Pol­i­tics be­came toxic as lob­by­ists ran amok in Ra­jiv govt, re­veal PMO files

Sunday Express - - FRONT PAGE - YATISH YADAV @New Delhi

IT will be 33 years in De­cem­ber since the deadly Bhopal gas leak from the Union Car­bide Cor­po­ra­tion (UCC) of­fi­cially claimed over 3,000 lives and in­jured over five lakh, but the vic­tims are still await jus­tice. Seven­teen files con­tain­ing se­cret doc­u­ments from the Prime Min­is­ter’s Of­fice (PMO), ex­clu­sively ac­cessed by Ex­press, re­veal a story of greed and power games — a pan­icked Cen­tre, a col­lud­ing State, pow­er­ful pri­vate lob­bies and mys­te­ri­ous projects, am­bu­lance chasers and con­flict­ing sci­en­tists. Last week, a court dis­missed a pe­ti­tion by two for­mer top gover nment of­fi­cials, to quash the case against them for help­ing War­ren An­der­son, the prime ac­cused in the Dec 2-3, 1984 Bhopal gas leak case, es­cape.

A year af­ter the gas leak gen­er­ated a wave of public anger against UCC, the con­glom­er­ate hired in­flu­en­tial lob­by­ist Henry Kissinger to per­suade the Ra­jiv Gandhi gov­ern­ment to come to a set­tle­ment; the doc­u­ments re­veal that sym­pa­thy in Amer­ica for the vic­tims was high.

Kissinger used an em­ployee of his lobby firm, for­mer state de­part­ment of­fi­cial Ea­gle Burgher, to approach the In­dian gov­ern­ment. Burgher car­ried a mes­sage from Kissinger to PM Gandhi and en­quired his ad­viser LK Jha about the most ap­pro­pri­ate chan­nel to approach the PM ei­ther in the US or in the UK. And, they fi­nally agreed to use the In­dian High Com­mis­sion in Lon­don as a base. LK Jha’s note said: “Af­ter con­sult­ing the PM I in­formed Burgher that as I was go­ing to Cam­bridge, I could be con­tacted by him at the res­i­dence of In­dia’s High Com­mis­sioner in Lon­don.” Burgher, car­ry­ing the mes­sage from Kissinger, met Jha on De­cem­ber 7, 1985. UCC was con­scious that the US judge was in favour of a speedy set­tle­ment.

The pa­pers say, “Mr War­ren An­der­son is anx­ious for as gen­er­ous a set­tle­ment as pos­si­ble on an am­i­ca­ble ba­sis. Such a set­tle­ment is de­sir­able... If the gov­ern­ment of In­dia turns down the very idea of a ne­go­ti­ated set­tle­ment, UCC could try to set­tle sep­a­rately with some other claimants or ar­gue with good hope of suc­cess that the case should be tried in In­dia, which would deny re­lief to the re­ally needy for a long time.”

This sug­gests UCC be­lieved it could buy time since tri­als in In­dia in­vari­ably take time. The note by Jha was also copied to Ad­di­tional Sec­re­tary, PMO, and recorded in di­ary No. 3799 dated 18/12/ 1985. The en­clo­sures, hand­writ­ten notes, said, “HAK (Kissinger) ready to work with In­dian rep­re­sen­ta­tive. Set­tle­ment would be ad­min­is­tered by In­dian gov­ern­ment. Amount rea­son­able in eyes of US at­tor­neys and fair in eyes of US judge.”

MONEY POWER UN­LEASHED

Union Car­bide Cor­po­ra­tion (UCC) let loose its con­sid­er­able fi­nan­cial and lobby clout to con­tain the mat­ter. The gov­ern­ment was also aware of the po­lit­i­cal cost of the tragedy in re­li­gious terms. A note from PMO Joint Sec­re­tary Ra­jesh­wari Tan­don said, “It seems that Union Car­bide has per­sis­tently re­sorted to money power and pres­sures to dis­tort re­al­i­ties of the tragedy and to ob­struct re­lief work to the detri­ment of ail­ing per­sons. The ma­jor­ity of vic­tims be­long to a mi­nor­ity com­mu­nity, which has given rise to the al­le­ga­tions of cal­lous at­ti­tude of Mad­hya Pradesh Ad­min­is­tra­tion. It would also seem that it is the ob­jec­tive of Union Car­bide to safe­guard its high stakes at any cost, and the fu­ture of all pes­ti­cide/her­bi­cide/phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals multi-na­tion­als who are covertly be­hind Union Car­bide in this mat­ter. Their ma­nip­u­la­tions/ac­tual work­ing needs to be closely mon­i­tored.” A mes­sage from Ra­jiv’s Green­wich-based un­cle Ajit Hutheesing ( see

