Cabinet okays recommendations of GoM on Bhopal Gas Tragedy

NetIndian News Network

New Delhi, June 24, 2010

The Union Cabinet today approved the recommendations of the Group of Ministers (GoM) constituted to examine all the issues related to the 1984 Bhopal Gas Tragedy, including an enhanced ex-gratia payment of Rs 10 lakh to the next of kin of each of those killed in the world's worst industrial disaster.

The GoM has also recommended increasing the ex-gratia payment for those suffered permanent disability to Rs 5 lakh, cancer cases to Rs 2 lakh, total renal failure cases to Rs 2 lakh and temporary disability cases to Rs 1 lakh, after adjustment of the compensation amount already received by the victims.

As a result of the decision, more than 45,000 victims who were affected most severely by the tragedy would receive additional ex-gratia payment.

The disaster was caused by the leak of methyl isocyanate gas from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal on the night of December 2-3, 1984.

The Cabinet also decided that additional material in support of the request for extradition of then Union Carbide Chairman Warren Anderson from the United States would be put together by the concerned agencies. The Ministry of External Affairs will thereafter press the request for extradition with the US Government.

An official press release said a curative petition would be filed in the Supreme Court for reconsideration of its judgment dated September 13, 1996 by which the charges under the graver sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) were quashed against the accused and the trial was confined to the offence under Section 304A.

It said a Revision Application will be filed in the High Court under Section 397 of Criminal Procedure Code (Cr. P.C.) against the judgement of the trial court for directing the trial court to refer the case under Section 323 of Cr.P.C. to the Sessions Court to try the case for offences under Sections 304 Part II, 324, 326 and 429 read with Section 35 IPC.

An appeal will be filed in the Sessions Court against the judgment of the trial court to correct the error in the sentences imposed on the accused under different Sections.  The errors pertain to the term of imprisonment (Section 338), the amount of fine (Section 304A), and the direction that the sentences shall run concurrently.

The Attorney General will examine whether a curative petition could be filed in the Supreme Court for reconsideration of the compensation amount earlier settled at $ 470 million.

Appropriate applications will be filed before the Courts concerned and request the Courts, especially the High Court, to expeditiously decide the question of liability of the Dow Chemicals Company and/ or any other successor to Union Carbide Corporation (UCC)/Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL).

The release said the Government of India would approach the Supreme Court to allow takeover of the Bhopal Memorial Hospital and Research Centre (BMHRC) by the Government through the Department of Biotechnology and the Department of Atomic Energy.  The Hospital should then be strengthened, upgraded and run as a super-specialty and research hospital, the GoM has recommended.

The release said the recommendations of the GoM would be implemented in a time-bound manner.

The GoM was reconstituted by the Government on May 26, with Union Home Minister P Chidambaram as its head, to examine all the issues relating to the gas leak, including remediation measures and make appropriate recommendations regarding relief and rehabilitation of the victims and their families.

 The GoM met over five sessions in four days from June 18 to 21 and discussed various issues relating to compensation, legal issues, extradition of Anderson, BMHRC, other health- related issues, environmental issues and the Plan of Action submitted by the Government of Madhya Pradesh.

As recommended by the GoM, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) will establish its 31st full-fldged Research Centre in Bhopal within 90 days.

The release said ICMR would  start conducting epidemiological studies and clinical research in areas identified by them, including following areas: respiratory diseases; eye related diseases; cancer; total renal failure; genetic disorders; congenital disorders; women-related medical issues; and second-generation children-related medical issues.

It said the reports of NEERI, NGRI and IICT will be subjected to a peer review by scientists jointly appointed by the Department of Science and Technology and the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

The Government of Madhya Pradesh will complete expeditiously the work relating to repairing/ re-erecting the compound wall around the UCIL premises to prevent entry and exit of unauthorized persons, children, and so on.

The State Government, which will have the responsibility of remediation actions, will  suitably empower the Department of Gas Tragedy, Relief and Rehabilitation, including granting enhanced financial powers and fixed tenure  for officers (at least up to 31.12.2012) so that the remediation and environmental cleanup is completed in a time-bound manner.

The release said an Oversight Committee will be established in the Ministry of Environment and Forests with representatives of the Ministries/Departments concerned of the Central and State Govrnments. The Union Minister for Environment will be the Chair and the Minister of Gas Relief, Madhya Pradesh, will be the co-chair.  Besides, NEERI, NGRI, IICT and CPCB may be associated in a suitable capacity.  The Oversight Committee will provide oversight and support to the Government of Madhya Pradesh in taking the necessary  remedial actions. Ministry of Environment and Forests will notify the Oversight Committee.

