with love to indore

Monday, June 14, 2010

Anil Dharkar on Bhopal

was planning to write a post on same but this one by Mr Dharkar echoes my thoughts

"The tragedy of Bhopal didn’t happen a second time with the court verdict: it happened at least 26 times, at each anniversary of the worst industrial accident in the world.There are very many points that strike you about this massive human tragedy. Here are some of them, in no particular order:
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Complete Coverage
The Bhopal Gas Tragedy

* Depending on which newspaper you read or which television channel you tune in to, the death toll number has ranged from 15,000 to 20,000. There’s a 25% difference in those figures. If we don’t have a definite figure about deaths, how on earth was compensation paid to the kin of the victims? And if we aren’t even sure of the number of deaths, how very vague will be the much larger figure of those incapacitated by the gas leak!
* The tentativeness about these figures suggests either complete carelessness or utter callousness on the part of government authorities. It also suggests that those who were to be compensated did not get what they should have. May be others, not affected at all, were the false beneficiaries with the connivance of officials.
* Much attention has been focused on the then Union Carbide chief, Warren Anderson. One news channel in fact was enterprising enough to station its correspondent outside his home in the United States. Much was made about his ‘posh’ house, the ‘exclusive’ suburb it was located in and the stark contrast with the gas victims. That, to me, is missing the point. Anderson is entitled to his perks; after all, he was the head of a large corporation so that would be par for the course. The real question is: was he guilty of wrongdoing?
* The same TV channel did manage to get hold of mail exchanges between shop floor employees in the Bhopal Carbide plant and Anderson. They show quite clearly that there was concern amongst Indian engineers about the safety of the plant and that this was overruled by Anderson on grounds of economy. Was this evidence produced earlier? If it wasn’t, why wasn’t it? If it was, how did the courts not take it with the seriousness it deserved and make Anderson the chief accused?
* A general point that emerges from this should be of concern to all of us for the future: MNCs will outsource work to countries like India, especially if it is considered hazardous or polluting. Since outsourcing is also done to reduce costs, there will always be a tendency to cut corners, thus increasing the dangers many fold.

As was shown in Bhopal, the Indian engineer cannot overrule his Big Chief. So how does he ensure safety? By whistle blowing to the government factory inspector? What if the factory inspector has been paid off by higher-ranked executives to overlook irregularities?

* Why is there shock and so much hand-wringing at the verdict now? It’s clear that the prosecution (ie the state) framed its case on lesser charges. Under these, punishment could not exceed the two years now awarded by the court. If the court under justice Ahmadi refused the more serious charges to be brought, why didn’t the government appeal? It could have taken the matter to a division bench of the Supreme Court. Didn’t the law ministry think this case big enough to merit its utmost attention?
* If the government has come out badly from this, the courts have come off even worse. Why did it take 26 long years for the case to be decided? A case of this magnitude — in fact, the most serious case of human negligence ever to come to court — was treated routinely and kept on the back-burner all these years. Yet courts have been known to fast-track some cases deemed to be important, like some recent assaults on foreigners. Wasn’t Bhopal important? Or do we still think of Indian lives to be cheaper than foreign ones?
* The courts, in general, have an antiquated view of compensation to be paid. This is seen in every decision taken by courts at all levels. Just look at the legal costs awarded in routine cases. The amount is paltry enough to be a joke. Aren’t the courts aware of how much real legal costs are? That just tells you how out of sync our judiciary is about the cost of living, about earning capacity and so on. Couldn’t the judges have applied their minds more seriously in the Bhopal case and given compensation of at least 10 times the amount finally awarded? American courts give huge awards and penalties, and Union Carbide was an American company.
* The final question has to be about who allowed Warren Anderson to flee. If he was kept in custody, as he should have been, if serious charges were brought against him as they should have been, the victims of Bhopal wouldn’t be left high and dry as they have been.

No one can bring to life the thousands who died or alleviate the pain of those who suffer physical disabilities even today. But fair compensation could have eased the pain a bit. And massive penalties would have ensured that the Andersons of the world would be less callous about the loss of human lives."

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