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Haunting past

Print edition : Jul 02, 2010 T+T-
Arjun Singh, whowas Chief Minister at the time of the tragedy.-PTI

Arjun Singh, whowas Chief Minister at the time of the tragedy.-PTI

GHOSTS of the past and the spectre of the present have come together simultaneously to create trouble for the Congress. It would take some effort for the party to get out of this. This was the comment made by a senior leader of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) to Frontline a couple of days after the court verdict on the Bhopal gas tragedy. He was referring to the manner in which Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) chairman Warren Anderson was allowed to leave India 25 years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the gas tragedy, and the current controversy over the proposed nuclear liability Bill.

The NCP leader, whose party is part of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, said that linkages between Anderson's escape from the purview of the Indian legal system and several clauses of the proposed nuclear liability Bill would be drawn not only by opposition parties such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Left parties but even by sections of the Congress. This will naturally add to the scale and intensity of the political problems that the Congress will face on this count, he added.

Congress spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan maintained that there were no linkages between the Bhopal verdict and the Nuclear Civil Liabilities (NCL) Bill but accepted that there would be some impact in political terms. She added that the party was equipped to deal with it.

While no section of the Congress has yet sought, at least directly, to connect Anderson's escape with clauses in the nuclear liability Bill, the Anderson issue has triggered conflicts within the party. Even the name of Rajiv Gandhi, who was Prime Minister at the time of the tragedy, and the role of his government have been dragged into the controversy. At the core of this argument is the question as to who authorised the safe passage to Anderson from Bhopal soon after the tragedy. Official records, video footage and statements from former officials, including the then Collector of Bhopal, Moti Singh, have made it clear that this was arranged by the State government, then led by the Congress veteran Arjun Singh. But a number of Congress leaders, including All India Congress Committee (AICC) general secretary Digvijay Singh, have said that all decisions relating to the tragedy were taken at the level of the Union government and that the State government only carried them out.

Talking to a private television channel, Digvijay Singh said that the State government hardly had any role to play in this case. He said: There was a Cabinet Committee in the Government of India which had taken all decisions regarding this case and the only task of the Government of Madhya Pradesh was to get the decisions implemented. He also added that Anderson's release could have been under American pressure. Vasant Sathe, another senior leader and former Union Minister, told another private television channel that collusion between the then Madhya Pradesh government and some people at the Centre helped Anderson to leave the country.

Sathe has been out of active politics for some time, and his comments did not evoke much reaction from the Congress. Digvijay Singh, however, is considered to be close to the party's top leadership, and hours after he made his comments senior Congress leader Satyavrat Chaturvedi contradicted him, asserting that the Central government had no role in the arrest and release of Anderson. Digvijay Singh did try to make amends in another interview to a different television channel by saying that Rajiv Gandhi interrupted his campaign to travel to Bhopal after the tragedy and that he did not release Anderson. He added that others, including the then Chief Minister, Arjun Singh, would be in a better position to clarify.

This nuanced retraction, however, did not reduce the damage already done by his earlier statement. Opposition parties were quick to insist that this was a forced retraction and that the whole sequence of events needed to be probed thoroughly once again to fix responsibility and punish the guilty. Clearly, the opposition plans to launch a new offensive against the government in general and the Congress in particular. The allegation made by B.R. Lall, former officer in the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which probed the gas tragedy, that the Ministry of External Affairs had put pressure on the investigating agency to drop charges against Anderson should also come in handy in this campaign.

Lall's allegations were countered by former CBI Director K. Vijayarama Rao, who asserted that there was no such pressure. The Congress tried to control the damage by asking the government to make every effort to get Anderson extradited from the United States.

Amidst all this, the government has set up a new Group of Ministers (GoM) under the leadership of Home Minister P. Chidambaram to examine all issues relating to the Bhopal gas leak including remedial measures and make appropriate recommendations regarding rehabilitation and resettlement of the Bhopal gas victims and their families. The earlier GoM was headed by Arjun Singh. According to Union Law Minister M. Veerappa Moily, who is also a member in the reconstituted GoM, among the many tasks that the government would take up in the wake of the court verdict, one would be to revive efforts for the extradition of Anderson. It is not as though that possibility is completely ruled out. The issue needs to be addressed afresh, plugging all loopholes, and one can certainly hope for justice, he told Frontline.

So far, the Indian government's moves for Anderson's extradition had an element of infighting between the CBI and the Ministry of External Affairs. India sent a request for extradition to the U.S. for the first time in 2003, nearly two decades after the catastrophe. In the interregnum, investigations were supposedly incomplete. After 2003, the Ministry of External Affairs time and again demanded more evidence against Anderson from the CBI, apparently on the basis of the position taken by the U.S. government. According to sources in the Ministry of External Affairs, the U.S. position was that it was not possible to execute India's request for extradition on account of a deficiency of evidence linking Anderson to the catastrophe.

Opposition parties insist that all the steps now taken by the government are hogwash. The culpable indifference of successive governments, particularly Congress governments that ruled the country for most of the past 25 years, has been exposed thoroughly now. Once again they are trying to hoodwink the people through a new GoM and all kinds of convoluted arguments. Put mildly, the reconstitution of the GoM is a crass diversionary tactic, said A.B. Bardhan, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI).

It is not just the timing of the constitution of the new GoM that is being questioned. Questions have been raised about the very parameters of its constitution as well as the presence of a couple of leaders, including its head, P. Chidambaram, in the committee. The frame of reference of the new GoM contains revised parameters relating to remediation measures at the site of the disaster. Government documents accessed by a number of social organisations involved in relief and rehabilitation work in Bhopal have established conclusively that the suggestion for the inclusion of remediation measures had been mooted originally by Dow Chemical, which bought UCC in 2001.

Following the acquisition, Dow Chemical began sustained lobbying to escape liability for the gas disaster and came up with promises of substantial investments in India. Both Chidambaram and Kamal Nath, another member of the GoM, as Finance and Commerce Ministers, respectively, endorsed the company's proposal in 2006. If the inclusion of remediation measures leads finally to the acceptance of the company's proposal by the GoM, it could lead to the company achieving its objective of escaping liability for the Bhopal gas disaster, especially with regard to remediation, or clean-up, of the contaminated site.

In fact, documents accessed by social activist groups using the Right to Information (RTI) Act showed that both Chidambaram and Kamal Nath had recommended, in official notes, that a Site Remediation Trust be set up to let Indian corporates fund and implement remediation activities, leaving Dow free of any responsibility. Following the notes of the two Ministers, the Cabinet Secretary, in April 2007, recommended that the existing Group of Ministers be reconstituted with appropriate changes in its mandate.

It is that recommendation that has been accepted three years later, in the wake of the verdict on the Bhopal gas disaster. This, too, has evoked widespread criticism as being a clear case of conflict of interest. Two Ministers, who officially backed a proposal from the company that acquired UCC, are now part of the GoM, and one of them is actually leading it.

It is this context that has also brought certain clauses of the nuclear liability Bill into focus. The Bill's provision (6(ii)), which allows the government to reduce the amount of operator liability below Rs.500 crore, has been questioned by several Members of Parliament.

Certain changes in the Bill proposed by the U.S. government and American nuclear suppliers, who have demanded protection from Bhopal-type litigation have also raised opposition from several politicians, including some in the Congress, who have expressed it in private circles.