The release said the Central Government would bear the cost of remediation of approximately Rs 310 crore in the first instance. The Government will also take steps to claim restitution from the persons/companies found liable for the damage on the principle of "polluter pays".

The remediation works including disposal of the stored hazardous residues, dismantling the contaminated structure and remediation of the contamination of water and soil will be taken up and completed by 31.12.2012.  The Madhya Pradesh Government will arrange incineration of toxic wastes stored at UCIL plant site in the incinerator at Pithampur by 31.12.2010.

The release said the decision would result in the Centre providing a compensation package of Rs 650-700 crore, Rs 310 crore for environmental remediation and Rs 272.75 crore for medical, economic and social rehabilitation of the gas victims.

This will be in addition to Rs. 14.18 crore provided under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) for piped water supply scheme for 14 localities in and around UCIL plant site, Rs. 8.11 crore for renewal of basic infrastructure in the scrap market, Rs 721 crore for water supply augmentation and distribution network improvement covering the entire city of Bhopal, 7 projects costing about Rs. 1031 crore under JNNURM and Rs. 443 crore provided for the poor localities of Bhopal, by Ministry of Urban Development and Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation. Earlier, the Centre had approved an Action Plan for rehabilitation of gas victims which was implemented during 1990-99 with an outlay of Rs. 258 crore, the release added.

Last week, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had directed the GoM to meet immediately and submit its report to the Cabinet within 10 days as questions continued to be raised in the media and by the Opposition about the then Congress government's handling of the tragedy.

The GoM was originally set up during the first term of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government and was headed by Human Resource Minister Arjun Singh. It was meant to go into a range of issues, including the relief and rehabilitation of the victims and their families.

Apart from Mr Chidambaram, the other members of the GoM are Health and Family Welfare Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, Law and Justice Minister M Veerappa Moily, Urban Development Minister S Jaipal Reddy, Urban Employment and Poverty Alleviation Minister Kumari Selja, Fertilisers and Chemicals Minister M K Alagiri, Environment and Forests Minister Jairam Ramesh and Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office Prithviraj Chavan. Madhya Pradesh's minister in-charge of rehabilitation is a permanent invitee to the GoM.

More than 25 years after the tragedy, which claimed thousands of lives, seven of those accused in the case were convicted and sentenced to two years of imprisonmnent on June 7 in a verdict that attracted widespread criticism from social activists, political parties and survivors of the tragedy.

The seven persons convicted by Bhopal Chief Judicial Magistrate Mohan P Tiwari were then Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) Chairman Keshub Mahindra, then UCIL Managing Director Vijay Gokhale, then UCIL Vice-President Kishore Kamdar, then Works Manager J Mukund, Production Manager S P Chaudhury, Plant Superintendent K V Shetty, and Production Assistant S I Qureshi.

Apart from being sentenced to undergo two years of imprisonment with a fine of Rs 1 lakh under section 304A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC); three months of imprisonment and fine of Rs. 250 under section 336 IPC; six months of imprisonment with fine of Rs. 500 under section 337 IPC; and one year of imprisonment with a fine of Rs. 1000 under section 338 IPC.

The eighth convict, UCIL, has been fined with Rs. 5 lakhs under section 304 A IPC and Rs. 250, Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 respectively under sections 336, 337 and 338 IPC.

In all, a criminal case was registered against twelve accused persons/companies in the case.

The gas leak had not only killed thousands but also affected several thousand more, many of whom are suffering the effects of the exposure to the deadly gas till today.

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), in its chargesheet filed on December 1, 1997, said that, apart from proximate reasons, there were a number of design defects and other criminally negligent operational practices which resulted in the gas leak and that these were in the knowledge of the management and were deliberately ignored for commercial reasons.

Among those against whom the case was filed was Mr Andersen. The court had declared him as an absconder. A request for his extradition remains unexecuted and he never returned to face trial in India.

Among the questions being raised now are why Mr Anderson, who had come to Bhopal after the gas leak, had been allowed to leave Bhopal and then India by the then Congress governments in Madhya Pradesh and at the Centre.

This has led to much speculation about the role of Mr Arjun Singh, who was then the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, and the late Mr Rajiv Gandhi, who had then just taken over as Prime Minister barely a month ago after the assassination of his mother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984.

Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee said some days ago that Mr Arjun Singh had taken the decision to allow Mr Anderson to leave Bhopal due to law and order concerns in the aftermath of the disaster.