The voiceless victims of Bhopal gas leak and insensitive politicians
The Prime Minister set up a Group of Ministers on Bhopal gas tragedy post-haste in an attempt to stem public outcry on the government’s apathy and has now given it a deadline of 10 days to submit the report. It sounds like yet another rude slap on the victims of the world’s worst ever industrial accident. If a GoM can spin off a solution in 10 days, what were the successive governments doing for 26 years?
When the Union Carbide judgment came 26 years too late, the UPA found its feet trapped, hopelessly. It could not run and escape responsibility because when the huge human-failure accident at the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal happened on December 3, 1984 the Congress was in power both at the Centre with Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister and at the State, with Arjun Singh as Chief Minister.
The CEO, the senior executives and the people who were directly accountable for the poison gas leak were allowed, nay escorted out of India, to the safety of their homes, with the complete knowledge that they were responsible for the loss of 20,000 lives and to the damages to the lives of thousands of others. Accusations are now flying thick and high that their escape was ordered by the then Prime Minister of the country. The Congress Party that has no further use for the ailing Arjun Singh has put the blame entirely on him, claiming that the decision was his. Pranab Mukherjee, his old colleague made a weak attempt to defend him citing law and order problem.
Right from the beginning the Bhopal gas tragedy has been a series of cover ups. The governments- both Centre and State-tried to hide the fact that the gas that leaked from the UCIL factory had deadly cyanide in it. A renowned German toxicologist Dr Max Daunderer arrived in Bhopal on December 4, 1984 with the only known antidote to cyanide then, sodium thiosulphate. He successfully administered the drug to a few people. This proved the presence of cyanide in the leaked gas. On December 7, he was told that he was wanted in Delhi by the central Public Health Department. When he arrived in Delhi, he was asked to leave India immediately, failing which he was to be arrested. He left the country but made arrangements for 20,000 doses of the medicine prescribed by him. It did not reach the victims. The ICMR which in its early report had mentioned cyanide poisoning later “corrected” its report. (The Daunderer story is reproduced on pages 7-8 because of its renewed relevance in the present context).
None of these would have happened without pressure from very highly placed persons, beyond Bhopal and possibly beyond Delhi. For 26 years, the governments both the Congress and non-Congress, that came to power in Bhopal and Delhi never tried to track these sources that pulled strings from behind, with utter lack of conscience.
Many responsible citizens-among them two Congress (I) MPs and a senior doctor-also believed then that the tank from which the lethal gas leaked out contained some new chemical, which either went out of control or was “deliberately released” on the poor people of the area as “part of a diabolical chemical warfare experiment.” While this may sound somewhat far-fetched, the activities of the then Union Carbide’s research and development centre at Bhopal do raise suspicions.
It is not the political powers alone that let the victims down. The judiciary, considered the ultimate asylum for justice played its role too. The then Chief Justice A H Ahmadi in 1996 reduced the charge of culpable homicide not amounting to murder to causing death by negligence. The former had a punishment of 10-year imprisonment while the latter had a two-year jail term. It would also naturally reduce the responsibility of the company on the compensation question. A review petition against this judgment filed in his court was dismissed by him 15 days before his retirement. And since retirement, he has been heading a multi-million dollar hospital in Bhopal, set up by the Union Carbide.
Numerous NGOs mushroomed in the cause of the victims, some genuine, some out in the game for the money. The lawyers made their kill. Over the years, the Bhopal gas tragedy was reduced to a one-evening event, once a year, a candle light walk or a dharna. The victims got nothing.
Would this have been the course of events if this tragedy had happened in any other country, say America? Would this have been the story if the leak had occurred in an upper-class residential area? Even today, the compensation that a victim’s family gets in a plane accident is much more than a family would get in a train accident. The moral being the lives of people travelling in trains is less worth than those who fly. The majority of victims of Carbide gas leak are poor.
The Indian politicians and authorities in fact have shown their most cowardly side in dealing with cases involving foreign companies. The truth behind Bofors is not known till date. With Enron the governments acted as if their head was buried under earth and in the case of Carbide, they have been most cooperative with the MNC.
There are voices now that are clamouring to forget the bygones and look ahead to see what can be done about the gas tragedy victims in future. Which when translated into common language means, let the culprits, both political and corporate, go scot free, let the eager and willing Indian companies like Tatas clean up the factory and let us frame new laws that will safeguard against repetitions of Bhopal.
But what can laws do if the law makers and law keepers chose to deny justice? And hence it is imperative that the blame be fixed, accountability be demanded and complicity punished.