You could call it providence or coincidence, or a little bit of both, that two of the biggest cases of industrial disasters — the 1984 Bhopal gas catastrophe in India and the recent British Petroleum (BP) oil spill in the United States — have hit the headlines, albeit for different reasons, around the same time. However, the two cases have little in common. While 26 years after a gas leak from a factory owned by an American company Union Carbide India Limited (now Dow Chemicals), the victims are still fighting for justice, in the BP case, the US government has forced the oil giant to set up a $20-billion fund to pay claims and clean up the Gulf of Mexico.
We can go to town saying that these are double standards on the part of the US, but the truth is that our government failed us. Instead, 26 years later, we now have an Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM), formed under enormous public pressure after the June 7 court verdict, that is deliberating on what needs to be done next and who will pay how much for the clean-up. According to news reports, the EGoM has made several proposals which will be taken up by the Cabinet later this week: more money for the victims, clean up the polluted site, initiate a new curative petition and also make fresh efforts to extradite Anderson. The Centre will fund the compensation as well as pay for the toxic clean-up. However, it has stipulated that it will seek to hold Dow Chemicals legally accountable for compensation.
In other words, the Indian taxpayer will be left holding the can until the government gets the better of Dow. One of the reasons given out for releasing Anderson has been that India then did not have the financial clout and diplomatic muscle to take on American companies and Washington. But this does not hold true now. So even now, why are we taking the easy way out? Instead of clamouring for Anderson’s extradition, we should put pressure on the US-based company to pay up the dues without wasting further time. If this needs to be done via the US government, so be it. In fact, by asking for it forcefully, the Indian government will not only redeem itself in the eyes of its own people but also set a precedent on industrial safety standards. It is said that there are many mini-Bhopals waiting to happen in India — a no-nonsense approach now can help avert similar disasters in the future and, if God forbid, one were to take place, we will at least have a necessary template to deal with the situation.