Is the new GoM on Bhopal gas tragedy a farce?

BY GOPAL KRISHNA

The 55-page PMO documents gathered using Right to Information Act (RTI) shows manifest collusion between ministers, officials and Dow Chemicals to protect it from the liabilities of industrial catastrophe of Bhopal. The documents reveal how some of the ministers who have been made part of Group of Ministers (GoM) by the Prime Minister have been acting to safeguard the interest of the US corporation in question, which is liable for Bhopal disaster.

The GoM that has been constituted does not inspire confidence. The GoM, headed by Union Home Minister P Chidambaram, was constituted on May 26, 2010 by the PM’s office. The documents gathered using RTI reveal how Chidambaram and Kamal Nath have already expressed their support for Dow Chemical Company’s proposal to save it from Union Carbide Corporation’s liability which it inherited in 2001 after merger.

In a letter dated November 10, 2006, Chidambaram wrote to the Prime Minister about his visit to United Sates to review issues with the Indo-US CEO Forum in New York wherein he submitted a tour report mentioning his comments on Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia’s note. Referring to the matter of Dow Chemicals, Ratan Tata’s offer for remediation, he has stated, “I think we should accept this offer” in his comments dated 5th December, 2006. In December 2006, Dr S Jaishankar, Joint Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs in note titled “Issues Emerging from Indo-US CEO’s meeting” underlies how Dow has sought a statement from GOI (Government of India) in the court clarifying that GOI does not regard Dow as legally responsible for liabilities of UCC and wants to avoid “cloud of legal liability”.

In February 2007, Kamal Nath wrote a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh about the matter. In the letter, despite acknowledging the fact that the matter is sub-judice he said “that a group under the chairmanship of the Cabinet Secretary be formed to look” in the matter of the liability of the Dow Chemicals “in a holistic manner, in a similar manner as was done in respect to the Enron Corporation with respect to Dabhol Corporation”. The immorality of his suggestion lies in the fact that ignores the Enron scandal that led to the bankruptcy of the Enron Corporation, a US energy company.

Incidentally, Ratan Tata in his role as the Chairman of the three-member Investment Commission, set up in the Ministry of Finance in December 2004 by the Government of India wrote to P Chidamabram, the then Finance Minister, suggesting setting up a Fund for remediation on the site of Bhopal disaster that “would cost approximately Rs 100 crores.”

Donning another hat, Tata wrote again as the Chairman, Tata Sons Limited to Montek Singh Ahluwalia on October 9, 2006 with regard to resolve “various legacy issues” of “Dow Chemicals” pursuant to the recommendations of the Indo-US CEO Forum pointing out how the Investment Commission has not had “much success” in this regard. He referred to the interest of Andrew Liveris, CEO of Dow Chemicals with regard to approaches/solutions to the issue. Tata wrote again to Montek Singh on November 26, 2006 referring to letter of Andrew Liveris that was sent to Ronen Sen, then India’s Ambassador to the US wherein a request was made saying that “it is critical for them to have the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers withdraw their application for a financial deposit by Dow against the remediation cost, as that application implies that the Government of India views Dow as ‘liable’ in the Bhopal Gas disaster case.”

Notably, Liveris had complained to Ronen Sen about how “GOI has taken position adverse to Dow” in the Madhya Pradesh High Court. The case is still pending. Tata wrote again to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on January 5, 2007, wherein he put on record the meeting of the members of Investment Commission with the PM to discuss “the old Union Carbide tragedy”. The PMO’s letter from the B V R Subramanyam, Private Secretary of the Prime Minister, dated January 12, 2007 assured Tata that “the matter is being examined” and “the Prime Minister has seen” his letter and “has taken note of its contents”.

The real issue arising out of Bhopal verdict that has necessitated the setting up GoM is its fallout on the proposed Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill that is pending in the Indian Parliament. It has emerged any future liability regime must include criminal liability and must not cap the amount of civil liability because the damage from a nuclear or chemical disaster depends on the direction and nature of the wind at the time of the accident.

Bhopal verdict reveals that no lessons have been learnt from Chernobyl nuclear disaster and Three Mile Island Nuclear Accident.

It is sad that even Parliament’s standing committee on Environment, Forests, Science and Technology is frozen in its passivity, be it with regard to Bhopal or nuclear liability. The Committee is under the chairmanship of T Subbirami Reddy, who is on record in parliament to have opposed any liability arising out of asbestos exposures.

Incidentally, the Dow Chemicals Company has set aside $2.2 billion to address future asbestos-related liabilities arising out of the Union Carbide acquisition. How is that Dow Chemicals can take the asbestos liability of Union Carbide and not the liability for the industrial catastrophe in Bhopal?

Click here to read the PMO’s documents obtained through RTI…

(Gopal Krishna is a social activist and lawyer. He is a guest writer with Canary Trap.)

