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Is it too late to ask Arjun Singh about Bhopal?

By T V R Shenoy
June 11, 2010 15:57 IST
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T V R Shenoy argues why the Madhya Pradesh chief minister at the time of the Bhopal gas tragedy must be questioned.

There is, miracles always excluded, little hope of interrogating Warren Anderson leave alone dragging him to India to stand trial. But why has everyone forgotten the presence of a certain Arjun Singh?

The chance to lay hands disappeared for all practical purposes on December 7, 1984. That was the day when the then chairman of Union Carbide was arrested in Bhopal. He was sent not to jail but the Union Carbide guesthouse. Then -- under circumstances neither explained nor understood -- Anderson was released to shake the dust of India off his shoes for good.

Anderson is now in his nineties. Who knows how long it could take to extradite him? (Assuming that there is any kind of political will to initiate extradition in the first place!) There is no guarantee that the American judicial system shall place Anderson in Indian hands but even if he is brought to trial who knows how long those proceedings might last?

We can forget all the shouting and the burning of images, the brutal truth is that the former boss of Union Carbide is more likely to die of old age in his luxurious home than to stand trial in India.

But, as I said earlier, what of Arjun Singh?

Arjun Singh was chief minister of Madhya Pradesh back in 1984. He is still on Indian soil, and, presumably, available for questioning. Since he was a member of the Union Cabinet as recently as 2009 we can assume that he is still in possession of all his faculties -- which is good because there are so many answers that he owes.

The story actually begins before that dark December night in Bhopal. Questions were asked in the Madhya Pradesh Vidhan Sabha about the safety of the Union Carbide plant. Arjun Singh assured everyone that it was quite alright, reportedly saying that he himself had been to the factory.

We know just how good that assurance was, do we not? On December 3, 1984 about forty-five tons of methyl isocyanate escaped into the air of Bhopal. We still do not know the final death toll because people are still dying from exposure to the gas, but the number starts at two thousand and moves up from there. Thousands more were crippled.

The point is that it was apparent within hours that the Bhopal tragedy was the single greatest industrial accident in history. Just to put things into perspective, the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 led to the death of thirty-two people in the initial stage while at least a thousand died in Bhopal in the first crucial twenty-four hour period. (More would die of radiation poisoning in Chernobyl as more would die in Bhopal due to the chemicals.)

Nobody should have had the faintest illusion about the scale of the disaster when Warren Anderson landed in India. So, why was Anderson given VIP treatment and shuttled out of India?

Moti Singh, who was the district collector of Bhopal in December 1984, has recently revealed that he was ordered by Brahma Prakash, then chief secretary of Madhya Pradesh, to ensure that Warren Anderson was hustled out of Bhopal.

It beggars belief that the chief secretary took so important a decision on his own. Are we expected to believe that he did not even talk it over with the chief minister? And, given the scale of the tragedy, surely even Delhi was consulted?

Rajiv Gandhi, the prime minister of the day, is no longer with us but Arjun Singh should be invited to share his memories of the day with us.

Could he at least clarify whether or not Warren Anderson flew the coop from Bhopal to Delhi on an official plane? If true, must one believe that the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh did not know that his plane was being used?

It is not just the manner in which Warren Anderson was released before he could be questioned but the ease with which Arjun Singh brushed aside the question of the Union Carbide factory's safety when questioned in the Vidhan Sabha. Did the then chief minister actually check whether Union Carbide was following the best practices before handing out a certificate?

As it happens Union Carbide had similar plants in France and in Germany as it did in India. In Bhopal the dangerous chemical agent was stored in a single giant tank. In France it was kept in smaller, individual cylinders. And in Germany it was ensured that the chemicals in question could not be stored in such proximity at all, whether in one huge chamber or in multiple containers.

How many lives might have been saved had either the French or the German example been followed?

Did Arjun Singh know all this when he rose in the Vidhan Sabha? Come to that, who was responsible for the mushrooming of slums so close to a chemicals plant? (Arjun Singh, please note, had been chief minister of Madhya Pradesh as of 1980.)

The fulmination against Anderson is fashionable but futile. So too is the excoriation of Judge Mohan P Tiwari, the chief judicial magistrate of Bhopal. He is under attack because he handed out only two-year sentences to the accused in the Bhopal Gas Tragedy trial.

How exactly is it Judge Tiwari's fault?

On September 13, 1996 the Supreme Court ruled that the accused would be tried under Section 304 A of the Indian Penal Code rather than Section 304 Part II. Section 304 Part II deals with culpable homicide; Section 304 A refers to death caused by negligence. It is not a subtle difference.

What is more, if found guilty under Section 304 A the maximum sentence is two years. The chief judicial magistrate of Bhopal handed down the heaviest punishment within his power. He could not overturn a Supreme Court ruling and try the accused under a different section.

Justice A M Ahmadi, who was chief justice of India in 1996, has asked why a review petition was not filed against his ruling. Rachna Dhingra, an activist, says precisely such a review was filed by the Bhopal Gas Peedit Sahyog Samiti fourteen years ago; it was, she says, rejected without giving any reasons.

The prime minister says he is setting up a new group of ministers to re-examine the issue. It is a waste of time and energy. The chance to question Warren Anderson in any meaningful manner came and went on December 7, 1984. Handing out lengthy sentences was not on the books once the Supreme Court decided to try the accused under a section where the maximum sentence cannot exceed two years.

Warren Anderson is not coming back to India. Those who stood trial are, most probably, not going to get a more severe sentence. But is it too late to question Arjun Singh, and is it too late to draw appropriate lessons where the Nuclear Liability Bill is concerned.

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T V R Shenoy