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.)