June 09, 2010

Gas that whispers

I've been spluttering in bewilderment at some of the reactions to yesterday's Bhopal gas verdict.

For one example, here we learn that "America's reaction to the sentence in the Bhopal gas tragedy seemed tactless, even insulting." Well, give me a break: 25+ years to come to this judgement seems to me somewhat more tactless and insulting than pretty much anything else about the Bhopal tragedy. The way Bhopal has come to matter not at all to most of us Indians -- the way plenty of comment over the years has suggested that the victims should "move on" -- seems to me tactless and insulting.

It's hardly my case that America has been that proverbial paragon of virtue in this or anything else. But it's definitely my case that the blame for this travesty of justice for a quarter century lies at very Indian feet. In that way, and in the way the anger gets diverted to America, this episode reminds me of the whole Enron mess. Of that, another time.

For another example, here we learn that the Government of India proposes a "new law" with "stiffer punishment" for future Bhopal-like disasters. Well, give me a break again: knowing my India as I do, a future Bhopal-like disaster will set in motion a future court wrangle that will take a future 25 years to come to a future frustrating judgement. I know as you know: it isn't the law to blame, it's the lack of interest in applying the law. And therefore a new law will change zip-all.

Some years ago, I went to Bhopal to meet some of the people affected by the 1984 tragedy, to get a sense of it all for myself. Below is an article I wrote at the time. It is discouraging to know that had I visited now, I would have probably written much the same article.


The Gas Also Whispered Liability

As the crow flies, or as the gas leaks, the Union Carbide plant is no more than a hundred metres from Tulsabai's one-room home in the shantytown of JP Nagar in Bhopal. When I arrive there one afternoon, she is asleep on a mat. Much as she must have been, I think to myself, that dark night in 1984. Seventeen years and change later, there in that one room, Tulsabai and I sit to chat. And I am disconcerted to find I am listening to her only intermittently.

For I'm very conscious of that plant. Of its dilapidated, weed-surrounded bulk: a brooding presence, right there across the street. Much as it must have been in 1984. Only a hundred metres away as the crow flies. As the gas whispers death.

Apologies, Tulsabai. But I hear you. I hear the pain and sorrow in your quavering voice, the hurt that has not gone all these years later. And I understand how much is wrong, unjust, about how the tragedy of Bhopal has played itself out.

The bare bones, first. Nearing midnight on Sunday, December 2 1984, a cloud of deadly gas erupted from a storage tank in the arbide plant. Reams have been written about what the cloud contained, how it was formed and how it leaked. Suffice it to say, here, that over the next few hours, it spread some 27 tonnes of poison -- think of it, 27 tonnes wafting through the air -- over a sleeping city.

The wind carried it the hundred metres to Tulsabai's home and over JP Nagar, first and worst affected. Thousands of people woke with their eyes burning, unable to breathe. "It was like somebody was roasting chillies," says Partap, Tulsabai's half-blind son -- a comparison that many others echo. They began to run for their lives. Began to drop dead as they ran. One description of that night:

People lost control of their bodies. Urine and faeces ran down their legs. Some began vomiting uncontrollably. Others were wracked with seizures and fell dead. The gases irritated people's lungs into producing so much fluid that their lungs were filled with it, "drowning" them in their own body fluids.
Officially, some 1600 people were dead by morning, though unofficial estimates were much higher. And yet, the precise number that night is sadly irrelevant today. For in a decade-and-a-half, the toll has risen beyond ten times that official figure. If the gas whispered widespread death that night, it has whispered it to thousands more in the years since. It has left still more thousands blind, asthmatic, depressed, ill in myriad ways, robbed of the will to live. All these years later, upwards of 4000 gas victims seek outpatient treatment in Bhopal clinics for their symptoms every day; something like 20,000 are actually admitted to hospital every year.

That is the legacy of Union Carbide.

But there's more, and it compounds tragedy.

First, the notorious figure everyone knows like they know a cavity. After demanding several billion dollars in compensation from Carbide, the Government of India suddenly settled for $470 million in 1989. As many have pointed out, that's less than a tenth -- a tenth -- of Exxon's fine for the Valdez oil spill in Alaska, which killed nobody.

Second, the way even that money was distributed. While their claims were investigated over several years, victims were paid Rs 200 a month. Then they got their "final" amount: in most cases, about Rs 30,000 minus the total of the monthly payments. For too many victims, this wasn't even enough to cover medical expenses they had already incurred.

