World’s biggest industrial disaster for which no one was punished

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N D Sharma
is a senior journalist, and Patron of eNewsroom India.

Survivors observed today the 35th anniversary of the Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster which killed over 20,000 persons over the years and left thousands of others with a variety of ailments, some incurable. This is the first anniversary without Abdul Jabbar who fought all his life for getting relief and rehabilitation — medical as well as economic – for the survivors of the world’s biggest industrial disaster. Jabbar died on November 14 for want of proper medical care in the so-call super speciality Hospital, Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre (BMHRC), set up on a direction of the Supreme Court exclusively to provide specialised treatment to the gas leak victims.

Unfortunately, even three and a half decades after the disaster, neither the State nor the Central Government has made no attempt to undertake a comprehensive assessment of the ramifications of the disaster. Nor have they taken necessary remedial measures, according to Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti (BGPSSS) Co-Convener N D Jayaprakash. BGPSSS and Jabbar’s Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan (BGPMUS) have been jointly fighting for years the cases in courts for the gas victims – and also for prosecuting those responsible for the disaster. Regrettably, no one was punished.

A retired District and Sessions Judge of Bhopal Renu sharma was of the view that Moti Singh and Swaraj Puri were liable to be prosecuted under Section 221 of Indian Penal Code (IPC) for helping then Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) chairman Warren Anderson escape from the Indian laws on December 7, 1984. Singh was Collector and Puri Superintendent of Police (SP) of Bhopal when plumes of MiC gas had sprung from UCC’s pesticide factory in the intervening night of December 2-3, 1984 and in no time engulfed most of the Bhopal city, choking thousands to death instantaneously. Many more died with the passing of the time and around three lakh persons are suffering from various ailments even 35 years later. Both Jabbar and N D Jayaprakash had sought prosecution of Singh and Puri but their complaint was peremptorily treated by the District Court and the High Court and it was summarily dismissed by the Supreme Court without a hearing.

A little later, Swaraj Puri was said to have informed Anderson that the State government plane was waiting to take him to Delhi from where he would be able to return to the United States. Puri also presented to Anderson a document setting his bail at Rs 25,000 with the proviso that he would present himself to face trial whenever required by an Indian court. The UCC chairman was required to just sign it. Then the Collector and the Superintendent of Police drove Anderson to the airport and saluted him before he entered the State government’s plane. In Delhi, he met then President Giani Zail Singh and Home Minister P V Narasimha Rao before flying to the United States.

A case under various sections of IPC was registered against the US multinational and several functionaries of the company for causing immense loss to human and cattle life. Anderson, as the chief executive officer (CEO) of UCC, was the main accused. The punishment provided for in Section 304 IPC is up to life imprisonment. Anderson, along with two Indian directors of the company, flew to Bhopal on December 7, four days after the disaster had struck the city. Moti Singh and Swaraj Puri, who were present at the airport with a posse of policemen, received Anderson with warm handshakes. The American was taken by the two in an official car to the luxurious guesthouse of Union Carbide at Shamla Hills. An officer there saluted him and announced that all three of them were under arrest. The sections were read out to them.

A little later, Swaraj Puri was said to have informed Anderson that the State government plane was waiting to take him to Delhi from where he would be able to return to the United States. Puri also presented to Anderson a document setting his bail at Rs 25,000 with the proviso that he would present himself to face trial whenever required by an Indian court. The UCC chairman was required to just sign it. Then the Collector and the Superintendent of Police drove Anderson to the airport and saluted him before he entered the State government’s plane. In Delhi, he met then President Giani Zail Singh and Home Minister P V Narasimha Rao before flying to the United States.

Arjun Singh, then Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, held a press conference the next day and stated that the law had been adhered to in letter and spirit by the arrest of Warren Anderson and he had been released because he was not required for investigation for the time being. The decision to arrest and release him was his own, he asserted. Renu Sharma said that the police was not empowered to grant bail under Section 437 of Code of Criminal Procedure (Cr.P.C.) in non-bailable offences and Moti Singh and Swaraj Puri were guilty of committing an offence under Section 221 IPC which says that if a public servant, legally bound to keep in confinement any person charged for an offence punishable with imprisonment for life or imprisonment for up to ten years, intentionally aids such person in escaping, shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to three years.

At the time of the disaster the Union Carbide had maintained that the Bhopal factory and the Virginia factory operated to the same standards and designs, but the papers produced in the New York court showed that there were explicit differences between the two. The documents revealed that the Union Carbide and Warren Anderson had ordered “under-investment” in the highly dangerous Sevin/MiC unit in Bhopal in order to help sidestep Indian regulations requiring a dilution of foreign equity.

Anderson’s liability for the Bhopal disaster was not vicarious, as the CBI had argued before a Bhopal court, or as Arjun Singh had insinuated at his press conference on December 8, 1984. He was on the committee that had taken the decision to use “unproven technology” in the Bhopal pesticide plant. This came out in the documents which Union Carbide was forced to produce in the Federal Southern District Court of New York during the hearings of the litigation brought by Bhopal disaster survivors. The documents were produced in two instalments, containing 4000 and 3000 pages. F P Wilson was the chairman of the seven-member committee and Anderson one of its members. Anderson later became chairman and chief executive officer (CEO) of UCC and was directly responsible for implementing the decisions of the committee.

At the time of the disaster the Union Carbide had maintained that the Bhopal factory and the Virginia factory operated to the same standards and designs, but the papers produced in the New York court showed that there were explicit differences between the two. The documents revealed that the Union Carbide and Warren Anderson had ordered “under-investment” in the highly dangerous Sevin/MiC unit in Bhopal in order to help sidestep Indian regulations requiring a dilution of foreign equity.

A proper treatment of the survivors was made difficult by the lack of information about exact contents of the cloud which had formed over Bhopal after the gas leak and which the residents had inhaled. The Union Carbide had the information but it had not released it. Dr Heeresh Chandra, one of the country’s foremost forensic experts, was of the opinion that the US multinational had experimented on the Indians some deadly chemical for use in a future biological warfare. Dr Chandra was involved in the investigations of post-mortem blood and tank residues. Phosgene and cyanide, the two most deadly chemicals, were also found in the blood of the victims, though these two chemicals had no business to be stored in the plant which was supposed to manufacture pesticides, according to the scientists who had studied the disaster.

She further says in her book: “a Research and Development unit was set up in Bhopal in 1976. The centre, the biggest in Asia, had five insect-rearing laboratories and a two-hectare experimental farm for testing chemical agents. Here, new molecules were synthesised and tested. It appeared that the UCIL (Union Carbide India Limited) was conducting (from 1975) field studies using new chemical agents without getting the projects cleared by the top-level committee where all collaborative research efforts should be screened from a security angle”.

Dr Heeresh Chandra’s theory was supported by the findings of Swedish medical practitioner Ingrid Eckerman who was a member of the now-dissolved International Medical Commission on Bhopal (IMCB) and had been visiting Bhopal frequently in connection with her research. She says in her book, “Bhopal Saga: Causes and Consequences of the World’s Largest Industrial Disaster”: “according to reports seized from the Research and Development centre of the plant at Bhopal as well as documents traced from other offices of the firm, the Corporation had conducted a number of experiments on animals and plants, and was aware of the effects of MiC It is likely that they had information not only on short-term effects, but also on medium and long-term effects”.

She further says in her book: “a Research and Development unit was set up in Bhopal in 1976. The centre, the biggest in Asia, had five insect-rearing laboratories and a two-hectare experimental farm for testing chemical agents. Here, new molecules were synthesised and tested. It appeared that the UCIL (Union Carbide India Limited) was conducting (from 1975) field studies using new chemical agents without getting the projects cleared by the top-level committee where all collaborative research efforts should be screened from a security angle”.

While Warren Anderson, the master player in the diabolical game, continued to enjoy his freedom in the United States till he died in September 2014, his Indian agents were sentenced on June 7, 2010 by the Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM) of Bhopal to two years’ imprisonment. No sooner had the CJM announced the quantum of the sentence than he had allowed their bail at Rs 25,000 each. The matter ended there.

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N D Sharma
is a senior journalist, and Patron of eNewsroom India.

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