Tuesday, June 08, 2010

India's shame!


26 years after leak at Union Carbide plant in Bhopal killed 15,000 people, the guilty sleep in peace.

On the intervening night of December 2-3, 1984, deadly methyl isocyanate gas ‘leaked’ from a storage tank at the pesticides factory of Union Carbide India Ltd in Bhopal. Men, women and children sleeping in nearby slums and colonies died gasping for breath.

I was a sub-editor on the news desk of The Telegraph and have vivid memories of the tragic story unfolding through the day and late into the night of December 3. Those days there was no Internet and reports came via agency tickers. The enormity of the disaster emerged as PTI and UNI kept on updating the death toll. It was my third exposure to mass murder – the Nellie massacre was first; the anti-Sikh pogrom after Mrs Indira Gandhi’s assassination was second.

The official death toll of what came to be known as ‘Bhopal Gas Disaster’ – how cleverly Union Carbide’s name was erased from the event! -- was “around 4,000”, which was a gross under-estimation; thousands more died over the next few days, taking the toll to at least 15,000 dead. Many more thousands were afflicted with blindness, respiratory problems and other illnesses. Unborn babies died in the wombs of their mothers; children were born with deformities; life became a living hell for many. (See the legacy of Union Carbide's crime.)

Arjun Singh was Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh those days, heading a Congress Government. Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister, defending the butchery that had followed Mrs Indira Gandhi’s assassination and couldn’t care a toss about what turned out to be the world’s worst industrial disaster.

Warren Anderson, chairman of the US-based Union Carbide Corporation, parent company of Union Carbide India Ltd, flew to see for himself the devastation wrought by the American multinational firm. Probably he wanted to verify whether media stories were true or exaggerated. He did not show either remorse or sorrow but was high on bluster.

The police arrested Anderson; he was escorted to Union Carbide’s plush guest house where he relaxed while Arjun Singh arranged for his bail which was ‘granted’ within six hours. That evening a Government plane was placed at Anderson’s disposal: He flew out of Bhopal to Mumbai from where he boarded a flight to America. That was the last occasion he came anywhere near India.

The CBI was given the task of investigating the disaster. And it was instructed by the Congress Government at the Centre not to seek Anderson’s extradition.

Trial in the case against those accused of culpability (eight senior executives of Union Carbide India Ltd, including its chairman Keshub Mahindra) began 23 years ago in a Bhopal court. The accused were charged by the CBI under Section 304(II) of the Indian Penal Code which provides for a maximum of 10-year imprisonment.

The accused petitioned the Supreme Court. Interestingly, a bench headed by Justice A H Ahmadi, who later went on to become the Chief Justice of India, in 1996 converted the CBI charge under Section 304(II) of the IPC to Section 304A with a maximum of two years’ imprisonment.

Ahmadi now defends that decision by insisting that “There is no concept of vicarious liability. If my driver is driving and meets with a fatal accident, I don't become liable to be prosecuted under Section 304(II).” In other words, for Ahmadi the death of 15,000 people is no different from his driver hitting another car or a pedestrian.

On Monday, June 7, the Bhopal District Court gave its verdict: Two years imprisonment and a fine of Rs 1 lakh for each of the accused and a fine of Rs 5 lakh for Union Carbide. Bail was granted to those held guilty.

This was no travesty of justice, it was perversion of justice.

The outrage following the verdict is justified, but nothing more by way of ‘punishment’ was expected. We should ask ourselves some searching questions:

. Union Carbide’s culpability apart, isn’t our Government, our system, to blame too?
. How is it that slums were allowed to proliferate in the immediate neighbourhood of a toxic industrial plant?
. Why were regular inspections not carried out at the plant? Who were the babus certifying the plant’s safety standards?
. Why did the State Government fail to even do a proper tally of the number of people killed? Why were numbers fixed to minimise casualties?
. How come we still do not have a law to deal with industrial disasters 26 years after the world’s worst industrial disaster occurred in our country?
. And, shouldn't we as a nation be ashamed, shouldn't we the people of India hang our heads in shame that our criminal justice system is so decrepit and callous that it took 23 years to deliver a bogus judgement in a case involving mass murder by another name?


TIMELINE
Congress Government
2-3 December 1984
Poisonous gas leaks from Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal at night, killing ‘around 4,000 people’ within days and thousands more since then.
4 December 1984
Police file a case against UCIL and arrest nine.
Chairman and CEO of US-based Union Carbide Corp (UCC) Warren Anderson is released on bail and leaves India
6 December 1984
Case is transferred to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI)
February 1985
India files a $3.3 billion claim against UCC in a US court
1986
US district court transfers all litigation to India
1 December 1987
CBI files chargesheet against Anderson, UCIL chairman Keshub Mahindra and seven others. Charges include culpable homicide
February 1989
UCC agrees to pay $470 million as compensation in an out-of-court deal with Indian government
1992
Only a part of the compensation is disbursed among victims. Anderson is declared a fugitive after igonring court summons.
1994
UCC sells stake in UCIL to McLeod Russell (India) Ltd. of Kolkata
13 September 1996
Supreme Court reduces the charge to death by negligence
NDA Government
1999
UCC announces merger plans with US firm Dow Chemicals
2001
UCC declines responsibility for UCIL’s liabilities in India
2002
Court maintains charge of culpable homicide against Anderson and demands his extradition. UK newspaper reports he is in New York, after US authorities say they can’t locate him
2003
India sends formal request for Anderson’s extradition
March 2004
India issues ’No Objection’ certificate to allow Dow Chemicals to clean the soil and ground water at the tragedy site
UPA Government
June 2004
US rejects India’s request for Anderson’s extradition
July 2004
Supreme Court orders the government to disburse the rest of the compensation
25 October 2004
Protest against the government’s failure to pay the compensation
26 October 2004
Supreme court sets 15 November as deadline for payment of compensation. Authorities begin disbursal
22 July 2009
Bhopal court issues new arrest warrant against Anderson. His trial is separated from others
7 June 2010
Local court declares all the eight accused guilty. Sentences them to 2 years in jail; imposes a piddly fine.
They are freed on bail.

13 comments:

Nandinikakoti said...

Justice has been bitterly kicked out from the Indian Judiciary system several times and this is the Ultimate one. Now if the local crime rate here increases, no one should be blamed but the judiciary. Why has the system remained so adamant? How to call the nation to be one united company. Simple opinions is not taking us anywhere.

Anonymous said...

While the way the Gas Tragedy was dealt with was a huge perversion of justice (and you correctly identify the liable parties - babus, local officials, state governments..), there is a need to not overreact.

For instance, you think the CEO of a large company corporation should be arrested (not just held financially liable) for a chemical leak in a far-off country that was caused by something between bad operations and malicious intent of one employee.

If you are such a believer of vicarious liability, how about this - we should arrest shareholders of Indian car companies in response to all the people killed in car crashes.

Better still, we should arrest you for all the acts of negligence of the Indian government (including the Bhopal tragedy), because you are a voting share holder of the government and all the government's acts are done in your name, amongst others.

quietist said...

the least we can do now is:
1. hire professionals to clean up the place with tax payers money of course, it will be money well spent.
2. compensate the victims adequately again with tax payers money, when we can spend money like water for CWG, we can do it for this as well
3. make the accused complete their prison term post haste be it 2 years two months or two decades whatever it is in the laws.

There is no point talking about high sounding concepts like judicial and political reforms, or looking up to the white man to have a change of heart and throw some more crumbs this way or clean up the mess.

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quietist said...

@anonymous,

is it ok for the ceo of UC to evade trial, even when the best of lawyers were at his disposal?
nobody is asking for suing the shareholders of UC! it's "you" who is overreacting.
let alone criminal liability, has UC discharged even it's financial liability? even after 26 years the place is polluted, and the victims haven't yet got compensation. shouldn't the polluter/guilty pay for the damage in full?

pulkit mishra said...

I feel there is no need to blame U.S for the mees for which successive Indian governments should be held responsible including the B.J.P that has pretensions to being the party of masses.Really, it peeves me a lot.It shows that our system needs to be revamped completely.Indians are treated like muck by their own government; this is the message the judgement has sent aqcross the globe. Heaven forbid,but had this tragedy taken -place in a country like Israel,it would have taught U.S a harsh lesson. How impotent India is...

Incognito said...

Q to Mr Anonymous

Was the CEO not responsible for the safe operation of UCC in Bhopal ?
Did he not take any money from Bhopal plant for his corporation ?
Did he not draw salary for a job that included safe running of Bhopal UCC ?
Was all the money generated by UCC entirely kept within this country India ?

Those are legal issues. There is something beyond legal, that is ethical.

Death and maiming of tens of thousands of humans and don't know how many thousands of animals and birds... Who will answer to that ?
Who ?

The CEO and everyone associated with that company, whoever earned from the working of that company are responsible.

Definitely the govt that allowed that company to function, as well as let off the accused are party to the crime too.

The primary guilt, legally as well as ethically, is that of the company, those who ran the company and those who earned profit from it.

namaste

ashwin said...

anon...
the leak was not caused by bad operation/malicious intent.you are the first one in 26 years to have said this,without even caring to specify who that mal-intented man was.

the leak as has been amply demonstrated was due to the cost cutting on crucial components like gaskets etc. under the direct instructions of ucc america/warren anderson.

the liable parties that you have identified can be accused of having rubbery spines,but the real liability lies on the shoulders of Rajiv gandhi for having directed the whisking out of warren anderson even as some local officials had the spine to arrest him on his arrival.

Rajeev gandhi went on to display his sterling qualities in managing corruption cases later in the bofor's case.

so don't point fingers where there is lesser blame and shielding the really culpable entities.

Anonymous said...

@ quietist
About evading trial, would you stand trial in India, even if you were innocent and had lawyers? Would you throw away 26 years of your life for nothing?

To give you an idea of scale, my dad was 26 years old when this happened (he used to live in Bhopal). I was born after the gas tragedy and I am 26 now.

About suing shareholders, tomayto tomaahto. If you think vicarious liability is such an important concept (which you do if you think the CEO of a large company corporation should be personally arrested and put on trial for 26 for a chemical leak in a far-off country that was caused by something between bad operations and malicious intent of one employee), where exactly do you draw the line? Responsible staff? plant manager? Senior management? CEO or board? Shareholders?

How did you draw the line between CEO and shareholders? What helped you decide? What is the difference?

Didn't UCC pay $450MM for the damage and also invest all of its capital in UCIL towards charitable trusts? Do you not think that's damages? Did they do it for fun?

quietist said...

@Anonymous

Who decides innocence? Or for that matter where the line should be drawn in the Union Carbide case (foreman/ manager/ management/ CEO/ board/ Shareholders)? Or even whether the CEO should stand trial or not. Surely not the accused himself. Nobody has a personal animosity towards Anderson, it’s about “justice”, he was in Bhopal, not far off place on the day of the accident. Is it not CEO “along with” the entire management’s responsibility to cooperate with the investigations, and if it “does” was between “bad operations and malicious intent of one employee” surely with their cooperation the investigations and the case wouldn’t have stretched for so long, and the guilty would’ve been brought to book by now.
That they paid what they deemed fit doesn’t change the facts on ground that the place which they left polluted still remains polluted after 26 years. Why should the Indian taxpayer pay for the cleanup? Do you think $500 is a “just price” for an “Indian life” (http://bit.ly/b6xWHJ)?
It’s precisely because of arguments like your’s we have succeeded in portraying India as a land of uneducated barbarians where jungle laws prevail, and it’s better for a white man to pay bribes and disappear for good than stand scrutiny.

Dinah Menil said...

You know, you can find San Francisco criminal attorney here

Anonymous said...

@quietist

I didn't claim to know where the line should be drawn. You did, by saying it lies somewhere between the shareholders and the CEO. So, it is your job to tell me how to draw that line.

Also, I said "even if you were innocent". What part of "if" do you not get? There wasn't even a prima facie personal case against Anderson for Bhopal. So, yes, he is innocent for the personal criminal liability.

They paid for pollution/cleanup + compensation. It was the Indian Government's job to clean up. If the Indian government didn't agree, they shouldn't have signed an agreement.

about the $500 comment, do you really expect me to believe a non-attributed statement on NDTV website, that doesn't even have a name of the person who said it? What next?

I didn't even know that Anderson is white. But, good job - I make logical points, you call me uneducated barbarian following jungle laws.

quietist said...

We may have our personal opinions on guilt, but IMO courts should decide innocence or where the line should be drawn. However, it’s definitely the responsibility of CEO to cooperate with the investigations and assist the courts in dispensing timely justice. And with the example/leadership the Union Carbide CEO displayed by fleeing from it all at the first available opportunity, little wonder that the whole investigation and the case took 26 years to even get to this point. Should US accept the same argument from BP that it is US government job to clean up, and BPs liability is limited to their capital, which they will pay but they won’t clean up?
So what exactly is the amount of compensation that those affected from the disaster received? Why is there so much speculation even in the mainstream media as to how much the victims received as compensation? Don’t you think in the absence of credible information such things are left for speculation. Who is to be blamed? Who caused the gas leak to begin with?