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I am not religious, but I don't mind calling myself spiritual. Religion, I believe, has, over the millennia, been used as a prop to perpetrate a lot of human suffering. Faith is what matters. I don't believe in the definition of God as a creator. According to me, my God resides within me. Some call it conscience, some call it the sub-conscious, some call it the soul. I don't mind calling it God. So by definition I am not an atheist or an agnostic, but by essence, I may as well be. My God does not reside in a temple, church, mosque or gurudwara. It is right here, within me.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Bending the Scales of Justice

This article appeared in the June issue of the online monthly magazine Orange19. Check it out here and check out he June issue here.

June 7, 2010 - The air has the stench of alienation. The journalists, the activists and the victims are ordered to stay out of the courtroom as the 100 pages of verdict are being read. Seven accused, two years imprisonment with a fine of Rs. 1,01,750 each. Submit Rs. 25,000, and you could be granted a bail immediately.

Such was the gross impunity with which the ‘justice’ was carried out on this fateful day. Union Carbide top man Warren Anderson safely ‘absconding’ since long, it was the victims who had to tread the barren path through more than 25 years of hell. And today, the ‘justice’ mocks at their faces.

The Supreme Court judgement of September 13, 1996 - which converted the offence from culpable homicide not amounting to murder (with maximum punishment up to 10 years) to rash and negligent act causing death (punishable up to a maximum of 2 years) – evidently tied down the hands of Chief Justice Magistrate (CJM) Mohan P. Tiwari. But there seems to be a greater connivance on the part of the state and central governments that allowed Anderson to flee from India under what seemed to be US pressure. “House arrest or no house arrest, or bail or no bail, I am free to go home..There is a law of the United States..India, bye bye, thank you” were his final words before he left the country. If you read those words closely, his scoff is almost audible.

On the fateful night of December 2-3, 1984, the poisonous Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) leaked from one of the tanks, in which it was stored in large quantities, killing 2,500 people immediately and 1,500 more subsequently, according to the official estimates. Other estimates put the total death toll at around 15,000. Defects in the plant like bulk storage of MIC despite common knowledge that a leak could cause havoc, possible corroding material in pipelines and in valves like iron, copper, zinc and tin, a faulty refrigeration system – the working of which was a stated necessity and could have provided a lot more reaction time, no safety guidelines provided to people living in the areas near the plant by UCIL despite the awareness of the possibility of a leak, no alarm system to check the quality of MIC before it was stored in the tanks – another stated necessity, only highlight the already emotive issue of corporate accountability. One of the ‘absconding’ accused, the US based Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) – the parent company of Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) – had also released an Operational Safety Survey Report, dated July 28, 1982, prepared by a team of experts; the report showed that there were a number of deficiencies in the maintenance of the MIC unit. This report strongly points towards the extreme callousness displayed by the accused despite knowledge of the bending of rules that was prevalent. It is a travesty of justice, to say the least, that the people who never felt a tinge of guilt are still at large enjoying the immunity from the Indian justice system.

Another seeming connivance emerges when you look closely. UCC had a share of 50.9 per cent in UCIL. In 1973, UCIL had entered into an agreement with the parent company, according to which UCC was to provide UCIL with the best manufacturing information then available. The 1996 Supreme Court judgement also allowed the shares owned by UCC to be sold to raise money for the construction of a hospital by the Bhopal Hospital Trust (BHT), a body created by UCC. Thus it became all the more difficult for the prosecution to prove that the top people of UCC sitting in the US knew all about what was going on in their subsidiary in India.

A great paradox, which emerged during the trial, was in the title of the case itself. It read State of Madhya Pradesh through the CBI vs Warren Anderson and others. Strange it is that the verdict did not even mention the name of Warren Anderson. The case accusing him of culpable homicide not amounting to murder is still pending. But the erroneous title of the case gives the false impression that the case against Anderson et al is closed as well.

The levee seems to be on the verge of breaking for the Congress which suddenly finds itself in a morass of its own wrongdoing. Apart from the opposition parties aiming for the kill, voices of dissent can be heard even from within its own walls. The latest move by the Congress of appointing a Group of Ministers (GoM) to look into the matter seems like a desperate scurry for cover. The latest in the series of events is the recommendations of the GoM of a hike in compensation for the victims, review of the unfair verdicts, and a fresh effort for the extradition of the fugitive Anderson. If the suggestion for enhanced compensation for the victims is accepted and implemented fairly, then this might be the only silver lining for the victims as well as for the party which claims itself as the saviour of the aam aadmi. The aim for extradition of Anderson is as much a non-starter as it is unrealistic. The government could not convince the US government to extradite Headley for the heinous crime that is so fresh in the minds of every Indian. So a similar hope for Anderson is like wishing for the stars - Quixotic and impractical.

The irony rides high when one considers that Barack Obama expects British Petroleum to pay up to $20 billion as the total clean up costs. The total loss of human lives amounted to 11. And the settlement seems to be going into completion soon after the spill is fully contained. Compare that with 28 years of uncaring silence by the Indian state and a puny compensation by the Supreme Court verdict in 1996 to rub it in. Let us keep our fingers crossed that the government does not yet again fail to deliver due justice to all.

It is all summed up in what an activist said of the pitiable state: “This is definitely not what we were waiting for. In 2006, the Prime Minister promised us an empowered commission that would look into the rehabilitation of survivors. Till today the commission has not been formed. What the government has demonstrated over the years is that the lives of ordinary citizens are expendable. The Prime Minister has told us that the Bhopals will happen but the country must progress. In Bhopal, first there was an industrial disaster, then there was medical disaster and now what we are watching is a judicial disaster.”

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