tonne per year polypropylene plant being built by Reliance in its Jamnagar Special Economic Zone will use Carbide’s Unipol PP technology, catalysts and process software. This is illegal. Union Carbide’s assets in India are subject to confiscation as per the 1992 order of the Bhopal magistrate. In 2005, Indian Oil was forced to scrap a deal with Dow involving the Carbide-owned ‘METEOR’ technology. Dow had falsely claimed that the technology to be licensed was its own and not Carbide’s in order to avoid questions about the latter’s absconder status.

Why would the Government of India go out on a limb to help Dow Chemical? A note forwarded by Planning Commission Deputy Chairperson Montek Singh Ahluwalia to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has the answer. The approval, the note says, “was greatly appreciated [by Dow] as a signal that Dow was not blacklisted as an investor”.

Dow’s jitters began when the Ministry of Chemical filed an application in the Madhya Pradesh High Court demanding Rs 100 crore from Dow as an advance to cover costs of environmental remediation at Carbide’s Bhopal site. In 2005, Dow began a lobbying operation that roped in the support of a veritable list of influential people in the Government. Indian Ambassador to the US Ronen Sen, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, Commerce Minister Kamal Nath, Ratan Tata and the then Cabinet Secretary B.K. Chaturvedi were soon singing Dow’s tune — that any overtures to hold Dow liable for Bhopal-related issues will scare away Dow’s promised $1 billion investment in India and also discourage other American investors. Once again, issues of investment are clouding issues of justice.

Dow’s crimes in India do not arise only from its association with Union Carbide. In February 2007, US financial regulator, the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) fined Dow $325,000. The reason: Dow had paid Rs 80 lakh as a bribe to Indian agriculture ministry officials to expedite registration of three pesticides — Dursban, Nurelle and Pride. Talking to faculty members in IIT-Bombay, Dow India CEO and old Carbide hand Ramesh Ramachandran blamed the bribery scandal on its employees. Dow, he said, took pro-active action against the errant officials. But what he did not mention was that Dow had approved this expenditure in its submission to the SEC. Even worse, the illegally registered products are still being sold freely in India.

In 2000, Dursban was withdrawn from all home and garden products in the US. Announcing this, US Environmental Protection Agency chief Carol Browner declared that this action came after “completing the most extensive scientific review of the potential hazards from a pesticide ever conducted. This action, the result of an agreement with the manufacturers, will significantly minimise potential health risks from exposure to Dursban, also called chlorpyriphos, for all Americans, especially children.”

Responding to a question about the bribery in Parliament, Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar said in May 2007 that a CBI probe was underway. The probe is concluded. But the report is gathering dust. In the meantime, the illegally registered pesticides are poisoning our children, and those guilty are roaming free.

In demanding that the Dow-Reliance deal is revoked, and that the illegal registration for the pesticides be withdrawn, the people from Bhopal you may have seen outside the Prime Minister’s house on Wednesday are fighting for a cause much larger than their own.

Nityanand Jayaraman is a Chennai-based independent journalist and researcher.