New Delhi: In a bid to mitigate the political damage arising from the mishandling of the investigation and litigation involving the Bhopal gas tragedy, a ministerial group on Monday came up with a five-point action plan, which includes an almost 50% increase in compensation, review of a controversial 1996 Supreme Court order diluting charges, and amendments to the law to enhance penalties and stricter enforcement of liabilities in similar industrial disasters.
If India’s cabinet of ministers endorses the group’s recommendations and the government approaches the apex court, the management of Union Carbide could potentially be tried on charges of “culpable homicide not amounting to murder”, which attracts imprisonment of up to 10 years. A special meeting of the cabinet has been called on Friday to discuss the recommendations.
The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has been facing severe criticism for its failure in ensuring justice and adequate compensation to the victims on the one hand and messing up the prosecution of the company, Union Carbide India Ltd, on the other. Allegations have been levelled against key members of the Congress party, including late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and former Madhya Pradesh chief minister Arjun Singh, for allowing former Union Carbide chief executive Warren Anderson to leave India.
To address these issues, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reconstituted the ministerial group on 26 May under the chairmanship of home minister P. Chidambaram and gave it 10 days to make recommendations.
Soon after submitting the group’s report to the Prime Minister, Chidambaram told reporters, “We have dealt with all issues…compensation, legal and pursuing the extradition of Warren Anderson, the legal options available to the government of India and most importantly the remediation issues and health-related matters.”
A senior bureaucrat and a cabinet minister, both of whom did not want to be identified, confirmed that the government has decided to pursue the extradition of Anderson.
Photo by PTI
At least three Congress leaders conceded that the party’s image had taken a beating over the issue, especially after the 7 June judgement of a Bhopal court that punished officials with a two-year jail term and a fine of Rs1 lakh. One of the leaders, however, added that it is unlikely the government will be able to succeed in extraditing Anderson as well as establish the liability of Dow Chemical Co., another recommendation of the ministerial group.
Dow acquired the international assets of Union Carbide Corp., the parent of Union Carbide India Ltd, in 1999. Union Carbide Corp. had, in 1994, sold its Indian assets to Eveready Industries India Ltd. An executive at the Indian arm of Dow directed queries to the US parent, representatives of which couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
The Congress had also suggested that the existing legislation, the Public Insurance Liability Act 1991, for compensating and penalizing the responsible people should be strengthened to deal with such incidents in the future. According to the legislation, which activists say is inadequate to deal with major and hazardous industrial accidents, the injured receive Rs12,500 and families of the dead, Rs25,000.
According to an official who attended the ministerial group’s meetings, it suggested an additional compensation package of Rs1,500 crore to victims and their families. The ministers agreed on a payment of Rs10 lakh to the next of kin of the deceased, Rs5 lakh for permanently disability and Rs3 lakh for temporary disability.
A total of 5,295 people died immediately after the poisonous methyl isocyanate gas leaked from the Union Carbide factory in December 1984. According to official figures, 10,047 people died later, 3,199 were totally disabled, 23,672 were partially disabled and at least 500,000 were affected. So far, the victims have been paid a compensation of Rs3,058 crore in keeping with a 1991 Supreme Court judgement, which also said that if the case was re-opened later, and more compensation decided on, then the extra amount would be paid by the government of India.
The Union government will also ask the state government to clean up the nearly 350 tonnes of toxic material at the contaminated site in Bhopal by giving it technical and financial support of Rs300 crore over the next three years. It will also file a curative petition before the apex court against its 1996 order where it has diluted criminal charges against the accused.