Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Bhopal gas disaster - government makes amends

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) the other day admitted in the Supreme Court that it made a "mistake" in approaching the latter late for restoring stringent charges in the Bhopal gas tragedy case against the accused who escaped with lighter punishments. When questioned for the reasons for the delay, the agency, parrying the query, said that it was not an "ordinary case" in which delay in filing the curative petition should come in the way of providing justice to the victims of the disaster.

The agency has filed a curative petition to, evidently, set right the injustice meted out by the apex court in September 1996 when a two-judge bench, presided over by the then Chief Justice of India (CJI) AM Ahmedi, diluted the charges against the accused from that of “culpable homicide not amounting to murder” punishable with 10 years’ imprisonment to “causing death due to negligence” that fetches a punishment of mere two years in prison. The contention of the then CJI was that he could not support such a charge (that of culpable homicide) unless it was 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. The CBI, in its wisdom, did not approach the court for a review.

However, it has had to file a curative petition now because of the public outburst after the June 7, 2010 verdict of the Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM), Bhopal, that handed out 2 years’ imprisonment with some fines for the accused officials of the Union Carbide India, Ltd (UCIL) under the provisions of the Indian Penal Code that deal with death(s) caused by criminal negligence. The ultra-mild verdict caused outrage amongst the victims and their relatives. The verdict had come 26 years after filing of the case relating to the leak of the lethal methyl isocynate from the Bhopal-based UCIL factory in the early hours of 3rd December 1984. Officially, 15000 men, women and children were killed, the unofficial count being in the region of 25000 to 30000. Thousands of others died later or were maimed for life and are still suffering from the after-effects.

Making assertions before a Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court the Attorney General (AG) Gulam Vahanvati justified the filing of the curative petition as the UCIL was entirely responsible for the world’s worst industrial disaster. The Corporation attracted the total responsibility as it operated the pesticide plant with “structural and operational defects” and flouted “all other” safety norms. The AG added, “The UCIL was sitting on a powder keg and as such the disaster was waiting to happen” He further said that the plant had been “limping” along since 1981 – good three years before the fatal accident – due to the illegal omissions and commissions on the part of the management that resulted in a “dismal state of affairs”. The accident was the cumulative result of a series of criminal violations by the factory which, he contended, was not due to negligence as determined by the Supreme Court in 1996. “Once this knowledge was attributed to the respondent/accused persons, the fact that no action was taken to set right and cure the defects in the plant would by itself attract the provisions” of the relevant section of the IPC that treats such offences as culpable homicide not amounting to murder. He felt that the Supreme Court had erred in 1996 in giving a verdict that was “oppressive to judicial conscience”. He added that it has caused manifest “irremediable injustices”. The two-year jail-term capable of being imposed under the section of IPC applied by the court to the culprits was “grossly disproportionate” to the “horrendous crime” that was committed by them.

The assertions of the AG must have surprised and shocked many who are acquainted with the developments of the entire case against the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) and its Indian subsidiary the UCIL. Although privy to all the facts that are now being placed before the apex court, these were never mustered to book the culprits earlier when apex court diluted the charges. Perhaps, CBI’s hands were tied owing to the directions given by the then ruling party. In fact, all these years there had been a well-considered attempt by the governments at the Centre and the state of Madhya Pradesh (MP), both ruled by the Congress at the time of the tragedy and for many years thereafter, to protect the interests of the UCC and its Indian subsidiary, UCIL.

A recapitulation, in brief, of the basic facts of the case should prove to be helpful for a better appreciation of what has been said above. That the plant was of obsolete design was known to the Centre’s Department of Industrial Development where the proposal of the UCC remained on ice for around five years until, suddenly during the Emergency, it was fished out of cold storage and approved reasons that were dubious. The then Chief Minister (CM) of MP was grateful to the UCC that it agreed to set up the factory in Bhopal. Soon thereafter, in the early 1980s, a local reputed journalist cried hoarse about the very facts that the AG has pleaded now – that the plant at Bhopal was sitting on a powder keg. But the then CM, the late Arjun Singh, would not lend his ear to them – beholden as he was to the UCIL. After the tragedy, not only did he try to palm off a depressed figure of casualties, he also had Warren Anderson, CEO of the UCC, most inappropriately smuggled out of Bhopal after his arrest. Later, the Centre saw to it that he was safely flown back home. Anderson was personally responsible for the tragedy as the defects and deficiencies of the plant had been communicated to him by the local plant authorities from time to time before the gas-leak.