Third, more is left of that settlement than there was to begin with. In 1989, $470 million translated to Rs 7.15 billion. After paying thousands of claims, over Rs 10 billion remains. This is explained, of course, by a decade of accumulated interest and an appreciating dollar. Still, people who waited years for compensation ask why they should not be paid interest as well. That Rs 10 billion, they believe, is rightfully theirs.

Fourth, innumerable and familiar tales of chicanery, apathy, corruption and pig-headedness in the Government claims machinery. In a typical case, Abdul Wahid's mother died "directly of the adverse effects of the [Carbide] gas on the 15th June, 1985." Abdul was granted an ex-gratia payment of Rs 10,000, a monthly pension of Rs 750, and filed a claim for Rs 500,000. The official concerned "rejected [the] claim on the grounds that it was not proved that she was in Bhopal on [that] night." Abdul appealed. In October 1994 -- nine years after his mother died -- the claims Tribunal overturned the rejection and awarded Abdul his money (though the amount was reduced to Rs 150,000). [Quotes from the Tribunal's order].

42 year-old Anwar Khan, an unemployed victim, sums up the frustration that such struggles have produced: "What is the role of magistrates and lawyers in all this?" he asks. "We didn't commit any crime!"

Fifth, the still palpable resentment directed at Union Carbide. One reason is the amount of the settlement; another is the neglect that caused the leak; an unexpected one is that Carbide handed the compensation to the Government instead of distributing it itself. Many feel this would have meant far less delay and corruption. (What does it say that the victims of Carbide believe that Carbide would have been quicker and less corrupt in distributing compensation than their own Government?)

Above all, victims believe Carbide -- or Dow Chemical, that now owns Carbide -- is still liable for the leak. They think Dow must, at least, run an employment scheme for gas victims and families.

So I asked Ravi Muthukrishnan, MD of Dow Chemical India Private Limited (DCIPL) what he thought about liability. He replied by bland email: "Dow Chemical [is not] accountable legally or otherwise for the Bhopal accident. As a shareholder, Dow Chemical is not liable for Union Carbide obligations, if any."

He did acknowledge that Dow is in a "dialogue" with victims about "extending some form of humanitarian assistance to the people of Bhopal", though he would not say more. Whatever this means, survivors' organizations insist that Dow liabilities can only be a package: criminal liability for the leak, environmental cleanup of the area, economic and medical rehabilitation. "Humanitarian assistance" by itself, they maintain, amounts to mere PR.

Take that cleanup. Much evidence has accumulated that the factory has contaminated the soil and water in the area. A security guard at the complex told me I could not enter because large quantities of chemicals were still stored in the plant. "The soil itself is now poisonous," he said. In JP Nagar, I visited three wells whose water is too tainted to drink. One was in Govandi Lal's house: the irony of having a well at home but walking to a municipal tap for drinking water is startling and sad.

In The Bhopal Legacy (1999), Greenpeace writes that their researchers found:

general contamination of the site and immediate surroundings with chemicals arising either from [plant operation or] ongoing release of chemicals from materials ... dumped or stored on site. ... The financial and legal responsibility for the clean-up operation must be borne by the former and/or current owners of [the Carbide plant] and the Government of India.
How does Dow react to this?

Muthukrishnan wrote: "[T]here are differing views on the science surrounding the extent and source of any contamination." He cited studies by the Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board (MPCB) and the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI). MPCB concluded that contamination could not be connected to any "chemicals formerly used at the [factory] or the wastes there"; NEERI added that no wells had been contaminated by "past disposal activities at the plant."

Notice that these studies -- at least as cited by Muthukrishnan -- carefully sidestep the question of contamination from chemicals still stored at the plant. Chemicals even a security guard at the plant warned me about.

Still, higher authorities are inclined to at least examine liability arising from contamination. Several Bhopal groups are fighting a battle in US courts on this very issue. Among other things, they seek recovery from Carbide and its then CEO, Warren Anderson, for environmental damage. Judge John Keenan of a New York District Court dismissed the case in August 2000 "without specifically addressing the ... environmental claims." On appeal, a superior Court returned the case to Keenan in November 2001, asking him to examine these claims. "We would benefit", the Justices wrote, "from [Keenan's] consideration of these issues in the first instance. ... We therefore remand the case to permit him to do so." [Quotes from their order].

Now legal liability is one thing. But in Bhopal, you can't miss the signs of the devastation 27 tonnes of gas caused. Seventeen years on, while intricate legal battles drag on, that devastation says something to me about moral liability. Ordinary humanity. Seems to me even companies can feel it. Must feel it.

1 comment:

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