Price Of Life
By Praful Bidwai
26 July, 2004
The Hindustan Times
15,000 to compensate you for a grievous injury that scars your lungs
or kidneys for life or even affects your immune system? Well, that's
what 95 percent of the victims of the world's worst-ever industrial
accident received-after 10 to 15 years of lost income and aggravated
Just Rs. 1 lakh
for each family of those who died from exposure to toxic gases from
the Bhopal pesticides plant? That's the self-degrading, disgracefully
low, value this society put on human life. In Bhopal, thousands of lives
were lost-not like in some natural calamity, but even more gruesomely,
for entirely man-made reasons. At work was the criminal failure of a
corporation presiding over a toxic empire to exercise due care in the
design and operation of a plant using, storing and producing extremely
hazardous materials such as the war-gas phosgene and super-lethal methyl
Leave alone aircrashes,
even the families of those die in railway accidents receive three to
five times more compensation for a relative's death. The iniquity is
all more glaring because the malfeasance and hence the culpability involved
in a toxic-chemical accident is far greater than in a rail mishap: the
onus to protect the public is fully on the owner-producer, who alone
is aware of the hazard.
This sound logic
was overturned in the delivery of compensation following the collusive
1989 out-of-court settlement between our government and Union Carbide
Corporation of the US. By tacitly accepting a grotesquely paltry compensation
for a mass-scale disaster, Indian society diminished itself.
Now, society has
decided more or less to double the compensation by distributing what
remains of the original $470 million deposited by Carbide. That's the
meaning of Monday's judgment. It's purely fortuitous that what remains
has risen in value to the seemingly high figure of Rs. 1,500 crores-largely
because of the three-fold devaluation of the rupee vis-à-vis
over 15 years!
The additional Rs.
1 lakh that some families receive might make a minor difference to their
lives. But that won't be true of the 1.2 lakh-plus people who suffered
moderate to severe damage, much of it persistent and irreversible, who
still need treatment. They will receive only Rs. 25,000 in final compensation.
The sum is so paltry, so measly, and it comes so late, that it doesn't
remotely approach the elementary requirements of justice.
The latest Supreme
Court judgment is, on the one hand, a searing indictment of our justice
delivery and political systems. On the other, it does little to rectify
their flaws. It acknowledges that the magnitude of destruction in Bhopal
was far worse than first thought. The Supreme Court itself underestimated
it by a factor of five in 1989. The original assumption was that the
death-toll would be "only" 3,000. By the government's own
records, it reached 15,310 last October. And we are still counting!
This is an implicit admission that justice still eludes the people of
Bhopal, who were killed, maimed and scarred for no fault of theirs.
Three aspects of
the Bhopal case are noteworthy. First, despite pretensions to Great
Power status, India has confirmed itself as a Third World society mired
in Fourth World social values and legal systems, whose rulers are incapable
of resisting hegemonic First World interests.
The $470 million
represents one of the world's cheapest, if not the paltriest, settlements
of toxics-exposure suits involving massive damage. It barely equals
double the amount of Carbide's insurance cover! Had such an accident
occurred in the West, UCC would have been immediately bankrupted. As
would be its directors, who besides would serve long prison sentences,
far harsher than, say, Enron's Kenneth Lay is likely to suffer.
The Indian government
has even failed to serve an arrest warrant on Warren Anderson, first
issued in 1992. It claims-ludicrously-that it can't trace him, although
his address was widely published by Greenpeace!
after institution let down the Bhopalis. The Centre took over their
litigation and made a mess of it. The American courts accepted Carbide's
plea of forum non-conveniens. India's courts couldn't handle the case
based on the law of torts because we didn't for all practical purposes
have such a law (and failed to develop it).
The Supreme Court
itself let the victims down by approving the settlement in return for
extinguishing Carbide's civil as well as criminal liability. The corporation
responsible for the plant's gravely flawed design and operating procedures,
which controlled its 51 percent Indian subsidiary to the finest detail,
secured an easy release. It merely accepted "moral responsibility"
(read, nothing)! It's only in 1991, thanks to the victims' sustained
agitation and public pressure, that criminal liability was restored.
But the government --which alone can prosecute crimes--has failed to
Take the issue of
the victims' relief and rehabilitation. The Madhya Pradesh government
was put in charge of this despite its appalling callousness, incompetence
and corruption. The Indian Council of Medical Research failed to suggest
a rational line of treatment. Bhopal's elite has been hostile to the
victims. BJP ministers Uma Bharati and Babulal Gaur still demand the
compensation should be shared with the well-off unaffected wards!
Third, we have learnt
few lessons from Bhopal. India is still grossly under-regulated for
toxic hazards, with few procedures for environmental clearance, warning,
evacuation, emergency relief and long-term rehabilitation. There is
no recognition of the chemical, long-term nature of damage from industrial
poisons. As for the absence of tort law in respect of mass disasters
or large-consequence mishaps, the less said the better.
It's as if all the
case-law developed in the Thalidomide, Agent Orange and Dalkon Shield
trials, or tobacco-related compensation, had never touched our courts.
Nor have we learnt much from the Uphaar tragedy, the Oleum leak, the
Chasnala disaster, the Kumbakonam fire.
These failures further
compound the injustice, insult and ignominy heaped upon Bhopal. If despite
this, the victims have achieved something, it's not because of the courts
or governments, not because "the system" works, but because
of their own heroic effort. Their struggle for justice has been arduous,
dauntingly uphill. But it is epochally valiant. Their strong
collective experience has helped them recover their human dignity and
rise above victimhood.
Right since December
1984, I have personally witnessed how broken widows, children who were
forced to become heads of their families at age 9, and half-crippled
day-labourers, all turned nto strong individuals, great activists, skilful
campaigners and capable organisers. This self-empowerment through collective
struggle is the Bhopal victims' single greatest achievement.
There is a larger
significance to the struggle. It has kept our collective social conscience
alive by ensuring that the story of corporate criminality which causes
grievous suffering to innocent people wouldn't be obliterated. It has
again and again reminded the world that it didn't do real justice to
the powerless and underprivileged victims; that there must no more Bhopals.
The victims' spirit
has proved indomitable. Their struggle hasn't ended. Indeed, part of
the legal battle has shifted to the US courts which accept that the
1989 settlement doesn't cover environmental damage. The victims' moral
commitment and perseverance will continue to inspire millions across
the world-and remind us of how far we still have to go to create a safer
world where thuggish corporations addicted to super-profits cannot rule
unfettered. The Bhopal example will energise many struggles against