Tata offers to take up Bhopal gas tragedy liability

By Ritu Gupta
Published: Wednesday 31 January 2007

-- THERE is much controversy over the Tata Group--one of India's largest business conglomerates--taking up the responsibility for 'remediation' of the Bhopal gas tragedy site on behalf of the us industrial giant, the Dow Chemical Company.

When contacted, the group's spokesperson refuted such reports. But media reports note that Tata has informed Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the vice-chairperson of the Planning Commission, about its intention "to lead and find funding for the remediation...in Bhopal". Rated as the world's worst industrial disaster, the Bhopal gas tragedy occurred in December 1984, when the us-based Union Carbide Limited accidentally leaked lethal gas into the surrounding environment, causing more than 20,000 deaths and about 100,000 disabilities. In 1999, Dow took over Union Carbide.Since then human rights groups have held Dow liable for the persistent contamination and continued suffering of the victims.

Now, they are sceptical about Tata's intention and assert that the company stands to gain from the 'benevolent' deal with Dow.
Bone of contention Tata's proposal is said to have come after Andrew N Liveris, the president and ceo of Dow, expressed fears about making large-scale investments in India until issues like compensating the gas tragedy victims and cleaning up the affected sites get resolved.

His apprehensions are said to be a reaction to the Union government's department of chemicals and petrochemicals suggesting that the polluter should pay an 'advance' of Rs 100 crore for cleaning up the site. The department's suggestion came as a response to a public interest petition filed by a resident of Bhopal, Alok Pratap Singh, at the Madhya Pradesh High Court. The department has also urged the court to decide who the polluter is. The court is yet to take a decision on the matter.

Liveris, however, pointed out that the liability, if any, lies with Union Carbide, which still exists as a separate company. Bhopal gas tragedy victims and the ngo s working for them, however, refuse to buy Dow's logic. "After a merger takes place, by law, both the assets and liabilities are that of the parent company. Hence, Dow is responsible for Bhopal's clean-up. And how can the Tatas help Dow when the company itself has a bad record of pollution?" asked Satinath Sarangi of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, a Bhopal-based voluntary organisation.

At a recent press conference, leaders of Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmachari Sangh, Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Purush Sangharsh Morcha, Bhopal Group for Information and Action and Bhopal ki Aawaaz strongly condemned Tata's offer.

"The company wants more expansion in the us. By helping out Dow, it would but naturally gain. And on the home front, it would be the case of growing and flourishing together as Dow has been asked to invest in Haldia in West Bengal, where the Tatas already operate," said Nityananda Jayaraman, a Chennai-based campaigner for the victims. The West Bengal chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, has also indicated to the Union ministry of external affairs that he is looking towards Dow setting up a chemical industry in his state.
Reality bites When contacted Tata clarifies the allegations. "Ratan Tata has neither written to the Planning Commission nor stated that the Tatas are going to take up the responsibility on behalf of Dow.In July 2006, as the chairperson of the National Investment Commission, he wrote to P Chidambaram, the Union finance minister, proposing to set up a fund/trust for remediation, with contribution from the public and private sectors," said a spokesperson of the Tata Group.

"In all probability, it will be the court's call whether the Tatas can take up the responsibility or not," said Yashvir Singh, deputy secretary, department of chemicals and petrochemicals.

The government is planning to set up a committee of secretaries headed by B K Chaturvedi, the cabinet secretary, to examine the recent proposals of the Tatas and implementation of the site remediation plan.

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