Any natural or man-made disaster raises controversies. A disaster of the scale that Bhopal witnessed because of the leak of the lethal methyl isocynate (MIC) on one cold December morning in 1984 was sure to raise controversies of huge proportions. That is precisely what it did, and more so after the June7, 2010 ultra-mild verdict handed out to the accused officials of Union Carbide of India Ltd. (UCIL). In the process, facts and fiction got merged and one doesn’t really know what is true and what is not and what to believe and what not to. A few of these are subject of this article.
From its very genesis the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) plan to set up the pesticide plant at Bhopal was surrounded in controversies. It submitted its proposal for establishment of this factory to the then Department of Industrial Development in 1970. Finding it unacceptable on account of the obsolete technology that was proposed to be “dumped in India” the proposal was put on ice. The entire department was against granting an industrial licence to the company. Curiously, more than five years later the proposal was suddenly approved during the Emergency in September 1975. Officials were horrified and the air was thick with talks of political intervention. Looks like the UCC knocked on the doors of somebody powerful and influential – whose identity can only be guessed.
Land for the factory was allotted in Bhopal away from the town. There was no habitation in a radius of around two kilometres. The Madhya Pradesh (MP) government also declared the area as an “obnoxious Industrial zone” and that no settlement would be allowed in it. But as generally happens with governments, over time all declarations, assurances and decisions were forgotten. Soon slums sprouted around the factory and later they even got attached to the factory compound wall. Keen as he was on their votes, Arjun Singh, the then Chief Minister (CM), instead of taking steps to resettle them elsewhere, generously handed to the slum-dwellers their rights to the land they illegally occupied, as it turned out a few months later, to their own serious peril. The tragedy, perhaps, would have been of far less magnitude had the initial assurances of keeping the area free of habitation been kept.
That the UCC and its Indian offspring, Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL), were very close to the state’s official establishment is a fact that is talked about even today. Arjun Singh was obliged to them for helping him kick-start the state’s industrialisation. The Company officials are reported to have had easy access to him and the movers and shakers had their children and cronies appointed in the factory. It was considered a privilege for the state’s politicians and bureaucrats to get an invite for parties at the UCC Guest House. The UCIL factory and its top brass were, therefore, held positions of importance in Bhopal.
No wonder, Arjun Singh did not react to the reports of a veteran journalist of Bhopal, Raj Kumar Keshwani, who, having seen the inadequacy of safety arrangements in the UCIL plant, repeatedly wrote in newspapers about how Bhopal was sitting on a powder keg. He even had questions asked in the state assembly about the inadequate safety measures at the plant. These were subjected to vehement denials. Whether the Company fed wrong information to the state government is not known. The warnings, however, were not heeded either by the government or the UCIL.
According to the local lore the number of casualties was much more than what was officially acknowledged. There was a distinct attempt by the state administration to keep the numbers down. It is corroborated by the figure of 3000 dead that was used in 1989 – five years after the tragedy – for an out-of-court settlement. If one takes only the figures of deaths, there is a wide variance between the official and unofficial figures. Officially, 15000 died; the unofficial figures are in the range of 20000 to 25000. Even Fali Nariman, the reputed counsel for the UCIL, recently accepted that the figures of casualties cited at the time of settlement of compensation were not dependable. No real or methodical count was ever taken.
Countless words have been written about the assurance of “safe passage” to and from Bhopal given to Warren Anderson and his arrest and subsequent release. Who gave the assurance is not quite clear. The Centre now claims that there are no records and that it must have been an oral assurance but it is not known who gave it. Likewise it is not known who gave the orders to MP government to bail him out and fly him to Delhi. The fact, however, is that an assurance was given and that Anderson was quickly released and flown to Delhi. He even met the then Foreign Secretary, MK Rasgotra, who was the Centre’s interlocutor and has admitted as much. Arun Nehru, then a Minister, said that Anderson had, reportedly, also met the Home Minister and the President.
A perceptible effort has been made to keep the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, out of this particular controversy. Spokespersons and leaders of Congress had earlier blamed Arjun Singh for bailing out Anderson. However, having watched the proceedings for sometime Singh broke his silence and cryptically (and perhaps erroneously) said that he had no “locus standi” in the affair. Obviously somebody ‘very big’ had intervened. Although the Group of Ministers (GoM) (constituted in May 2010 to recommend action on various “Bhopal” issues) maintained that even the “contemporary media reports” indicated that Gandhi was briefed about Anderson only after the latter had left India a report in the respected newspaper Hindu stated otherwise. It categorically said in its report from New Delhi dated 7th December 1984 that PC Alexander, Gandhi’s Principal Secretary, brought the facts of arrest to Gandhi’s notice before the Centre intervened. Gandhi was campaigning in MP for the ensuing elections and it was, as the report said, “highly unlikely that the CM would have taken action without informing him”. The “needle of suspicion” for letting off Anderson unquestionably points to someone who ... well, you’ve guessed it right!
The 1989 settlement between UCC and the Government of India (GoI), too, was not free from controversy. Having assumed in 1985 the sole power to represent the victims in civil litigation against UCC the GoI filed a $ 3 billion compensation suit on behalf of the victims in the US Federal Court. After the case was sent to Indian courts in 1986 the GOI in 1989 settled out-of-court with the UCC at the Supreme Court, without ever consulting the victims, for a compensation of only $ 470 million – around only 15% of the original amount – for 3000 dead against the official figure of 15000. Hearing of the settlement was held by the then Chief Justice RS Pathak in camera at the Supreme Court where the lawyers and representatives of UCC came, reportedly, straight from the Prime Minister’s house. The settlement also extinguished all financial liabilities of the UCC and the rights of the victims to file civil and criminal cases against it, though the last was later overturned by the same Court. Soon after the “settlement” Justice Pathak was nominated for appointment at the International Court of Justice at The Hague. The Centre’s “settlement” for an amount much less than what was claimed earlier in the US Federal Court has all along been suspect.
Many would have later escaped their suffering from the contaminants and toxic wastes that were left by the UCIL authorities on the plant site had the then MP government allowed completion of the work of cleaning it up. The Eveready company, successors of UCIL, were cleaning and remediating it and they continued to do so until 1998 when the state government decided to over the land. The UCC had taken the land on lease and the government should have insisted on taking it back only in its original condition, free of all contaminants. The take-over was highly suspicious and has needlessly burdened the state exchequer, now as it seems, by 350 crores (Rs.350 billion).
The June 7, 2010 decision of the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Bhopal handing out 2 years’ imprisonment to the UCIL accused that triggered a host of controversies brought into sharp focus the judgement of September 1996 of the then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice AM Ahmedi. The judgement watered down the charges against the accused in the Bhopal Gas case from that of “culpable homicide not amounting to murder” to “causing death due to negligence”. His contention that he could not support such a charge (that of culpable homicide) unless it indicated prima facie that the plant was run on that fateful night by the accused with the knowledge that it was likely to cause deaths of human beings. As if storing MIC in thousands of tons in an inefficiently run neglected plant that had obsolete technology to start with and with run-down safety measures were not enough to prove that and the culpability of the accused! The decision was felt to be suspect. The feelings gained support when Justice Ahmed was appointed life Chairman of the UCC-funded Bhopal Memorial Trust Hospital.