The poisoned chalice

  • Sitaram Yechury
  • |
  • Updated: Jun 22, 2010 00:38 IST

The contrast cannot be more damning. After the recent court verdict on the world’s worst industrial disaster in Bhopal, which was universally decried as both justice delayed and justice denied, the US official spokesman called for a “closure”.

Last week, President Obama in his first Oval office address to the nation in the US thundered: “We will fight this spill with everything we have got for as long as it takes. We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused.” The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, has claimed 11 lives in the worst environmental disaster in America’s history. The spill continues with the flow of oil reaching 60,000 barrels a day, polluting the flora and fauna in the Gulf of Mexico and affecting millions of lives.

The last major oil spill causing environmental devastation was caused by a multinational Exxon Valdez in 1989. The current BP spill is expected to match the damage caused by Exxon every four days. The nationally-televised Oval Office addresses by US presidents have always signified crises. John F. Kennedy used the platform at the height of the Cuban missile crisis that threatened a nuclear confrontation with the erstwhile USSR. Richard Nixon announced his resignation over the Watergate scandal using this platform. George W. Bush first used it after the 9/11 attacks and then again after the US invasion of Iraq. President Obama’s invocation of this platform reflects the seriousness with which the US is grappling with this mess.

By all counts, BP must be brought to book for the damage it’s caused. President Obama asserted that he would ensure that BP “set aside whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed as a result of this recklessness”. He has ‘ordered’ BP to “set aside” at least US $20 billion to pay for the clean-up operations and damage. We wish he succeeds. Such merchants of death must be made to pay.

The principles of natural justice suggest that the same standards be applied universally. The world’s worst ever industrial disaster took place on the night of December 2-3, 1984, when over 40,000 kg of toxic gas leaked from the fertiliser plant of Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL), killing over 4,000 people in a flash and injuring more than a lakh. While estimates vary, it is universally accepted that over 20,000 people have died so far and nearly six lakh people have contracted life-long infirmities. Investigations had established negligence on the part of the UCIL management.

Though Warren Anderson, then CEO of Union Carbide (UC), was arrested when he arrived in Bhopal four days after the accident, for causing death by negligence, he was soon released, put on a state government plane to New Delhi and allowed to escape to the US. He remains an absconder to date. While he promised, in his bond, to return to India to stand trial in the case when summoned, he never did so. The Government of India has so far failed to get him extradited for the trial.

Questions about complicity on the part of the government and the Indian system of justice became louder when, mysteriously, all criminal charges against UCIL were dropped in 1989. It was only the widespread public uproar that led to the Supreme Court’s reopening the cases in 1991. However, in 1996, again mysteriously, the apex court directed the charges to be converted from culpable homicide (maximum sentence of ten years) to death due to negligence (maximum sentence of two years). It was under this latter charge that 15 years later, this unfair verdict’s been delivered.

The government must seriously remedy this gross injustice, bring the guilty to book and deliver justice to the victims. The recently-constituted Group of Ministers, it is hoped, will rise to the occasion. The Centre must reconsider and withdraw the Civilian Nuclear Liability Bill (CNLB) that it had so hurriedly introduced in the House, again under pressure from the US. In the Bhopal gas tragedy, UCIL paid Rs 713 crore as compensation after prolonged legal wrangling. Under the CNLB, the maximum compensation required to be paid by the supplier is a mere Rs 500 crore. This could be increased to Rs 2,100 crore when the liability is transferred to the government. Now everybody knows that in the case of a nuclear accident, the number of casualties will go up majorly and the damage would be infinitely severe.

Yet, this Bill caps the liability to less than what even the UC was forced to pay for the Bhopal disaster. It is simply unacceptable that every victim of this ghastly disaster has received, on an average, a pittance of

Rs 12,410. The overall compensation package agreed for UCIL was a mere US $450 million. Obama, today, is asking BP to shell out US $2 billion or Rs 9,000 crore as the initial requirement. Is it unfair to ask the US to accept uniform standards in dealing with humanity? Perhaps it is, as the US’s track record is nothing to write home about. The question is what are we doing about it, and how we value the lives of fellow Indians.

Importantly, if we in India aspire to sup with those at the high-table in the world, then the Indian government cannot be allowed to undervalue Indian lives so contemptuously. It is time to tell the US that such double standards are not acceptable. The UPA 2 must seek the extradition of Anderson to face trial in India. It must move the apex court to reopen the relevant cases and ensure that proper compensation and rehabilitation reaches all the victims, at least now, 25 years later. It is not enough to make symbolic noises. India must make Dow Chemicals, which acquired UCIL, foot the bill for cleaning up toxic wastes.

Sitaram Yechury is CPI(M) Politburo member and Rajya Sabha MP

The views expressed by the author are personal


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