Thursday, June 10, 2010

The worst of American and Indian cultures

The recent judgement on the Bhopal gas disaster saddened many people including myself greatly. This disaster occurred during my first year in TIFR so its tragic aftermath has been a sort of constant through my entire career. Like so many other people, and mostly following the lead of the press, I've given it some attention in brief spurts but it's dropped off the radar for the rest of the time. Now the judgement has brought the issue back to centre-stage. Unfortunately it will fade again from the press and then from the lives of the rest of us who are not directly affected nor courageous enough to be activists.

Still I feel a few points are worth commenting on. First of all the judgement three days ago is merely the foregone conclusion of a trial for criminal negligence whose maximum sentence was two years. So the judgement can hardly be termed a "disappointment", given that this maximum sentence was handed out to all the accused. Now the reason for this low maximum sentence appears to be a 1996 decision of the Supreme Court that this case involved criminal negligence and not culpable homicide. This decision was based on their understanding of the law and without being a legal expert, I don't know how I can question it. Note that they did not "reduce the sentence" as is implied in current discussions, but merely stated what are -- and are not -- the valid charges.

The key question in this case, which no one seems to be asking, is why is two years the maximum sentence for criminal negligence? (when 7 years is the maximum penalty for eve-teasing!). It seems that the courts may be taking the rap for a failure by the law-makers. Other failures by the law-makers are of course quite visible in this case. Warren Anderson's quick repatriation in 1984 seems an obvious case of collusion and strongly suggests the Indian government at that time was anxious not to displease the US government, while the latter was anxious not to have its corporate honcho in a foreign (or domestic) jail whatever he might have done. The recent judgement eloquently blames "the synergy of the very worst of American and Indian cultures" and I couldn't agree more.

But all the talk today is about punishment. Despite its valuable role as a deterrent for the future, what possible benefit can punishment bring to victims who have lost their dear ones and their own health? Focusing excessively on this, it seems to me, results in a loss of focus on the one thing that even at this stage can help the sufferers: compensation. This issue was fundamentally lost over a decade ago when in 1989 the Indian government settled for a mere 470 million dollars in compensation from Union Carbide (compared with 350 million that Union Carbide offered on their own, and 3 billion that the Indian government claimed in its lawsuit). Why did they accept such a compromise? I don't know, but one can hardly blame the courts for it. What can be done today? Again I don't know, but baying for the offenders heads seems to be a distraction from this key issue.

There's one more relevant matter that's getting a minor fraction of the press coverage: cleaning up the site, from which contaminants are still leaking into the soil of Bhopal. Let's hope today's governments in both countries are stung by the judge's remark about "the worst of American and Indian cultures" and will effectively rehabilitate the site.

1 comment:

vbalki said...

From recent newspaper reports, it appears that various US agencies were gathering detailed data on the aftermath at Bhopal. (Perhaps they are still doing so.) One gets the feeling that, while India slumbers on blissfully with regard to Bhopal, the US (and maybe other countries) have been monitoring and studying Bhopal's aftermath as a gigantic, fortuitous, live experiment in chemical warfare.