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A judgement by a Bhopal court has brought the worst gas tragedy into spotlight. It has galvanized the media and the government into action. A group of ministers has recommended relief measures, clean-up of the factory site and asked the government to go after Bhopal’s prime culprit, Warren Anderson. RAVLEEN KAUR, KUMAR SAMBHAV and SAVVY SOUMYA MISRA revisit the tragedy and uncover why liability has not yet been fixed, where the courts and authorities went wrong and what it will take to remove the toxic waste at the site
Luck plays in strange ways. I was reaching for my scooter when the telephone rang in my office-cum-residence in Bhopal.
I opened the gate, unlocked the door downstairs, ran up the steps to the first floor and opened the door to my apartment. Normally the caller would have given up, but the phone kept ringing (this was 1984 and mobile phones had not been invented). I picked up the receiver and heard the voice of a grown-up man crying. I was getting the tip-off of my career.
On the night the gas disaster happened, I’d been reporting in Indore. I heard garbled news about a few people dying in an explosion. I took a cab to Bhopal 200 km away. I was startled to see overloaded buses and trucks streaming out of the city. Ours seemed like the only vehicle heading in. Outside the city the police tried to stop us but I talked my way past.
I reached Hamidia Hospital, Bhopal’s main health centre. Bodies lay in row upon ordered row, wrapped in white sheets. I was only 28 and stunned. India Today was a fortnightly and I had a week to put the story together. While the dailies focused on the deaths, I knew I should concentrate on finding out what had happened and why. Where should I begin? Over the next few days, I got in touch with all possible contacts I had made over three years as a reporter in Bhopal. But thousands had fled. And that is when I got the call …
The caller said he worked for Carbide and knew what had taken place. He had chosen to speak to me because he was familiar with my reporting and believed he could trust me not to be pressured by the government (which people instinctively believed would have something to hide).
He came over with three of his friends a while later. He was emotionally charged and spewed out an incomprehensible story of the tragedy. I didn’t interrupt him. After he had finished I told him that we would have to go over everything slowly. He was hungry and needed to go out for a bite. I was terrified of letting him go. What if he didn’t come back? He hadn’t even told me his correct name. But they did return and my informant took me through the whole trail of slipshod corporate safety measures that had led to the disaster.
To confirm this version I found a chemical engineer with Carbide. He was petrified and reluctant to get involved. I told him to at least confirm whether the version I had made any sense to him. He gradually thawed and helped me with small technical changes that made the version I had more credible.
How could we explain, step by step, how the safeguards had failed? I bought innumerable pictures from the official photographer of Union Carbide. Then I made a layout of the plant on paper. Next, on the back of each picture I painstakingly noted the angle from which it had been taken. Using this material our illustrator put together how the plant looked from the inside. I subsequently located a former safety officer of Carbide who had shifted to Delhi. I flew down there and he became my third source to check the original story. He was a senior executive who had spent many years with the company. He was astounded: the illustration we had put together based on the photographs and layout was entirely accurate. He found it hard to believe we had put it together without access to the premises.
The story was complex. I wrote on different aspects, while my editor, Suman Dubey, an effortless writer, put it together into a single whole. When that issue of India Today appeared, the dailies hadn’t caught up with us. The international press used the issue to get a sense of the disaster.
Some months later I shifted out of Bhopal. One thing I will never forget is the sight of shrouded bodies of children.
|SREEKANT KHANDEKAR was India Today’s correspondent in Bhopal in 1984. He is now the founder director of afaqs!, India’s largest advertising, media and marketing website|
More than a quarter century after the industrial disaster that devastated Bhopal, a series of significant developments occurred, all in June 2010. First, there was a court verdict on the gas tragedy case convicting then chairperson Keshub Mahindra and six others of Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), the Indian subsidiary of America’s Union Carbide Corporation (UCC). Two weeks later the group of ministers (GoM) on the Bhopal gas tragedy submitted its report to the prime minister and recommended relief measures that came 25 years too late. The verdict convicted the accused after the 1996 Supreme Court order diluted charges from culpable homicide to negligence; this brought down the sentence from 10 years of imprisonment to two.
The GoM, the ministerial panel headed by home minister P Chidambaram, by way of addressing public anger, recommended that the next of kin of those who died in the accident be given a compensation of Rs 10 lakh; it also suggested the government seriously reconsider pursuing the extradition of Warren Anderson, who was the chief of UCC at the time of the accident in Bhopal. He lives in the US.
