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Will anyone be ever held accountable for Bhopal?

By AV Rajwade
June 28, 2010 08:39 IST
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The handling of the Bhopal disaster is reflective of the highly feudal nature of our political culture, writes AV Rajwade

Since the pronouncement of the judgment in the Bhopal gas leak case a couple of weeks ago, and after 26 long years, the people and the media have been righteously indignant about the way the whole Bhopal tragedy has been handled and are angry about the way Warren Anderson was allowed to go back to the US. While the anger is understandable, there surely are many other lessons to be learnt from the case.

Once the tragedy occurred and Anderson flew to Bhopal, the first step was to arrest him. Should that have been the priority? If there is a fire, the priority should be to extinguish it before considering whether anybody's negligence and/or actions led to the fire.

In the Bhopal case, the first step should have been to deploy teams of doctors and nurses to treat those affected and, simultaneously, to control and assess the damage and destroy any stocks of the dangerous chemical. Who was in the best position to do the latter part? The company itself, as it knew about the chemicals and the plant far better than anybody else. As it happens, 350 tonnes of the dangerous poison still remains on the ground and has caused untold damage to a massive number of lives in the past 26 years.

As the scale of the tragedy became better known in the days that followed, the next priority should have been to assess the damage to life and property with a view to compensating those who had suffered. Even now, we do not seem to have an exact number of the people who died during the accident and through subsequent infection of the poison.

As soon as the damage control was over, which, as I argue above, could be done quickly with the cooperation of the company, hundreds of assessors, experienced in estimating property damages, should have been drafted. General insurance companies have on their approved list a large number of assessors who do the work professionally and it would not have been difficult to get them to provide the needed number of professionals to do the work.

The same goes for the compensation for lives lost. There are no limits on third-party claims for lives lost in vehicle accidents. There are thousands of records available on how the "value" of a lost life is estimated and there are well-established procedures too. However, there does not seem to be any indication that such efforts were made to collect the data in a professional manner with the help of insurance companies in order to make a proper case for damages.

Only after this the question of accountability, of guilt by negligence, criminal or otherwise, should have been considered. And let us accept that these are technical issues which only chemical experts and investigators would have been able to address after a detailed examination of the company's records, papers, documents, which could have been sealed pending an expert inquiry.

A detailed technical report by experts that was submitted in the year after the tragedy seems to have been gathering dust somewhere.

Instead of arresting Anderson first, the chief minister could have called him to his chamber after he had landed in Bhopal and seen the damage, giving him a dressing down, reading the "riot act" to him and getting him to commit the resources of the company he headed, technical and financial, to damage-control and assessment, and, if necessary, threatening him with criminal prosecution in India, and civil damages claims by ambulance-chasing lawyers in US courts.

Considering the scale of the damage, it is difficult to believe that any chief executive of a company would have refused cooperation on these issues, all the more so when it is a public company in which he has little personal interest, and also for the fear of the global public relation disaster non-cooperation would have led to.

Obviously, none of this was done. A troubling question is: Why? Is it because of our highly feudal political culture where initiatives have to come from the all-powerful high command of the party? A culture that encourages a behaviour which is politically safe and not always obviously right and needed on the ground? A culture where you get power as a minister or a chief minister, or whatever, bestowed from the top and not because of your achievements on the ground? But why criticise the politicians or the high command?

It is we, the feudal people of India, who have been giving them the power; it is we who indulge in "honour killings" of our daughters and sisters marrying outside our caste, and no politician or community leader openly dares to take a stand on the issue, some even justify such killings!

But to come back to Bhopal, the post-accident mishandling of the disaster has perhaps led to more deaths and health damages than the original incident. Will anybody, either politicians or bureaucrats, be ever held accountable for this?

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AV Rajwade
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