Sunday, July 4, 2010

Bhopal: Lessons in governance

In a previous post "A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma" I had shared two articles on the subject of Bhopal.  Subsequently, I came across another interesting article "Bhopal: Lessons in governance" in Business Line (June 28, 2010) by Sri P.V. Indiresan, former Director of IIT, Madras.

Some interesting points from the article:
Do we prosecute Mr Patel, the Minister for Civil Aviation, for the disaster in Mangalore or Ms Mamata Banerjee, even though she has shown little concern for rail disasters?
If they can escape recrimination why do we single out Mr Anderson, that too after 25 years? Is he the culprit, or is it the government(s) that left matters drift for 25 years?
The solution to problems like Bhopal lies in taking away the control of the prosecution of offenders from the hands of ministers.
We need a different system of governance to deal with prosecution of the guilty. Sensitive departments should be overseen by all-party Parliamentary committees; appointments and transfers should be made professionally.
When matters of criminal prosecution are thrown open in this manner, decisions are more likely to be impartial.
Nobody has pointed out that the scale of the Bhopal disaster was a matter of geography; few, very few people would have died or suffered in case the plant had been in a village. It is possible that when the plant came up, it was at the outskirts of Bhopal.Unfortunately, the way it happens in all our cities, people were allowed, possibly even encouraged, to settle in large numbers around the plant.
Sri Indiresan concludes the article by giving 3 suggestions.
It appears that disasters of the type we had in Bhopal can be prevented only when we take three precautions:
  1. We should have a political system in which ministers cannot ride roughshod over bureaucrats;
  2. Our cities should not house dangerous industries and
  3. Once a risky plant is established no population should be allowed to settle within a close distance.
Unfortunately, I am not sure whether any of them can be implemented in India.  Let us look at the first suggestion that ministers should not ride roughshod over bureaucrats.  First of all, I don't think there is a need for so many ministries.  But we do have ministries because politicians have to be pleased.  Once we have a ministry, then we need to have bureaucrats!  Thus, it satisfies the need for babus to grow.  Once we have a babu, he/she needs people under him/her.  Thus, a governmental machinery is established.  Once it is there, they need to justify their existence and so some rules are regulations are framed.  At the end of the day, they have to live!

Our cities should not house dangerous industries and once a risky plant is established no population should be allowed to settle within a close distance says Sri Indiresan.  Both are very sensible suggestions.  But cities have grown.  What was once a factory located on the outskirts of the city, is now found right in the middle of the city, as the city has grown on all sides.  How do we ask / ensure that the factory is re-located outside?  Unions (and politicians) would jump into the fray as it means people working also have to go out.  Whenever I go the Mumbai Airport, I see so many buildings/slums nearby - it is such a terrible security risk - still we are unable to do anything.  As a country we only "react" to events - however deadly it is and then after making the ritualistic noise, we settle down to our routine (of not doing anything sensible).  Does anyone remember the terrorist attacks in Mumbai today?  We will remember them after the next attack!  That is the unfortunate price of a democracy.

An excellent article, as usual by Sri P.V. Indiresan.  But we can be sure, nothing will come out it.  Politicians and the media are talking about Bhopal only because they are not getting anything sensational at this point in time.  If we wait for a few more days - everyone would forget it.  Something sensational would come up and media would latch on the "new" news and everyone would forget Bhopal.  After all, as a country, did we not forget it for 25 years?