box) showed the ex­tent to which UCC was will­ing to go to pro­tect its in­ter­ests since its chair­man, War­ren An­der­son, was al­lowed to leave In­dia al­most 100 hours af­ter the toxic leaks.

HIS CAR­BIDE’S VOICE

US-based Arthur D Lit­tle Inc’s Se­nior Vice Pres­i­dent Ashok S Kalelkar’s note to Ra­jiv clearly showed bias. “I know and have had sev­eral in­ter­ac­tions with Mr War­ren An­der­son, Chair­man of Union Car­bide. I and my staff (sic) have vis­ited dozens of Union Car­bide fa­cil­i­ties and met with their plant per­son­nel and eval­u­ated their op­er­a­tions from a safety per­spec­tive. Fi­nally, I per­son­ally re­port our find­ings to Car­bide’s board. Through this in­ter­ac­tion with both the se­nior man­age­ment and the plant man­age­ment of Union Car­bide, I have formed the fol­low­ing per­sonal opinion: Union Car­bide is a de­cent and hon­ourable com­pany. From the top down it is a car­ing com­pany, which places safety con­cerns on even foot­ing with fi­nan­cial ones. The rep­u­ta­tion and staff morale of Union Car­bide con­tin­ues to be hurt by the lin­ger­ing Bhopal lit­i­ga­tion and with­out ex­cep­tion Mr An­der­son and his se­nior man­age­ment team are in­ter­ested in a rapid and fair set­tle­ment of Bhopal lit­i­ga­tion,” the let­ter dated Jan­uary 22, 1986, in File no. 17/2049/A/86-PMS Vol I said. In the let­ter, Kalelkar also re­minded Ra­jiv that he was his Doon School batch­mate and his fa­ther was ad­vi­sor to Indira Gandhi.

On Fe­bru­ary 3, 1986, Meera Shankar, then Deputy Sec­re­tary in the PMO, for­warded it to S Singh, Joint Sec­re­tary in the Ministry of Ex­ter­nal Af­fairs. Yet another in­ter­me­di­ary, Paul Sri­vas­tava, Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor, In­dus­trial Cri­sis In­sti­tute, New York, had held meet­ings with Han­sraj Bhard­waj, Min­is­ter of State for Law and Jus­tice, on be­half of Union Car­bide. He wrote to Bhard­waj on Novem­ber 14, 1986, “You may re­call our brief meet­ing in Au­gust 1986 with Ms Ma­bel Re­bello of Bhopal. Sub­se­quent to our meet­ing I dis­cussed the prob­lem of com­pen­sa­tion to Bhopal tragedy vic­tims with many po­lit­i­cal lead­ers and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials in In­dia. I have also dis­cussed it with top man­age­ment of Union Car­bide Cor­po­ra­tion and ob­servers here. I will be in Delhi from De­cem­ber 8, 1986, for three weeks. I will con­tact you on ar­riv­ing there. In the mean­time, if you need to con­tact me please do not hes­i­tate to call me at 673-95** or 598-22**. I look for­ward to meet­ing you soon.” The pa­pers do not say whether the sub­se­quent meet­ing hap­pened.

