Bhopal Tragedy An Eyewitness Account
Year ago, where the Supreme Court of India reduced the charge of culpable homicide not amounting to murder to mere negligence on those booked for responsibility in the Bhopal Gas tragedy (BGT), there was not much outpouring of public anger except amongst the sufferers. Probably not many could appreciate the seriousness of the import of the judgment. It was clear at that stage itself that the maximum punishment that the trial court could award the guilty was two years only. Now the outcome of a protracted legal battle is before everyone. Technically, nothing unexpected in it! Morally, ethically and on the principles of natural justice; it is a judicial disaster that raises serious questions on the efficacy of the legal recourse system available to suffering populace in India. It also raises serious doubts on the level of competence and commitment that should define the bureaucratic support system.
After the June 7, 2010 judgment, it appears that every component of the system is suddenly on the defensive. The central government reconstitutes the Group of Ministers and expects them to come out with an effective panacea for (political) damage control! The state Chief Minister now wants an added sentence of two years each for every death that occurred due to gas leakage. Suddenly, everyone wants Arjun Singh; the then Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh; to speak out. He maintains a stony silence. Those who know him and his loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhi family are not surprised. Every one is now bringing
out more and more revelations. In public eye, the fact remains that the culprits were let-off lightly; that the people who perished and those who are destined to suffer for generations were not looked after properly. Not even a semblance of justice has been done to Bhopal victims. All that has happened so far in 26 years is just a farce; an embodiment of incompetence, inefficiency and vested interests overtaking the people’s welfare. There is total absence of empathy and compassion.
The much-awaited court judgment practically crushes all the hopes of the victims to get justice. It has sent shock waves not only in India but has dismayed enlightened citizens internationally. Around thirty thousand dead, lakhs made to suffer for generations together and what a punishment the culprits get: two years in jail, with bail granted within two hours. They walk back home to have a relaxed cup of coffee. And the central government attempts to assuage the genuine response of seething anger and anguish by falling back on the Group of Ministers (GOM) which was dysfunctional at least for over a year; if not more. The governments changed in centre and the state over these 26 years, different parties came to power but the suffering of the Bhopal gas victims could not draw a sensitive and effective response from any one of them. For the Bureaucracy, it was just another assignment, nothing more. To them it was just another case of rahat in which money comes from outside sources and their job is to handle it. They know how to manage it. They managed it the same old way and the results are before everyone. Whatever claims may be made in administrative handling of the relief distribution in Bhopal, only the sufferers know how tough it was to get even the pittance of relief that was sanctioned out of the interest accrued on the relief amount receive from Union Carbide. The process is not yet over.
The focus of the general public reaction and its presentation in both the electronic and print media is on the extradition of Warren Anderson, now living a retired life in Long Islands in the US. He was the chief of the Union Carbide; had come to India after a couple of days of the infamous gas tragedy and was allowed to leave India in practically a royal grace. Everyone knew that Warren Anderson was taken to Delhi from Bhopal in a state plane and then went to US. It is now being claimed that before leaving for US, he—the major accused in worst industrial disaster ever recorded—met the Union Home Minister and also the President of India! This indicates continuity of approach and action right from Bhopal to Delhi in the very special case of Warren Anderson. How could these decisions be confined only to Bhopal? None should try to defend the indefensible.
Concerns that have emerged and which deserve Scrutiny and Answers:
- Once the Supreme Court had diluted the original charge sheet, why no sensitive response/special appeal ensued from the central or the state government?
- Both the sate and the central governments knew that the maximum sentence possible would be just two years. Why rue about the quantum of punishment now?
- Anderson’s escape is a shameful episode. Further there is no convincing evidence that sincere
efforts were made to bring him back to India. Why are people being befooled that the file is still open?
- How effective was the Group of Ministers (GOM) in the past in this case? When was the last meeting held? How will the reconstituted GOM be different?
- Why the real picture of the inadequacy of the relief measures not being presented comprehensively? Why is media so quiet about it?
- No one is taking up the issue of the distributed responsibility between the parent body and the Indian Union Carbide Company. Could the responsibility of the Indian management be less than that of Anderson?
- Why not publish a list of the Indian shareholders of the Union Carbide India? It would be revealing to get a glimpse of the names that frequented the luxurious Union Carbide Guest House on Shyamla Hills, Bhopal. Before the BGT.
- How about fixing the responsibility of the local/district level officers entrusted with maintaining the safety and security norms in and around the Factory? Can the bureaucrats get away with any level of inefficiency and incompetence?
- What level of obedience to implement instructions from political bosses is permissible to senior bureaucrats? Are they not supposed to have a spine? If Anderson’s release was against the rules, why not a single officer could put it on record?
- Can a Chief Minister really act on his own in such surcharged circumstances without the knowledge and explicit concurrence of the central government as is being alleged in the case of Anderson leaving India as a VIP?
- What about a national relief package for Bhopal victims? Does the situation not warrant it?
- Will the government ensure that the Nuclear Liability Bill has enough safe guards to meet any unfortunate situations, which just cannot be wished away? It must ensure equality of human dignity.
