Shame of Bhopal, Real Test at Copenhagen

Praful Bidwai on India's contribution to the climate negotiations.
09 December 2009
In the media

Pressures have mounted on India to go for major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Published at
Mainstream Weekly

The world’s biggest industrial disaster took place in Bhopal on December 3, 1984 taking a toll of 20,000 lives and affecting 5.69 lakh people. The twentyfifth anniversary of that massive mishap at the Union Carbide plant in the city is being observed across the country today.

That disaster is a crying shame for all our citizens. Why? For three reasons. First, the real culprit behind the mishap, the Union Carbide management, got away real cheap—the Union Government reached a settlement with it in 1989, and this was approved by the Supreme Court, on the basis of which the company agreed to pay $ 470 million (which was Rs 730 crores as per the rupee-dollar exchange rate prevailing then) as compensation for the victims in return for the government dropping all civil and criminal proceedings against it. This was actually peanuts if only one tries to ponder over the enormity of the Union Carbide’s crime.

Second, the Union Carbide Chairman, Warren Anderson, was arrested three days after the tragedy and bailed out immediately to enable him to leave the country; a non-bailable warrant was issued against him by a Bhopal court in 1992 but it remains unserved.

Third, of the Rs 713 crores paid by Carbide, Rs 113 crores was given to those who had suffered property or livestock damage while the remaining Rs 600 crores was distributed among the nearly six lakh victims or family members of those who died—on average, therefore, each victim received a mere Rs 12,410. For this it is the government which should be squarely blamed: it had underestimated the number of those affected by the tragedy.

In the circumstances the least that can be done has been spelt out in The Times of India:

As for the victims’ claim for more compensation, the shameful settlement with Union Carbide can perhaps no longer be reopened. But the government, which negotiated that deal, must make good the loss to victims resulting from its gross underestimation of their numbers initially. Or else, India will appear a banana republic.

Meanwhile with the Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change scheduled to begin next Monday (December 7), pressures have mounted on India to go for major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. This has come in the wake of China declaring, on November 26, that it would voluntarily reduce the carbon intensity of its economy by 40-45 per cent below the 2005 levels by 2020, a day after the US announced cutting its GHG emissions by roughly four per cent below the 1990 levels by 2020. In the circumstances India is reportedly contemplating a targeted reduction in its carbon intensity for 2020, though Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has made it clear that it would be doing so on its own and not due to global bullying tactics.

In this context what journalist Praful Bidwai has explained in his recent publication merits close scrutiny.

The real test for India lies in combining the right measure of flexibility on tactics with hard-nosed, uncompromising bargaining on issues of principle, including the principle of differentiation of climate responsibility. The rich must act first and do more. There can be no retreat from this imperative. Whether and how Manmohan Singh balances or squares up his climate agenda with his foreign and security policy priority to align India with the US will decide whether India can make a real contribution to the climate negotiations.

That is the crux of the problem. If we are able to resolve it without bending to global pressures and giving in to US blandishments, we would prove beyond doubt that we remain steadfast in our traditional self-reliant approach and the country has not yet been turned into a banana republic.

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