Union law minister, Veerappa Moily, on October 27, announced the government will not pursue the ongoing lawsuit in the US for compensating Bhopal gas tragedy victims. Himanshu Rajan Sharma, lead counsel for the victims in the class action suit against Union Carbide Corporation, told Ravleen Kaur how the decision has affected chances of holding the company accountable for the 1984 gas mishap. The Indian subsidiary of Union Carbide owned the pesticide plant where the gas leaked, killing a few thousand people overnight. Excerpts:
On the government decision not to pursue Bhopal gas victims’ case in the New York court
It is ill-considered and neither in the interest of the victims nor of India. It benefits Dow Chemical Company (Union Carbide is now a subsidiary of Dow) that has asserted it is not subject to the jurisdiction of Indian courts since it no longer operates in India. The Centre justified the decision not to pursue the case in the US saying India’s courts are competent enough to penalise the people responsible for the tragedy.
But any judgement rendered by an Indian court will not be enforceable against the company due to lack of jurisdiction. How can the government then say that Indian courts are competent to fix the liability?
On the attorney general’s advise to the government not to become party to the case
The learned attorney general, G E Vahanvati, said the government could not be a claimant in the American lawsuit, but only a defendant. His opinion overlooks the fact that the land polluted by the company, site on which the plant stands, was leased by the Madhya Pradesh government.
The state’s chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan understood this and publicly sought the Centre’s permission to intervene as a landowner and file a claim saying the leased premises had been polluted. If Chauhan can seek to intervene as a claimant, how can the attorney general say that India could not be a claimant, but only a defendant in the case?
On the importance of government’s support to the case
The American court asked the Indian government to intervene in the case because it is the lawful owner of the pesticide plant site. Though the Indian government submitted a letter to the US courts demanding clean-up and site remediation by the company, it has not intervened formally in the case. This is a significant obstacle in holding Union Carbide accountable for polluting the drinking water supply of 16 residential communities of Bhopal. The Indian government’s intervention is the only option. Otherwise, the clean-up will be left to the public who will end up subsidising the company that caused one of the world’s worst industrial disasters.