- Will the Government of India issue a white paper on how the course of events from the day Union Carbide applied for a licensee to set up factory in India till the Judgment day on June 7, 2010?
- Why is it not possible for political parties to shun the blame game and sit across the table and put an all party action plane to redress the grievances of the Bhopal victims and the hurt dignity of the people of India?
What happens when an industrial disaster of the magnitude of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy takes place? It puts the entire system of governance to comprehensive scrutiny. In India the system just fails miserably in all such instances. Riots in 1984 present just another instance of callous neglect that overshadows the process of delivering justice to the victims. As one of the survivors of the Bhopal tragedy I should be in know of the level, extent and serial generational damages that was inflicted upon the people of Bhopal. Apart from the immediate loss of lives that crossed thirty thousand even by the most moderate of the estimates. It may be relevant to recall the sequence of events that one witnessed as the head of a the regional institute of education located adjacent to the Union Carbide Guest House on the Shyamla Hills in Bhopal. It had over 300 girls and 200 boys in the hostels. Around the midnight of December 2-3, 1984, I was informed by one of my colleagues that there is a huge gas leakage from the Union Carbide factory and people were just rushing out knowing not what else to do! We rushed out to hostels and to prevent any panic reaction amongst the inmates and around seventy odd families on the campus. I tried to contact functionaries at various levels of the district and state administration without much success. Those were non-mobile days and to get a telephone contact was a lucky instance. As the factory was located near the railway station, I contacted a number there and the response was heart breaking “Sir, mar raha hun, bachaiye” and then there were no words from the other side. I kept holding the receiver for few more minutes but no more human voice was heard from the other side;
though lot of noise was being heard constantly. People died in huge numbers in their homes, while running on roads, on the railway platforms, and practically everywhere in the city. The Station Master Mr Dhurve presented a rare example of devotion to duty and once he understood the enormity of the tragedy, he did his best to stop trains outside Bhopal. Those which arrived there suffered loss of life; some opened the door, breathed the poisonous Methyl Iso-Cynate gas and dropped dead, commotion followed in the entire and the instant killer took its toll in full.
On the Regional Institute Campus, we inhaled the gas as we had to move on the campus to arrange and oversee the things. No one knew that the life saving precaution in such cases was to lie flat on the ground and put a wet cloth on one’s face. We survived as the institution was located some eight km away and there was the Bhopal Lake in between. It’s moisture reduced the intensity of the gas. The wind direction also was helpful. For next six days the student teachers of the regional college of education, all categories of staff were trying to help the victims; locating dead bodies and even on 5th and 6th day these were searched out from remote slum dwellings! Violating all norms, I ordered purchase and distribution of some common medicines out of the institution funds. Suffering people must be helped and no rule should come in the way.
Warren Anderson was treated like a real VIP: like the old British days of Sahib Bahadur. Union Carbide Guest House was used by the top amongst the Indian VVIP’s. I had met some of them earlier in connection with my official work. This Guest House and the research facility were located across the campus; separated by a huge gate that remained permanently closed due to certain reasons. They wanted to whisk away Warren Anderson, quickly and quietly. I got a message to get the gate opened and before anything could be done about it, the policemen just lifted it out of its grooves and threw it away. A cavalcade passed through the Institute’s campus. Senior district officials accompanied the VIP to the airport. Young student teachers felt insulted and all of us witnessed this abject surrender to the external pressures to ensure the safety and convenience of the top offender. Imagine the SP and the Collector of Bhopal were made to cool their heels in the Union Carbide guesthouse and look after the convenience of Anderson sahib instead of being immersed in the relief operations for the gas tragedy victims! Count from February 1984, onwards and remember the pittance of the compensation amount of 470 US$ is still intact in deposits, only the interest has been distributed to the victims. It was a miserable amount as compared to US standards of compensation in similar conditions. They are still fighting and suffering. And these sufferings are of innumerable varieties. None can assess the real damage that such tragedies could cause for generations together. State governments have changed, political parties have changed but the systems’ approach to the victims has remained the same. The officials can cite huge data by way of establishing hospitals, distrusting cash etc; but people know the inefficiency which is invariably capped by the omnipresent corruption. It never spars even such tragedies. The Union Carbide had not followed any of the statutory safety precautions that were said to be in place in official records. Local administration failed to monitor it for years together. No human habitations were to be allowed within a prescribed distance around the factory. No one bothered and those nearest suffered the maximum loss of life. The compensation amount was far below what would have been granted in US itself to its own citizens. Yes, people did feel humiliation all around the country when it was settled by Indian Government.
Bhopal judgment is one more example of the politician-bureaucrat-nexus that lacks sensitivity, honesty, commitment and sincerity to its masters. There is so much to be learnt from Bhopal. I shudder to recall hundreds of bodies of the dead lying on the ground of the Gandhi Medical college and hospital. I would not like future generations to witness such an instance again. It is not an expression of emotions alone but a fervent plea to those who are keen to pass the Nuclear Liability Bill to ensure that human life is valued with dignity and equality. First, have courage and strive to regain confidence from people of Bhopal.
By JS Rajput
The writer is the former Director of the NCERT and the former Chairperson of the National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE)