Outrage against Bhopal verdict puts UPA on the backfoot

Outrage against Bhopal verdict puts UPA on the backfoot

New Delhi: Even as the backlash against the verdict of a local court on the 1984 Bhopal gas leak gained momentum, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) reconstituted the group of ministers (GoM) to discuss issues concerning the tragedy.

The GoM, led by home minister P. Chidambaram, would examine all issues, including remediation, and make recommendations relating to the relief and rehabilitation of the victims of India’s biggest industrial accident and their families, an official in the Prime Minister’s Office said on condition of anonymity.

While a political analyst dismissed the move, an activist wanted the government to constitute an empowered commission to deliver justice to the victims. “It’s all damage control by the Congress government, which has never stopped Warren Anderson (then chief executive of Union Carbide Corp.) from going away," said Kamal Mitra Chenoy, professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. “They never exerted enough pressure on the US government to extradite him, nor did they question the delay in the court in coming up with a verdict. It’s just vote-bank politics."

As the political opposition as well as activists from within and outside the country came down heavily on the government, the Congress said Anderson’s extradition process should be completed.

The party, which was in power both at the Centre and Madhya Pradesh when the tragedy occurred in 1984, tried to distribute blame by saying that “successive governments from different parties at the Centre" failed to do justice to the victims.

“We understand that he (Anderson) is an absconder and should be extradited," party spokesperson Jayanthi Natarajan said.

The Bhopal district court on Monday convicted the eight accused (seven company officials and Union Carbide India Ltd) on India’s worst industrial disaster to a two-year sentence, Rs1 lakh fine for the seven and a Rs5 lakh fine on UCIL.

“Our expectations is that they will move rapidly to constitute an empowered commission without any delay," said Nityanand Jayaraman, an activist with the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal. “The criminal case must be at a special court and action should be taken against Dow and Union Carbide." Union Carbide was acquired by Dow Chemical Co. in 1989.

The main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party sought an explanation from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the issue. “The step taken by the government is merely a hogwash under popular influence," party spokesperson Shahnawaz Hussain said. “The prime minister needs to make a statement before the nation on why did the then Arjun Singh government let Anderson leave the country."

BJP leader Shivraj Singh Chouhan said his government would challenge the court verdict in the high court. He said an expert committee will study the legal aspects before going in for an appeal.

Besides Chidambaram, the nine-member GoM will include health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, law minister M. Veerappa Moily, urban development minister S. Jaipal Reddy, road transport minister Kamal Nath, chemicals and fertilizers minister M.K. Alagiri, housing and urban poverty alleviation minister Selja, science minister Prithviraj Chavan and environment minister Jairam Ramesh.

Santosh K. Joy and PTI contributed to this story.