PR PANIC GRIPPED GOV­ERN­MENT

With the Congress gov­ern­ment in power when the gas leak hap­pened, the PMO scram­bled to be in image-man­age­ment mode. PMO file 17/2049 re­veals the gov­ern­ment was in favour of rop­ing in NGOs to take aim at the UCC’s in­hu­man con­duct and de­flect public at­ten­tion to the devel­op­ment work done by the Ar­jun Singh gov­ern­ment in Mad­hya Pradesh. The note said, “Po­lit­i­cally this is a sen­si­tive is­sue. An ef­fort will be made by an­tiCongress el­e­ments to show that the state gov­ern­ment has not done much for the gas vic­tims and is, in fact, in­sen­si­tive to their suf­fer­ings. The sug­ges­tion of the state gov­ern­ment to or­gan­ise sym­posia, sem­i­nars, etc un­der its own aegis is not sound. It will look like gov­ern­ment pro­pa­ganda. What we should do is to get vol­un­tary or­gan­i­sa­tions on our side to or­gan­ise sem­i­nars in which they should fo­cus at­ten­tion on the work that has been done by the gov­ern­ment and the work that re­mains to be done.” PMO wanted to pro­mote Ra­jiv’s role in find­ing a res­o­lu­tion.

“In the present at­mos­phere ev­ery­body is pre­pared to co­op­er­ate with the Prime Min­is­ter. We do not see any rea­son why in Mad­hya Pradesh we can­not win over a sub­stan­tial sec­tion of public opinion on our side,” it said.

The gov­ern­ment tried to build con­sen­sus with Left-led or­gan­i­sa­tions on the plan of ac­tion to save the face of the Congress gov­ern­ment in Mad­hya Pradesh. The World Peace Coun­cil wanted to hold an in­ter­na­tional sem­i­nar on a large scale in Bhopal. The PMO note stated, “The po­lit­i­cal point is that since the World Peace Coun­cil is Left front, we should make a sin­cere ef­fort to get non-Left vol­un­tary or­gan­i­sa­tions to also fo­cus on the guilt of Union Car­bide rather than train their guns on Mad­hya Pradesh gov­ern­ment.”

Sub­se­quently, another meet­ing chaired by the Cab­i­net Sec­re­tary stressed gen­er­at­ing more pos­i­tive publicity for the gov­ern­ment. A note dated 17/7/1985 ob­served, “The state gov­ern­ment’s ob­ser­va­tions re- gard­ing the re­lief and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion mea­sures taken by them are not yet pub­licly be­lieved to be ad­e­quate. They have now agreed to take mea­sures for this and also to sub­mit pe­ri­odic progress re­port to Cab­i­net Sec­re­tary.” PMO Ad­di­tional Sec­re­tary’s notes on the mar­gin said, “Why should there be so much gap be­tween what the gov­ern­ment has done and the public per­cep­tion; it is not quite clear.”

CAL­LOUS STATE

On June 17, 1985, al­most six months af­ter the disas­ter struck, Arvind Pande, Joint Sec­re­tary, PMO, wrote to Ra­jiv, say­ing “While the state gov­ern­ment has taken sev­eral mea­sures, it is clear that much more needs to be done. A full list of af­fected per­sons is not yet avail­able. Com­pen­sa­tion has not yet been paid to all the fam­i­lies of per­sons who died. Per­sons who were dis­abled or in­ca­pac­i­tated for em­ploy­ment have also not been fully cov­ered. Work on strength­en­ing the med­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture has only now be­gun.” In July 1985, the Cen­tre con­vened a meet­ing to take a stock of the sit­u­a­tion. Prime Min­is­ter Gandhi re­marked on the mar­gin of a note on July 21, 1985, that “we should send a mixed group to get the facts”. Sub­se­quently, the group headed by B J Heerji, Ad­di­tional Sec­re­tary, Ministry of Home Af­fairs, and other bu­reau­crats vis­ited the site in Bhopal. Their re­port to Ra­jiv pointed out sev­eral short­com­ings and con­ceded that even a de­tailed sur­vey of gas-af­fected vic­tims was not done. “The state gov­ern­ment has been hes­i­tant to draw up and im­ple­ment plans for such re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion partly be­cause of ex­pen­di­ture in­volved. Med­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties are still far from sat­is­fac­tory,” the re­port high­lighted.

Three decades later, things haven’t changed. Ear­lier in the month, vic­tims of the Bhopal gas tragedy were evicted from the Cen­tre-run Bhopal Me­mo­rial Hos­pi­tal and Re­search Cen­tre (BMHRC)—set up af­ter the disas­ter—and told to seek med­i­cal care out­side.

CU­RI­OUS CASE OF THE WRONG DOC­TOR

Congress stal­wart Digvi­jay Singh, then the party state pres­i­dent, wrote to Ra­jiv that many vic­tims could have died be­cause a gov­ern­ment doc­tor re­fused to ad­min­is­ter the right drug. It also ques­tioned how the doc­tor by­passed the Health Ministry to travel for a pri­vate sem­i­nar dis­cussing the ef­fects of Methyl Iso-Cy­nate (MIC) he used to treat the gas vic­tims. It was clear that at­tempts were made by UCC to con­fuse the med­i­cal is­sue. Sci­en­tists were di­vided over the chem­i­cal cause of the deaths. Union Car­bide had claimed that MIC was the cul­prit. Au­topsy re­sults and the opinion of a Ger­man tox­i­col­o­gist vol­un­teer hinted at hy­dro­gen cyanide poi­son­ing. It was proved that MIC, at a tem­per­a­ture of more than 200 de­grees Cel­sius, breaks up into hy­dro­gen cyanide mol­e­cules. Treat­ment for hy­dro­gen cyanide poi­son­ing is to ad­min­is­ter Sodium Thio­sul­phate (STS) in­jec­tions, which dis­solve the cya- nide el­e­ments while thio­cy­nate is passed out in urine. The Ger­man found STS im­proved the con­di­tion of af­fected per­sons. How­ever, a week later, Dr N P Mishra, Pro­fes­sor of Medicine, Gandhi Med­i­cal Col­lege in Bhopal, ad­vised against use of STS. Singh’s let­ter dated Au­gust 29 1985, al­most eight months af­ter the tragedy, said, “Some­how by 11.12.1984 it was de­cided that STS is not to be given to pa­tients.” Di­rec­tor of Health Ser­vices, MP, is­sued a cir­cu­lar to that ef­fect, cre­at­ing a di­vi­sion of opinion among doc­tors. Dr Heeresh Chan­dra, Pro­fes­sor of Tox­i­col­ogy and Medico-Le­gal ex­pert in MP who had con­ducted au­top­sies on vic­tims, headed one camp. Dr Mishra led the other. Dr Chan­dra strongly in­di­cated the pres­ence of hy­dro­gen cyanide af­ter the post-mortems and in­sisted on ad­min­is­ter­ing STS. Dr Mishra’s ad­vice was to ad­min­is­ter steroids and use bron­chodila­tors. This cost pre­cious time and caused more suf­fer­ing. “It took two months to de­cide that STS should be given and the ear­lier or­ders were with­drawn. But ac­tual ad­min­is­ter­ing of STS started in early March. Dou­ble blind test con­ducted by ICMR proved that the STS did es­tab­lish in­creased ex­cre­tion of uri­nary thio­cy­natein sub­jec­tive im­prove­ment and ob­jec­tive im­prove­ment in a good num­ber,” Digvi­jay’s let­ter noted.

Amid this con­tro­versy, Dr Mishra was al­lowed to visit the US to at­tend a sem­i­nar or­gan­ised by a pri­vate body, in spite of the strict in­struc­tions of Union Health Ministry. “On his re­turn, he again took the stand that STS was not nec­es­sary. Out of the 2,00,000 pop­u­la­tion af­fected, hardly 5 per cent pop­u­la­tion has taken STS,” Digvi­jay said. Later in April 1986, Dr Mishra se­cured another pri­vate in­vi­ta­tion to at- tend a sem­i­nar in Bal­ti­more. A rat­tled gov­ern­ment con­vened a com­mit­tee of sec­re­taries to de­cide whether Dr Mishra should be al­lowed to at­tend the sem­i­nar.

It was ob­vi­ous that pow­er­ful forces had been at work within the gov­ern­ment. The rec­om­men­da­tion of the com­mit­tee of sec­re­taries, which Cab­i­net Sec­re­tary had submitted to Prime Min­is­ter Gandhi, was against giv­ing Dr Mishra per­mis­sion to travel. The rea­sons given were le­gal. “Dr Mishra had met the judge in the USA who then also vis­ited lab­o­ra­to­ries in USA and the UK to dis­cuss with sci­en­tists there on med­i­cal ef­fects of MIC on hu­man sys­tem. There was feel­ing that his views may not be same as those as pre­sented in the Varadra­jan re­port be­fore the New York court. It was felt at this stage we should not en­cour­age any other view, which might cause prob­lems in the lit­i­ga­tion with the Union Car­bide. Once the case is over a more open sci­en­tific dis­cus­sion could be per­mit­ted on the var­i­ous as­pects.”

