After the Bhopal Verdict

It’s a true and tested tactic. Announce an investigation. Give the public the time and space it needs to get over its outrage. The political storm will subside. The limelight will forsake the activists and their sympathizers. After that it will be back to business as usual. The waiting game has stood the ruling coalition, the Congress-led UPA, in good stead on past occasions and enabled it to tide over turbulent times. And it was expected to save the situation when a white-hot wave of indignation swept across the country in the wake of the Bhopal court’s verdict in the Union Carbide case. No doubt the political establishment believed the government could return to carrying out Washington’s diktat or fulfilling the bidding of business magnates once calm had been restored.

The Bhopal verdict has brought about an all but overnight transformation of the political situation for the ruling Congress. With a seemingly endless chain of scandals erupting or being resurrected in the wake of the trial court’s June 7th decision, a beleaguered Congress party has been forced into damage-control mode. The question of who gave safe passage to the US to Warren Anderson then CEO of Union Carbide and chief accused in the Bhopal gas leak case, the pusillanimous out of court settlement with Union Carbide for the woefully inadequate compensation of $470 million, the references made by Andrew Liveris Chairman of Dow Chemicals in a letter written in 2006 to Ronen Sen ambassador to the US under UPA-1 to assurances he had obtained of absolution for Dow from responsibility for Bhopal, the revelation that two members of the Group of Ministers constituted after the verdict to study the Bhopal disaster had endorsed proposals letting Dow off the hook for clean-up of the contaminated Union Carbide factory site—every single one of these controversies has had the Congress party at the center.

The aftermath of the Bhopal verdict has shaken the ruling party out of its complacency. Reeling under the impact of the public outcry at the trial court’s verdict and with its record on Bhopal continuing to generate merciless headlines–UPA-1 opposed increase in Bhopal payout, Carbide plant saw 3 mishaps before the gas tragedy etc –the Congress seems to be recognizing that the usual political theater will not suffice at this juncture. Prior to the announcement of the trial court’s verdict the controversial and deeply contested civil nuclear liability bill was on course to sail through Parliament. American nuclear corporations have been salivating at the prospect of securing a share—preferably the lion’s share– of the lucrative Indian market. The enactment of domestic legislation which will limit their liability in the event of a nuclear accident is a prerequisite for their entry into the Indian arena. Washington has been lobbying for the passage of the bill. The draft legislation has come under fierce criticism on account of its privileging the interests of foreign specifically American vendors of nuclear equipment over the rights of putative victims of a nuclear accident.

Earlier this year the bill was headed for a rocky reception in Parliament. A spirited campaign waged by Greenpeace and other activist groups and supported by informed commentary had alerted the politically attuned sections of the public to glaring defects in the draft legislation. In March, an attempt to introduce the bill in Parliament failed in the face of strong objections from a united Opposition. The ruling party quickly withdrew the bill. Subsequently the Manmohan Singh government secured crucial support from two Opposition parties which had been previously opposed to the bill. By splitting the Opposition the government overcame initial hurdles. The bill was introduced on May 7 at the end of the budget session amid protests from the principal Opposition parties, the Left and the BJP. It was to be taken up by Parliament when the house reconvened for the monsoon session. Since the requisite number of favorable votes had been lined up, the bill was expected to obtain the Parliamentary nod with ease. The government was reported to be in a confident mood and hence unwilling to entertain any calls for increasing the liability cap–set at the absurdly low figure of $450 million—or making any of the other modifications demanded by critics and activists.

A sea change has taken place. In the wake of the outbreak of public anger at the lenient sentences awarded to former UCIL (Union Carbide India Limited) officials, the Congress has borne the brunt of an unsparing media scrutiny of its decades long indifference to the plight of the victims of Bhopal. With its confidence badly dented, the party is in no position to turn a deaf ear to activist and Opposition demands for reviewing the nuclear liability bill. It is now reported that the government has distanced itself from the proposed deletion of a crucial provision in the nuclear liability bill. The provision in question would have allowed the public sector operator of the nuclear plant to exercise “right of recourse” against the supplier in the event that a nuclear accident had been caused by gross negligence. The proposed deletion was intended to favor equipment vendors and was reportedly being made under US pressure. By June 16 however the Congress had backtracked and withdrawn the dilution that it had been pressing. This change of heart on the part of Congress can be seen as a sign that a radical rewriting of the nuclear liability legislation is no longer a utopian fantasy. Its new found vulnerability will not allow the Congress to insist on legislation that constitutes yet another sellout to the multinationals. The campaigners are regrouping to press their advantage. This is the right time to ask the govt to rethink the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill, declared the prominent activist Sunita Narain (http://www.business-standard.com/india/news/sunita-narainbhopal-legacy/398590/).

Naturally the official US response to the Bhopal verdict disregarded the discrepancy between the light punishment awarded to the defendants in the Union Carbide case and the enormity of the suffering caused by the disaster. The State Department also chose not to address the fact that the court had declared two of the accused–Union Carbide and its former CEO Warren Anderson–to be absconders. Or that the Bhopal magistrate wrote as follows in his verdict: An American corporation cynically used a third world country to escape from the increasingly strict safety standards imposed at home. Instead the US spokesperson expressed the hope that the aftermath of the verdict would not have an impact on the civil nuclear liability bill. Plausible though it might have seemed at the time this hope may come to be viewed as a piece of wishful thinking on the part of US officialdom.

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