Slumber is a peaceful state, as we all know. But when a government dozes off for 26 years after an industrial disaster and then awakens after a trial court verdict, even Rip Van Winkle looks alert in comparison. That is what the 1984 Bhopal disaster looks like from the vantage of 2010.
Finally, however, the Union government may be taking the first steps towards ensuring justice to the long-suffering victims of the tragedy. In a Rs1,500 crore package, proposed by the group of ministers (GoM) that was constituted in the wake of a public outcry in the matter, victims will get substantial compensation. The Madhya Pradesh government will be provided technical and financial help for the clean-up task. A sum of Rs300 crore will be provided for this task.
There are two shortcomings in these proposals. One, while the kin of those who perished will be given Rs10 lakh (per victim), those who are suffering from injuries will get only Rs3-5 lakh. At the moment, the concern should be centred on those who are alive and are suffering. They need more help. Two, while a sum of Rs300 crore will be made available for the clean-up, it may be lower than what a serious decontamination requires. Groundwater decontamination, soil treatment and detoxification require more money.
While these are positive pursuits, the GoM also recommended some quixotic measures. Renewed attempts to extradite Warren Anderson, the 91-year-old former chief executive officer of Union Carbide, being one such chase. Attempts will also be made to approach the Supreme Court on enhancing the punishment for the guilty. While the government’s motives for the latter steps can be comprehended, they are quite meaningless. How will punishing an old man help the victims, except for the gain of some psychic utility by harassing him? But the efforts to master the 24-hour news cycle (linked, in part, with larger electoral politics) require that government be seen as “doing something”.
A more lasting and positive venture would have been to look at the culpability of officials, judges and others involved in the various lapses. One such lapse is the government resumption of the contaminated site in Bhopal. Had there been no haste in doing so, a private company could have been forced to carry out the clean-up. Costs apart, it would have served as a deterrent. But that would be expecting too much: Across the political spectrum, everyone has something to hide from in the Bhopal case.
GoM recommendations: too late to be called justice? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org