If there can be a bigger tragedy than the one that took place on December 3, 1984, in Bhopal, it must be the failure of successive governments to get justice for the victims of the infamous Union Carbide gas leak. On that fateful early morning, a Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) subsidiary pesticide plant released 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate killing 3,000 people on that very day and claiming more than 15,000 lives subsequently. Estimates state that another 100,000 people continue to suffer from chronic and debilitating illnesses caused by the lethal gas. Chemicals leaked from the factory have further contaminated neighbouring slums, groundwater and farmland.
Twenty-three years after the disaster, the government would rather welcome Dow Chemicals, which now owns UCC, than make it pay the compensation for victims and cleaning up the mess left behind. The Department of Industries has moved a Cabinet note asking the government to absolve Dow Chemicals of all legal liabilities — this when the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers has filed an affidavit in the Madhya Pradesh High Court seeking Rs 100 crore from the firm as initial compensation for the cost of the decontamination. The note is based on the Law Ministry’s opinion that the Centre can opt to settle out of court with Dow Chemicals, as the latter does not own the financial liabilities of UCC, something the company has said all along to save its skin. The problem with this is that once settled out of court, Dow Chemicals will no longer be responsible for compensating the cost of water contamination. The firm has wooed the government with promise of investments. In return, Dow wants to be freed of legal liabilities it may have inherited from UCC.
If Dow Chemicals has forsaken its sense of corporate responsibility, the government’s attitude towards those who have been fighting a relentless battle for the last two decades has been appalling. The fact that compensation in the form of an out-of-court settlement is being talked about only now when the government is smelling FDI is not only blatantly immoral but also irresponsible from an entity whose job is to not only make the nation prosper but also to protect its own people from injustice. The litigation is a test case for India’s relationship with foreign companies that want to do business here and will set the parameters for similar operations in India. It is in our interest that we set the rules of the game now, instead of allowing India to become a place for doing business where one can get away with murder.