This Article is From Jun 22, 2010

No question of supporting Dow: Kamal Nath

New Delhi: The Union government has today sanctioned the gigantic clean-up required at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal which became the epicenter of the world' largest industrial disaster in 1984. For now, the Centre says, it will fund the exercise, which will be carried out by the Madhya Pradesh government.  But in court, the government has made it clear, it will push for that financial liability to be transferred to Dow Chemicals, which bought Carbide in 2001. (Read: Bhopal panel: Rs 10 lakh for victims, clean-up funded by Centre)

Dow has so far been adamant that it did not inherit any part of Carbide's Bhopal legacy. It stresses that Carbide's Indian interests were sold separately a company named Eveready. (Read: Dow to NDTV on Bhopal liability)

Bankrolling the sanitization of the Carbide plant - estimated at 300 crores - has been a contentious issue even within the government for the last few years.  Now, those internal differences seem to be blurring.

Kamal Nath, who was the Commerce Minister in 2006, told NDTV on Monday, "If Dow has purchased the assets, they are liable for consequences."  He also denied that an earlier letter written by him suggested that Dow be absolved of any role in removing the tons of toxic waste that continue to contaminate the areas around the Carbide plant.

In the last few years, industrialist Ratan Tata has offered that the clean-up be handled by corporate India. That proposal was supported - in writing- by both P Chidambaram, and Kamal Nath. The government's stand on Dow's liability was referred to in a letter written by Dow Chairman Andrew Liveris to Ronen Sen, who was India's Ambassador to the US in 2006. Liveris suggested that representatives of the Indian government had assured him, at a meeting of Indian and American CEOs, that Dow would not be held liable for Bhopal, and that the government must urge its ministers to act according to that commitment.  

If any assurances had been made at the time, they could amount to misconduct. Then, as now, the issue of Dow's liability was being considered by the Madhya Pradesh High Court.  Former Minister for Fertilizers Ram Vilas Paswan, had in fact said Dow should deposit 100 crores for the clean-up in court. Liveris wrote to Sen that in keeping with the government's promises, that demand should be withdrawn.

In February 2007, Kamal Nath in a letter to the PM said: ''While I would not like to comment on whether Dow Chemical has a legal responsibility or not, as it is a matter for courts to decide, with a view to sending an appropriate signal to Dow Chemical, which is exploring investing substantially in India, I would urge that a group under the chairmanship of the Cabinet Secretary be formed to look into the matter in a holistic manner."

Referring to that letter, Nath told NDTV today, "I only apprised the PM of Dow's viewpoint after the Indo-US CEOs Forum.  I stated categorically in my note that I am not taking a legal position on Dow."

Transcription of Kamal Nath's interview with NDTV:

Shweta Rajpal Kohli: What about corporate liability?

Kamal Nath:
The matter of Dow's liability is in the court. We are petitioning the court for a quick judgement but we don't want to wait for the judgement to recover compensation from them, we want to move ahead. On the one hand government will increase compensation, the Central will fund the remedial and removal aspects of the pollutants on the other hand we will be moving for the Jabalpur court to fix responsibility on Dow Chemicals.

Shweta Rajpal Kohli: You as a key member of the Bhopal panel does admit that Dow should be held liable for the accident?

Kamal Nath: If they are successors to Union Carbide, we have to look at it from a legal point of view. I would say that as successors, if in their agreement of purchase, they have purchased these assets, hey are liable for all the consequences of these assets.

Shweta Rajpal Kohli: But is this in sharp contrast from the stand taken by you earlier, for which you faced criticism from activists for the fact that you had supported Dow Chemicals in ways that would have absolved them from accepting liabilities?

Kamal Nath: Well, the activists can keep saying anything, the facts are on the piece of paper. I met Dow people at India-US CEOs forum, they made their points and I reported it to the PM. The letter very categorically says that I have no comments on the legal aspects of the case. If somebody at India-US CEOs forum, which is an established forum under the Indo-US partnership, raises any point it's incumbent upon me to inform the PM.

Shweta Rajpal Kohli: Ok...talking specifically about your letter...where you decline to comment on whether Dow has a legal responsibility or not....

Kamal Nath: That's what I'm saying...I have said that...I am not commenting on that.

Shweta Rajpal Kohli: With a view to sending an appropriate signal to the Dow Chemicals which is exploring investing subdtantially...I would urge that a group under the chairmanship of the Cabinet Secretary be look into the matter.

Kamal Nath: I categorically said that this committee should talk to all stakeholders which means to the victims, NGOs, should talk to everybody.

Shweta Rajpal Kohli: But with a view to sending an appropriate signal to the Dow Chemicals.

Kamal Nath: You have told us something we have heard you...fine...the very fact that they mentioned this not in a meeting or in a letter...they mentioned it in a forum - the India-US CEOs forum is a forum between the Government of India and US Government. We have to respond to all issues that come in that forum. If I were supporting them, there would have been no need for a committee to be set up.

Shweta Rajpal Kohli: Another statement ad by you in a conference in Washington DC where you said that Dow Chemicals  by integration inherited Union Carbide...they themselves had no status in Dow's investment is not affected by that...

Kamal Nath: That's a statement of fact which is known to everybody that Dow was not the owner of Union Carbide, they inherited it...that's what's being challenged.

Shweta Rajpal Kohli: The fact that Dow's investment should not be affected by the Bhopal Gas Tragedy...

Kamal Nath: Yes, when they wanted to make an investment I did say that ...that's what my note was a follow up of that you appoint a committee so that there is no question of supporting them. If they had to make investments, we didn't have to set up that committee. I would have told them to go ahead and make an investment and I would have approved it.