Exclusive: PCI report on “paid news” slams corrupt media

  • Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha and senior BJP leader Sushma Swaraj told the Press Council of India that the “paid news” phenomenon had started out as an aberration, went on to become a disease and is now an epidemic. She said that although she was not directly approached by media companies, her campaign managers were told that they could manage the media by purchasing a package worth Rs 1 crore.
  • I was contesting the 2009 elections on a ticket of the BSP from Chandigarh. Representatives of the print medium came to me and asked for money. They said their newspapers will give me coverage if I paid them money. They offered a ‘package’ to me and in one such ‘package’ I was told editorials would be written in my favour – Former Civil Aviation Minister Harmohan Dhawan.
  • Every single newspaper was on sale in my constituency and I was told that I had to pay up for publicity – BJP MP from Gorakhpur Yogi Adityanath told a news magazine.
  • CPI candidate Atul Kumar Anjan said he received phone calls from representatives of two of the largest newspapers in North India, Dainik Jagran and Hindustan, who asked him to pay Rs 15 lakh each for coverage of his election campaign in their publications.

These are some of the facts that have emerged from the Press Council of India’s report on “paid news”.  The council has not made the report public owing to pressure from some media publications but Canary Trap, which has a copy of the draft report, brings you exclusive details from the damning document. Ever since noted journalist and The Hindu’s Rural Affairs Editor P Sainath highlighted the worrying trend of “paid news”, the issue has even been debated in the parliament.

The “paid news” phenomenon has left the parliamentarians of the country worried with senior MPs and even Vice President of India and Rajya Sabha Chairman Hamid Ansari expressing concern over the malpractice. Infact, a lot of politicians across party lines have suggested that exchanging money for “paid news” should be declared as a corrupt practice.

The report, Paid News: How corruption in the Indian media undermines democracy, was prepared by a two member sub-committee of the PCI to “track the blurring boundaries between news and advertisements/advertorials”. The report provides an account of how certain individuals and representatives of media organizations exposed the selling of editorial space for money during the 2009 Lok Sabha polls and assembly polls in Maharashtra and Haryana in 2009.

The members of the sub-committee, Kalimekolan Sreenivas Reddy and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, admitted that given the secretive nature of such malpractices it is difficult to find clinching evidence of corrupt practices. However, they further state that there is a huge amount of circumstantial evidence that points towards the use of media to push “paid news”.

Over 50 individuals and representatives of various organizations (media, journalists’ union, and political parties) submitted their depositions before the PCI.

The malpractice of “paid news” has spread across newspapers and television channels in the country and it has now become organized and involve advertising agencies and public relations firms, besides journalists, managers and owners of media companies, the report stated.

The “rate cards” and “packages” that were distributed among the election candidates not only promised favorable coverage but also included criticism of political opponents.

The report argues that the proliferation of “paid news” content in the media “can be directly related to the diminishing role and status of editors in media organizations and the erosion of the freedom enjoyed by journalists under the Working Journalists Act.”

Apart from the “paid news” phenomenon, the report also highlights an innovative strategy employed by Bennett, Coleman Company Limited (BCCL) to earn profits at the cost of editorial integrity. According to the report: “The private treaties scheme pioneered in the Indian media by BCCL involves giving advertising space to private corporate entities/advertisers in exchange for equity investment.”

Similar schemes have been adopted by various newspapers and television channels. Even the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) has written to PCI, stating that “many media companies were entering into agreements called ‘private treaties’ with companies whose equity shares are listed on stock exchanges or companies that were coming out with a public offer of their shares.”

According to the SEBI, media companies were picking up stakes in such companies and were providing news coverage to them via advertisements, news reports, and editorials. It pointed out that such treaties may lead to commercialization of news reports. The board also feared that “biased and imbalanced reporting may lead to inaccurate perceptions of the companies which are the beneficiaries of such private treaties.”

The PCI report further states that the malpractice of “paid news” occurs at three levels.

1. The readers/viewers of the media outlets are deceived into believing that whatever they are consuming is a genuine news content and not advertisement.

2. The candidate standing in the elections violate the Conduct of Election Rules 1961 by not officially declaring the expenses incurred in buying “paid news” packages.

3. The media companies who engage in such malpractices violate the Companies Act, 1956 and Income Tax Act, 1961 by not accounting for the money they take from candidates for news coverage.

The amount of money that media companies make through “paid news” can be gauged from the fact that the estimated size of its market in Andhra Pradesh alone is between Rs 300 crore to Rs 1000 crore. The practice is prevalent in print and electronic (both English and non-English) media in different parts of the country.

With the number of media outlets (both in print and electronic) increasing at a rapid pace, it is high time the Press Council of India is given some powers in order to ensure that such blatant corruption is prevented from spreading further.

(Postscript: The draft report that this post refers to has been mired in another controversy as some PCI members have raised several objections to it. It is also reported that a new draft report would be prepared and discussed before the final report is submitted to the government. With so much happening on this front, keep logging on to Canary Trap. We will bring you all the details at regular intervals.)