Was Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh right when, holding the toxic waste at the Union Carbide/Dow Chemicals’ factory in Bhopal, he made light of the problem, saying: “I held the toxic waste in my hand… I’m still alive and am not coughing?” Is the state government in Bhopal right when it cites a series of reports, including one from the Defence Research and Development Establishment (DRDE) in Gwalior, to say that the level of toxicity is less than that of table salt? Or is the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) right when it takes soil and water samples and says the toxicity in even areas far away from the site is way above permissible levels, a sign that the toxicity has seeped into the groundwater?
Scientists will differ in their interpretation, and argue about the difference between acute toxicity and chronic toxicity. But anyone visiting Bhopal can see the havoc created among lakhs of people. Ironically, a report released by the state government recognised the significantly higher level of morbidity in even those born after the disaster 25 years ago. It said that while this was not due to the gas leak, a separate investigation was called for to understand the reason behind this. It is here that, more than Union Carbide (or Dow, which bought it out), the government is guilty of criminal apathy. There is, of course, the issue of whether Dow should pay for the cleaning up of Bhopal and of how, while it has set aside $2.2 billion to deal with potential lawsuits against Carbide’s asbestos production, it refuses to recognise any liability for Bhopal. It is also true that, while the original settlement by the government with Carbide in 1989 fixed the number of dead at 3,000 and the number of gas-affected at 105,000, the number today is 20,000 dead and around 570,000 affected. In other words, the compensation is hopelessly inadequate. If one assumes that Dow will continue to insist that it has no liability, isn’t it the government’s job to provide medical facilities and compensate victims, and worry separately about whether it can recover the money from Dow/Carbide? Far from doing any such thing, the government has, in fact, distributed just around half the compensation and the interest that has accrued upon it. Indeed, the government stopped all epidemiological studies way back in 1994. According to CSE, when the Prime Minister’s Office wanted long-term medical research on the survivors in 2006, the Indian Council of Medical Research was reluctant to do this with the Rs 1.23 crore that the state government wanted to pay, and the project has languished.
The story on cleaning up the toxic waste is no better since the waste remains where it was, slowly leaching into the soil. The government wanted Dow to deposit Rs 100 crore — in May 2005, it moved the court urging it to direct Dow to deposit the money. But even if the clean-up costs Rs 1,000 crore, as one Greenpeace estimate suggests, the government has the obligation to clean up, and collect or not collect from Dow later.