At Delhi the Centre played its own games to the detriment of the victims and survivors of the tragedy. Not only did it agree to a paltry sum of $470 million as compensation negotiated in camera by the then Chief Justice of India, RS Pathak, with the representatives of the UCC, (another curative petition for which has now been filed) the government had a law enacted that took away the rights of the victims to sue the UCC for compensation or to file criminal cases against it and its officials. Further, the government has so far steadfastly refused to pursue the ongoing Bhopal Gas Victim’s case in the US even though it knows full well that its participation will strengthen it and that any order of an Indian court will not be enforceable in the US – regardless of a positive outcome of its fresh curative petition.

All this apart, the MP government, under the Congress rule, stopped remediation by Eveready, the successor of UCIL, of the contamination of the factory-site, which the UCIL had been contaminating from even before the gas-leak tragedy. Having done that, the government accepted the site back from the Corporation with all its hazardous wastes without insisting on its return in the condition it was handed over to it in accordance with the provisions of the lease deed. A few thousand crores may now have to be spent for the removal and disposal of the hazardous chemicals and other contaminants from the site.

Clearly, both, the Central and the state governments, after such a grievous tragedy, short-changed the country and its people, as it now seems, for the interests of the Congress party that happened to be running both the governments. They took decisions that, from all evidences, were in favour of the UCC, apparently, for reasons of the payments the UCC made to the Congress Party, as very plausibly alleged by the eminent lawyer, Ram Jethmalani. His allegations have not been denied so far.

The public outrage after the June 2010 judgement left the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government with no alternative but to take the initiatives it has taken now. Nothing may, however, come off them as the actions that are being taken now are excessively delayed. The government is, apparently, going through the motions only to assuage the feelings of the victims of the disaster.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Cricket on overdrive

It has almost been like carpet bombing – the media hype during the recent International Cricket Council (ICC) Cricket World Cup of one-day internationals that was recently played out in the Indian sub-continent. The “bombing” was intensified just before the India-Pakistan semi-final played at Mohali, near Chandigarh.

The term “carpet bombing” has been described by Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia, as large-scale bombing of targets covering wide areas usually by dropping many unguided bombs. The tactic aims for complete destruction of a target region, either to destroy personnel and material, or as a means of demoralizing the enemy. In somewhat similar fashion, the print and electronic media “bombed” the reader/viewer with everything they had to soften, if not demolish, his faculty of reason. The print media had sports and other pages dedicated to the World Cup; the TV news channels mounted programmes of discussions, talk-shows, teleconferences and what have you. With interesting names like “Power Play”, “Inside Story”, “Fourth Umpire”, “Kings of Cricket” etc. the programmes – much like unguided bombs – would obliterate regular news-and-views schedules and bombard viewers with opinions, anecdotes, cricketing trivia and suchlike. What’s more, there would be repeat telecasts in the mornings or late in the night for those who, by an odd chance, might have missed them. To add a touch of glamour, they had even inducted two very attractive ladies, one an actor and a cricket-lover and the other a former captain of the Indian women’s cricket team. The idea of the promoters of the channels seems to have been to force-feed the TV audiences, much like the famed Peking ducks or the Kobe cows, with the stuff that they had taken great pains to muster spending millions, maybe billions of rupees and dollars. While one could skip the sports pages of a daily, the visual media is another kettle of fish. It has that unmistakable tendency to arrest the viewers’ attention.

Not many years ago, only the channels that would telecast a match would assemble a few experts and put on the air the discussions in real time prompted by an anchor before the commencement of play, during the intervals or, as they say in cricket lingo, breaks and at the end of the game or, in case of a test match, at the end of the day’s play. It is no longer so. While the channels that buy out the rights to telecast the matches or the tournament continue with their rigmarole, others attracted by the target rating points (TRP), especially the English and vernacular languages news channels, too, have climbed on to the bandwagon. During the recent World Cup, therefore, at any hour of the day or night one or the other or several channels would be inflicting cricket on the unwary surfer.

While the vernacular language channels had to make do with former local heroes, a large number of retired national and international cricketers had been assembled along with numerous national and international commentators from practically every cricketing country. They would expatiate ad nauseam on the finer points of the games that had already been played or strengths or weaknesses of various players as also of the several teams in the fray with their prospects of advancing in the tournament. As hiring of these former foreign cricketing greats meant enormous outflow of cash they had to be kept busy and, hence, they would be put live on the air most of the time, sometimes even on prime time. News was pushed out into the background. During the World Cup the news channels all but forgot about Fukushima and the ongoing war in Libya. Nothing seemed to be news-worthy other than what transpired on the cricket ground. Fed up with this overdose, one felt like kicking the TV.

