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  Bitter truth about Bhopal
     
  By A.J. Philip  
     
  TRUTH can be bitter but even the bitterest truth is better than the sweetest falsehood. There is a popular saying, "give anything but not hope". Yet falsehood and false hopes are being dished out day in and day out since a court in Bhopal gave its verdict in June on the world's worst industrial disaster 26 years after it occurred.

The judgment evoked widespread criticism because the punishment awarded to seven officials of the Indian subsidiary of Union Carbide Corporation was two years' imprisonment and a paltry monetary fine. This is the kind of punishment traffic offenders receive in the country.

The judge could not be faulted as he had awarded the maximum punishment for the charges framed against them. When Opposition parties began attacking the government for its decades-long inaction on Bhopal, a new Group of Ministers (GoM) was hastily put together and it announced a series of measures to ameliorate the condition of the victims.

It announced a relief package of Rs 15,000 million, out of which half the amount would be utilised to remove the killer factory lock, stock and barrel and clean the environment around it. The kin of every dead person would get Rs 1 million and the seriously injured half that amount. An insult to injury, whatever they got earlier as compensation would be deducted from this amount.

The victims are not happy as the beneficiaries would be limited to those who were verified as eligible in 1989 and their descendants. To deflect criticism, the GoM has made three assertions: 1) a curative appeal will be filed in the Supreme Court to review its decisions in the Bhopal case; 2) Dow Chemicals Company, which now owns Union Carbide, would be asked to pay more compensation; and, 3) Efforts would be made to extradite from the US Warren Anderson, who was chairman of UCC in 1984.

All this amounts to giving false hopes to the Bhopal victims that they can look forward to receiving a windfall in the days to come. What's worse, even knowledgeable people like Union Law Minister Veerappa Moily and Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram, who is himself a lawyer of eminence, seek to perpetuate such myths for their own political gains.

One of Moily's predecessors, Arun Jaitley of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had in 2001 examined the possibility of seeking Anderson's extradition. His written notes on the subject, which are now in the public domain, clearly show that extradition is impossible. No new evidence has emerged which strengthens the case for his extradition, particularly when Anderson is now in his early nineties.

As regards getting the settlement with Union Carbide reviewed and extracting more money from it, there is no better guide than Fali S. Nariman, one of India's leading lawyers and a former nominated member of the Upper House of Indian Parliament.

It was Nariman who represented Union Carbide in the Bhopal case. In fact, he is considered the architect of the $470 million settlement with the multinational when the late Justice R.S. Pathak, who also had a stint at the International Court of Justice at The Hague, was the Chief Justice of India.

In his just-released autobiography 'Before Memory Fades' (Hay House India), he has devoted a whole chapter to the Bhopal case. Of course, he can be subjective but let us go by the evidence on record. On the inadequacy of the amount of compensation, $470 million (Rs 6150 million) was two and a half times more than Rs 2500 million the Madhya Pradesh High Court under whose jurisdiction the Bhopal tragedy had occurred had initially awarded as interim compensation.

What's more, the Attorney General, representing the Government of India, had himself suggested to the Supreme Court that an amount of $500 million be made the basis of the settlement. Even after the settlement was reached, the Supreme Court had specifically gone into the question of inadequacy of the amount. In three different judgments during the regimes of three different Chief Justices, the court had found that the settlement was just.

On its own, the court answered the question what would happen in case the money got exhausted and there were people who needed succor: "But such a contingency may not arise having regard to the size of the settlement fund. If it should arise, the reasonable way to protect the interest of the victims is to hold that the Union of India, as a welfare state and in the circumstances in which the settlement was made, should not be found wanting in making good the deficiency, if any".

At that time Union Carbide agreed to a settlement on the specific condition that it would be freed of all liabilities in the case. This being the situation, it stands to reason that there is no chance of a curative petition succeeding in the case. Nor is an enhancement of the settlement amount likely when the court specifically promises that "those who trust this court will not have cause for despair".

In retrospect, Rs 6150 million was a substantial sum in 1989. If it was found inadequate, it was because a new logic was applied in the case of Bhopal. All those living in a particular area of Bhopal were declared affected, not because they suffered but because they lived there. Thus the money was shared among a large number of people as a result of which the amount shrank.

As regards the promise to invoke harsher laws against the seven persons punished by the Bhopal court, suffice it to say that anybody who has a rudimentary knowledge of the law knows that a person cannot be tried for the same offence, with the same facts, twice.

What all this boils down to is the fact that the wild hopes generated by the GoM's assertions are all false. If the government is really interested in looking after the welfare of the victims of Bhopal, it should not look for alibis and waste time. Instead of dispensing false hopes, it should help them face the challenges of the tragedy, in both physical and psychological terms.
 
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