As the political war cries over the verdict in the Bhopal gas tragedy become sharper, the Prime Minister has intervened, asking the nine-member Group of Ministers (GoM) set up last week to meet immediately. (Bhopal
gas tragedy: Verdict and after)
The GoM, headed by Home Minister P Chidambaram, will meet for the first time on Friday, the 18th. It has to report to the Cabinet within ten days. Its agenda, described by sources as to find "options and remedies," is unenviable.
"We hope that the GoM, in light of new facts, where after 26 years... that we will examine loopholes in the law by which the punishment was equal to a traffic accident. And compensation - we do expect that the GoM will go into this," said Congress spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan.
As much as it has to focus on the victims still fighting for justice, at least part of the Group of Ministers' efforts are likely to consider how to rein in the political and public backlash from last week's verdict. And then there's the conundrum of whether and how Dow Chemicals can be held liable for the giant clean-up required at the now-defunct Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, which became the epicenter of the world's largest industrial disaster. Dow bought Union Carbide in 2001, and argues that since the Indian subsidiary, UCIL, was sold to another Indian company ( Eveready), Dow is not liable for Bhopal. (Read:
Dow to NDTV on no Bhopal liability)
On that point, the government's messages over the years have been mixed.
In December 1984, a gas leak from the Union Carbide Plant poisoned thousands of residents of Bhopal. 20,000 people have died since then. And a quarter of a century later, Bhopal lives with long-term health problems caused by the Carbide gas leak. Several of these medical conditions, point out activists and medical experts, stem from the abandoned plant which is still loaded with several thousand tons of toxic waste.
Last Monday, India was outraged after a court in Bhopal announced its verdict and sentence in the world's worst industrial disaster. "Two years for 20,000 lives" was the popular verdict. Seven Indian executives of Union Carbide were sentenced to two years in jail, they were granted bail immediately.
The real sting of the verdict lay in the refocusing of attention that Warren Anderson, the American who headed Union Carbide Corporation at the time of the tragedy, was allowed by the government to leave India, and has never returned to face trial. (Read: Anderson Getaway: The Delhi stopover
pics: Who is Warren Anderson?)
Anderson's getaway - and the subsequent lack of an ardent campaign to have him extradited from America - have embarrassed the Congress, which was in power at the Centre and in Madhya Pradesh in 1984. Senior leaders like Pranab Mukherjee have gone on record recently to suggest that India will make fresh efforts to push for Anderson to be sent here. Over the weekend, US State Department spokesperson PJ Crowley told reporters, "If the government of India makes any request on action against Anderson, the US will carefully evaluate it." (Read: Will evaluate request from India on Anderson's extradition: US
Closer to home, mounting pressure and evidence could prompt the government to consider the role of Dow Chemicals. Correspondence obtained through the Right to Information Act shows that in 2006, the chairman of Dow Chemicals wrote to Ronen Sen, the Indian Ambassador to the US, stating that Dow had been promised by the Indian government that it would not be held liable for Bhopal. Dow Chairman Andrew Liveris wrote, "The Government of India leaders need to work with all Ministers to ensure that their stated position is reflected in all dealings with the court."
A year earlier, then Minister for Chemicals and Fertilizers Ramvilas Paswan said that Dow should deposit 100 crores for the clean-up of the Carbide plant. Dow Chemicals refused. Liveris wrote to Sen, "The Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers should now withdraw its demand of Rs 100 crore."
Liveris' letter to Sen raises the suggestion of misconduct. Why, if Liveris' letter was correct, had the government made any assurances to Dow, given that the company's liability was being assessed by the Madhya Pradesh High Court? The matter has still not been decided, in fact.
Internal contradictions have marked the government's view on Dow. In a 2008 note circulated at the highest levels of government, including the Prime Minister's Office, the Law Ministry stated that, "Irrespective of the manner in which UCC has merged or has been acquired by Dow Chemicals, if there is any legal liability, it would have to be borne by Dow Chemicals." (Read: Dow liable for clean-up: Law Ministry
The note was in response to a proposed one-billion dollar investment by Dow. According to the same note, Dow Chemicals were seeking an assurance that their "executives would be able to freely visit Indian for their business interests."
The Law Ministry asserted that till the Madhya Pradesh High Court settled the issue of liability, "the proposed investment was not immune from the orders of the court."
The government has not stated its present mind on Dow. Several ministers have backed a proposal by Indian industrialist Ratan Tata that would see corporate India taking over the clean-up of the Carbide plant.(Also Read:India trying for Anderson's extradition: Pranab)