It’s not that I am not a cricket buff. In my younger days I was very much so. Not only would I play cricket in school and college, I would also, apart from reading books on cricket, avidly listen to the running commentary of matches over the radio. We would tune in to Radio Australia early in the morning to catch the Australia-England “Ashes” series or listen to the BBC till late into the night for the matches played in England with the edifying comments in ‘poetic’ prose by the legendary John Arlott. I still recall the embarrassing Test of 1952 at Headingley, Leeds where India were four wickets down for no-score. The Indian prestige was somewhat redeemed when Vinoo Mankad, later in the same series, scored 72 in the first innings, took 5 English wickets and the scored 184 in the second innings of the Test at the Lords Cricket Ground. The spectators gave him a standing ovation.
All India Radio would broadcast running commentaries when matches were played in India. I remember with nostalgia the delightful commentating of Dev Raj Puri who had mastered the art of giving ball-to-ball commentary, effectively conveying the atmosphere on the ground. Sometime later, Vijay Merchant, a retired cricketer, also started commentating with his thick Gujarati accent. Even “Vizzy”, the Maharaj Kumar of Vizianagaram, a cricket busybody, had insinuated himself into the commentary box. For him what was happening on the ground was of little importance. He would expound more on the exploits of Polly Umrigar in the Queens’ Park Oval, Trinidad or Sabina Park in Kingston, Jamaica. Most interesting, however, used to be the chats of AFS Talyarkhan with commentators during the tea-break around the early 1950s. He was reputed to be a marathon commentator earlier and used to cover entire five-day Test matches by himself. Later, he used to write a witty column on cricket with the title “Do you get me Steve?” I still remember a devastating one of his directed at Vijay Merchant on the much-publicised incident of a girl kissing Abbas Ali Baig after he scored a hundred at Bombay in a Test. “Vijay Merchant was wondering on the air”, he wrote, “where all the girls were when he was scoring his hundreds. Fast asleep Vijay, they were too tired of waiting”, followed by the inevitable “Do you get me Steve?” An opening batsman, old-timers would remember, Merchant, though technically perfect, was undoubtedly a plodder.

Cricket was earlier quintessentially a sport indulged in by the upper and middle classes. Patronised by the maharajas and nawabs, it used to be played mostly by the feudals and their progeny. Even the commentaries over the radio were listened to by them and the middle classes who possessed the radio-receivers – a rarity in those days. The common man as also the deprived masses could never afford it and, hence, never showed any interest in the game. A change came over after transistorisation of the radio. It became cheap, affordable and portable. Running commentaries in Hindi extended the reach of cricket making it more fathomable to the non-English knowing crowd. The game received a big boost in popularity when India won the third edition of the Cricket World Cup in 1983. Advancement in technology gave it a further boost with proliferation of TV sets and cable and satellite channels carrying live images of matches into the living rooms. Today, cricket is watched on TV by millions of Indians in high-end houses as also in rural and urban shanties, even if the power in the latter happens to be purloined. A once-aristocratic game has been taken by TV to the plebeians and they have taken to it, virtually, like the duck takes to water.

The viewership in multi-millions generates billions of dollars in advertisement revenues. It has made the country’s apex cricketing body, the Board of Control for Cricket in India, cash-rich, giving it an enormous clout in international cricket. India may not be a world economic power yet, but it surely is a world cricketing power. And, before anybody could get wise about it, cricket’s centre of gravity shifted from England to India. No wonder, the ICC World Cup was played out recently in the sub-continent for the second time and two sub-continental teams fought out for the honours with India winning the Cup. The Central and some state governments gave a holiday to the cricket-crazy staff to cheer the home team even if they did so from the comfort of their homes. No work would have been done in offices even otherwise.

With the kind of money cricket now generates things certainly had to change. It has become a year-round circus and is no longer a sport for the three or four winter months as of yore. With everyone raking in the moolah none seems to resent it. There is, therefore, going to be no respite from cricket. Even as dust is yet to settle down after the World Cup, the Indian Premier League’s Twenty-Twenty (T-20) tournament has commenced and cricket will again monopolise the TV channels for the next fifty days.

DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION Rama Chandra Guha, free-thinker, author and historian Ram Chandra Guha, a free-thinker, author and...