Washington turned down India’s extradition request in 2004, citing insufficient evidence of intent. This time, the GoM clarified, “According to CBI, there were defects in the plant and proof of continuous neglect that is tantamount to intent; therefore, extradition will be pursued.” Activists have asked why the government is not seeking extradition of other absconders, such as representatives of UCC and Union Carbide Eastern Hong Kong (UCE).
UCC held 51 per cent stakes in the company and both UCC and UCE played an active role in the Bhopal plant’s management. From the beginning, people of Bhopal have been talking of the negligence by the entire management; and Anderson is symbolic of that negligence, said Upendra Baxi, Emiritus Professor at the School of Law at UK’s Warwick University. “What is novel about the June 7 verdict is that instead of naming only Anderson, UCC and UCE have been named as separate parties. The people of Bhopal have from the beginning demanded justice against Carbide as a whole; Anderson is only a representa- tive,” he said. Baxi had argued in 1991 for reopening the criminal liability case.
The GoM has placed three options for reviewing the criminal case: enhancing punishment under existing charges, filing a curative petition against the 1996 order that diluted the charges or filing a case in the Madhya Pradesh High Court with the original charge of culpable homicide under Section 304-II of the Indian Penal Code. “I don’t know whether the curative petition will help because the seven officials will file an appeal against the present verdict, and the judicial process will go on a long time (curative petition can be filed only after the appeal is settled),” Baxi said. “Enhancement of punishment under the same charges can be a better idea,” he added.
Opportunity dismissed in April
What could have cut short a long-drawn judicial process, believe activists, is a petition for review of charges that was filed in April this year by organizations intervening in the case—Bhopal Gas Peedit Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti (BGPSSS) and Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan (BGPMUS). The petition filed under Section 216 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) asked for enhancement of charges based on the submission made by 178 prosecution witnesses. Article 216 of the CrPC empowers any court to alter or add to any charge at any time before judgement is pronounced. “The latest submissions were sufficient to enhance the charges. But the chief judicial magistrate (CJM), Mohan Tiwari, dismissed the petition,” said N D Jayprakash, convenor of BGPSSS.
The June 7 verdict stated, “The conduct of the directors and engineers of the factory...proved beyond reasonable doubt they neglected the deteriorations reported to them by the US team and by the local employees.” It noted that methyl isocyanate (MIC), the lethal gas that leaked from the factory on the night of December 2-3 in 1984 and instantly killed 10,000 people, was stored in large quantities (42 tonnes) even though only three-four tonnes were required. “Some important systems were shut down for months together...while the plant was shut down for maintenance. This was an omission on the part of the management; the US team was also silent about some of the above facts,” the verdict said.
“This statement itself could have supported a larger charge,” said Supreme Court advocate Rajeev Dhavan. Even the verdict mentions, “Knowing all the things, they omitted to do what they were entrusted to do.” Dhavan said the CJM could have told the prosecution to approach the apex court at that stage; “it would be a big call for a CJM to go against the apex court and alter charges.”
The plant in Bhopal was the only one in the world which had MIC storage as part of its design. To cut costs the number of staff was reduced sometime before the accident, the nitrogen pressure in the MIC tanks was reduced (the pressure kept the gas under control), and the alarm system had been shut down. There were enough warnings of the impending disaster—newspaper articles, a legal notice to UCIL, a UCC audit report that talked of 30 major hazards, of which 11 were in the MIC and phosgene units of the Bhopal plant.
Most of these facts were placed before the Supreme Court in 1996, when chief justice A M Ahmadi and S B Majmudar diluted the charges citing lack of prima facie evidence that the accused operated the Bhopal plant on the night of the accident “with the knowledge that such running of the plant was likely to cause death”.
“There was enough evidence in the documents seized from the company. Even now Ahmadi has not been able to give a good reason for diluting the charges,” said K Madhavan, former joint director of CBI who was a DIG in charge of the Bhopal case till 1988. The Bhopal case received the biggest blow in 1989 when the apex court agreed to a one-time settlement of US $470 million and quashed the criminal charges.
“Throughout, there was the absence of any application of judicial mind to understand the magnitude of the disaster,” wrote Praful Bidwai, journalist who followed Bhopal closely. In India, we still do not have a set of judgements for defining negligence and liability from which lower courts could take precedence. There are, though, pieces of legislation that were enacted in the aftermath of Bhopal.