Sunday, June 20, 2010

A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma

Two articles on the Bhopal tragedy attracted my attention.  One is the article titled "Bhopal’s many betrayals" by Salil Tripathi (Mint, June 9, 2010).

Some excerpts from the article -
The betrayal of Bhopalis is older: It began when nobody warned the city’s poor not to live so close to a chemical plant.

The people of Bhopal were betrayed by factory inspectors who were lackadaisical in checking the plant’s maintenance, which permitted a culture where safety was nobody’s priority.

And then, on that night in December 1984, when political parties were busy fighting elections, the gas escaped from the plant, silently killing more than 2,000 people within hours

Those who survived were betrayed again by their own government, which argued their case poorly while pursuing it in the US. .... Judge J.F. Keenan was swayed by the company’s arguments, and he sent the case to India ... saying he was “firmly convinced that the Indian legal system is in a far better position than the American courts to determine the cause of the tragic event and thereby fix liability. Further, the Indian courts have greater access to all the information needed to arrive at the amount of the compensation to be awarded the victims”.

Right—and that compensation turned out to be Rs74,000 per death, and Rs26,500 per case of personal injury. For, back in India, while the government sued for some $3.5 billion in damages, it then settled for $470 million. The Supreme Court approved the deal, quashing all proceedings.

On Monday, Union Carbide was fined: $11,000. Indra Sinha, who has campaigned for Bhopal victims, and whose novel about Bhopal, Animal’s People, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2007, calculates that at 55 cents per death. Sometimes life is that cheap.
Warren Anderson, former chairman of Union Carbide was arrested when he came to India in December 1984.  He was granted bail and he left the country, never to return. Why and how he left the country has remained a mystery.

B.S. Raghavan in his excellent short article titled "A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma" (Business Line, June 14, 2010) throws some light on how Warren Anderson escaped from India (or escorted out of India, depending upon how one views the incident).  

Some excerpts from the article -
Adil Shahriyar, the son of Muhammad Yunus, who was almost a part of the Indira Gandhi family, and a mentor of both Rajiv Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi, was tried in a US District Court by a jury, and convicted on an indictment of five counts ( including trying to blow up a ship, illegal possession of firearms and carrying them across State borders and drug trafficking) and sentenced in 1982 to 35 years hard labour in prison.

He appealed to the 11th Circuit US Court of Appeals which rejected the appeal on November 21, 1983 saying, “We find that the evidence presented at trial was sufficient to support the verdicts and therefore affirm the district court's (judgment).”

When Rajiv Gandhi became the Prime Minister, it is not far-fetched to believe that he must have come under relentless pressure from Yunus to make the release of Adil from US jail his topmost priority, even if it be by using his position and broaching the matter directly to President Ronald Reagan.

It was just at that time — December 3, 1984 — the Bhopal tragedy shook the world. If Rajiv Gandhi's appeal to Reagan on Yunus' behalf were to succeed, it was imperative to make a gesture that would somehow make President Reagan deal with Rajiv Gandhi's request favourably.

Hey, presto! Warren Anderson is given VIP treatment and allowed to fly out of the country on December 7, 1984 and Adil Shahriyar is granted presidential pardon “as a goodwill gesture” and “for reasons of state” on June 11, 1985.

It certainly was a good bargain to exchange a convict undergoing a 35-year sentence for heinous offences in the US for an American corporate honcho, in order to oblige a long-time family friend.
And so that's how Warren Anderson escapes from India.  The Indian media suddenly woke up after the judgement.  Nani Palkhivala who was engaged by Union Carbide and who said it was gratuitous and slanderous to call the Indian legal system “deficient or inadequate” and who argued that the Indian system was capable of dealing with such a complex case, is dead.  So is Rajiv Gandhi who let Warren Anderson go.  Ronald Reagon who gave presidential pardon to Adil Shahriyar “as a goodwill gesture” and “for reasons of state” on June 11, 1985 is also dead.  Warren Anderson is too old to stand trial and in any case what purpose would it serve anyway after all these years of apathy.

Thousands died due to the tragedy and several hundred thousands were affected with ailments and died a multiple deaths day after day.  Life in India, is cheap, and to quote Indra Sinha it is 55 cents per death.. Other than shedding a few tears of sorrow and praying for the departed souls to rest in peace, we can't unfortunately do anything ...