The com­mit­tee ques­tioned the mo­tive be­hind the in­vi­ta­tion.

FEAR OF DAM­AGE CLAIMS

The PMO doc­u­ments sug­gest that the Ra­jiv gov­ern­ment had lit­tle faith in the In­dian ju­di­cial sys­tem. It chose to file the law­suit against UCC in the US ap­pre­hend­ing that jus­tice in In­dia is likely to be de­layed. A PMO note said, “The com­plaint was filed in the US court as it was con­sid­ered to be the most ap­pro­pri­ate fo­rum for just, speedy and eq­ui­table res­o­lu­tion of all claims.” Af­ter the gas leak and An­der­son’s es­cape, PMO pa­pers also re­veal there was con­sid­er­able con­fu­sion in the Ra­jiv gov­ern­ment on the limit of the com­pen­sa­tion amount it sought from UCC. The ini­tial de­mand was for $1.5 bil­lion. It was not in favour of higher com­pen­sa­tion, fear­ing it would set a prece­dent for claims against gov­ern­men­towned com­pa­nies in case they got in­volved in sim­i­lar in­ci­dents.

“If we in­flate the claim too much it may be­come a prece­dent in fu­ture cases of sorts when In­dian public sec­tor com­pa­nies may them­selves be sued for fab­u­lous amounts quot­ing this is as prece­dent, ” At­tor­ney Gen­eral K Parasaran had ad­vised Ra­jiv.

An Act was passed in Par­lia­ment, which placed the re­spon­si­bil­ity on the gov­ern­ment to en­sure that claims aris­ing out of or con­nected with the Bhopal gas tragedy were dealt with on be­half of the vic­tims. There were back and forth ar­gu­ments within the le­gal cir­cles of the gov­ern­ment over the com­pen­sa­tion amount. Just months be­fore fil­ing the case, Parasaran handed over a note to Ra­jiv through Veeren­dra Patil, Min­is­ter of Chem­i­cal and Fer­tilis­ers. It is re­pro­duced here ad ver­ba­tim: “If by Amer­i­can stan­dard it is not a big amount and Union Car­bide de­posits the amount in the court with­out con­test­ing the suit in full set­tle­ment but only plead­ing that they do not ac­cept any neg­li­gence on their part, we may be in some dif­fi­culty. This may ei­ther give an im­pres­sion:

a) That we sued for a small amount and there­fore they de­posited the amount and so we failed in our duty in su­ing for a higher amount or it may give a wrong im­pres­sion that af­ter they have had a talk with us pri­vately to help them we had sued for a small amount.

b) On the other hand if we in­flate the claim too much, it may be­come a prece­dent in fu­ture cases of sorts when In­dian public sec­tor com­pa­nies may them­selves be sued for fab­u­lous amounts quot­ing this as prece­dent.”

Parasaran ar­gued af­ter es­ti­mat­ing the amount of com­pen­sa­tion for which the gov­ern­ment would sue the chem­i­cal gi­ant, the gov­ern­ment must cal­cu­late the amount, which will rep­re­sent dam­ages for rel­a­tives of the ca­su­al­ties and dam­ages for the in­jured. “While we can pay rea­son­able com­pen­sa­tion on a lib­eral scale to the vic­tims, we need not pay in­flated com­pen­sa­tion,” his note said.

Dam­ages sought dur­ing in­ter­nal dis­cus­sions among gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials were re­duced by over 50 per­cent to $500 mil­lion af­ter deal­ing with the US judge con­cerned with the case, while UCC was not will­ing to go above $400 mil­lion. Later, the In­dian gov­ern­ment sued UCC for more than $3.1 bil­lion in a Bhopal court.

In 1989, UCC in a out-of-court set­tle­ment paid out a to­tal com­pen­sa­tion of $470 mil­lion to the In­dian gov­ern­ment.

A child vic­tim of the gas tragedy be­ing buried in Bhopal

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