TRAGEDY of Bhopal is too deep for tears. Some 20,000 perished and many more continue to suffer from ailments traced to the 1984 gas leak from the Bhopal-based Union Carbide(UC) factory. Bhopal sits over huge quantities of toxic waste in the abandoned factory that is seeping into the city’s groundwater like slow poison. Least the Government should do without further delay is to ask Dow Chemicals – that took over the factory from the UC and claim that it has purchased assets of the UC, not its liabilities – to clean up the toxic waste and ensure safe drinking water to the citizens. Instead, the Government and the ruling party is going all out to protect the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi whose image has received a big blow from disclosures that he was the one who ordered the safe passage of the principal accused Warren Anderson, the then Chairman and CEO of the Union Carbide.
Briefly recalling facts is in order. Anderson arrived in Bhopal a few days after the leak and was taken to his company’s guest house by the district authorities only to be told that he and two of his senior Indian officers were under arrest. The then District Magistrate Moti Singh has described in detail-in his earlier book on the tragedy and recent media interviews-what transpired thereafter. Moti Singh and the Superintendent of Police were summoned by the then Chief Secretary and told that Chief Minister Arjun Singh wanted Anderson to be released. When told that it was not possible as he had been arrested for an offence that was non-bailable, the Chief Secretary is reported to have disclosed that he was under Chief Minister’s instructions to find a way out. They soon found an atrociously illegal solution. While the Indians were kept in custody, Anderson was released on bail without being produced before a judicial magistrate that too on a surety of one of his employees for a paltry sum. Within hours of his arrest, Anderson was treated as a state guest, driven to the airport by the SP and flown to Delhi by the State aircraft that was kept ready under instructions from the Chief Minister’s office. From there Anderson flew to USA with no intention to return to India.
The ruling party is putting the entire blame on the CM not because it wants to punish the man who is notorious for committing countless illegalities but to protect Rajiv Gandhi who was in the state in the company of the CM for the parliamentary election campaign. There are unconfirmed reports that Rajiv Gandhi was requested to grant safe passage to Anderson by no less a person than American President.
Whatever the truth, it is inconceivable that a Chief Minister can manage a safe passage for an accused in a criminal case from the country without the consent of or orders from the Prime Minister. Naturally, Sonia Gandhi is extremely anxious about the image of her late husband but is also worried that persistent efforts to isolate and humiliate the former Chief Minister might provoke wily Arjun Singh to break his silence to spill the beans. Hence, the noises being made by ministers that the Government would seek extradition of the main accused in the case and wide publicity is being managed for the American assurance that it would “consider” Anderson’s extradition albeit on merits.
On full display are American double standards – better safety norms for plants in the West and lesser norms for developing countries like India where, they think, human life is cheap. Tellingly, Union Carbide knew that safety norms in its Bhopal plant were not up to the mark and that the company failed to act even after a minor gas leak occurred before the tank burst open. Instead of ensuring safety of the plant, UC was contemplating shifting it to some other Asian country. The question is what was the State doing? Are the Governments not responsible for protecting the lives of citizens from such horrible tragedies? Isn’t it the duty of the executive to ensure that corporate greed is not allowed to compromise the safety of citizens? Even the CBI, notorious for acting to please its political bosses, produced credible evidence in the court that it was not an accident but it was a case of gross negligence and showed that the company deliberately ignored risks that were known to exist. One wonders what prompted the apex court to dilute the charges against the accused. Former CJI Justice A.M. Ahmadi, who presided over the bench that ruled that the accused be tried under IPC section 304 (A) instead of section 304(II), as if it was a case of road accident, has been caught on the wrong foot. He claimed some one should have filed a review petition if the court had committed an error. He was acutely embarrassed when a petitioner reminded him that the review petition filed by him was dismissed by the judge “in a minute in a single line order”. It is not one’s intention to hint at some sort of judicial collusion, but isn’t it distressing that the Supreme Court had earlier settled the civil and criminal claims for compensation for a pittance?
Former officials of CBI who dealt with the Bhopal case now admit that they failed to do justice to the victims because of Union Government’s interference. A retired CBI officer claims the Government asked them to go slow on the extradition case. The then Bhopal DM says he did what he was asked to do by the Chief Secretary (who is now dead).
These admissions and confessions only show our bureaucracy doesn’t follow the laws and rules but obeys the whims and wishes of their bosses. This doesn’t absolve them of the crime to act illegally. They too need to be brought to book for failing to stand by the Constitution and laws of the land. We, of the media, are equally guilty. We didn’t raise the issues as strongly as we are doing now – 26 years after the horrible killing of innocent citizens that is comparable to bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. True, print media was not that influential in 1980s and the public broadcaster was just a government department. And how about the society at large? The ghastly tragedy and the State and Union Government’s collusion with multi-nationals didn’t prompt the people to vote against the ruling party. Ironically, the Congress won hands down even in Bhopal parliamentary constituency.
Although it is too late in the day, we can still do something to mitigate the sufferings of the victims. The Government must file curative petitions in the Supreme Court against its judgments on the grant of the relief and the one by which the apex court directed that the accused be tried under section 304 (A). Sincere efforts need to be made to seek the extradition of Anderson so that he too may be brought to justice. Old age and failing health of accused can’t be any consideration in a case of monumental and willful negligence. It is no revenge; the nation wants justice to be done. Meanwhile, the Government needs to find money so that victims are paid a dignified compensation for the loss of life and for the mental and physical pain survivors are enduring and will continue to endure for generations. The Government, one hopes against hope, has the political will to come to the rescue of victims and the courage to stand up against American arrogance and obduracy.