By Sanjay Jha
I think the Indian media is fast becoming like the good ole paunchy khaki-clad policemen in Bollywood films; they make their predictable appearance just as the hero finally pulverizes the villain into a tomato pulp to avenge the death of his dog or whatever. And then take the credit for the handcuffs with a smug smile . Let me elaborate.
The truth is that we are missing the woods for the trees all over again; seriously, what is getting Warren Andersen , the former CEO of Union Carbide Corporation in the December of his life ( almost 90 years, for heaven’s sake) into a criminal court case really going to achieve for us now ? Frankly nothing, other than the same pseudo-patriotic chest thumping we resort to in sporadic bursts to create unwarranted furor at periodic intervals . The gift of the gab also ensures the gift of the grab for TRP ratings when discussing such explosive material. Everyone happily joins the party , particularly the self-righteous Ravi Shankar Prasad of the BJP whose party has twiddled its thumbs and tickled its toes while seeking votes from the same unfortunate victims of the terrible tragedy in Bhopal. Sympathy vote, just got redefined. There is nothing more convenient to enhance viewership than to drag an assassinated former Prime Minister who personally cannot address the damning insinuations. The Congress party, tactlessly, forgets the “too many cooks spoil the broth” expression and creates an unwarranted scenario where everyone has their own personal “insight” to share. The BJP typically adds fuel to fire, blatantly politicizing what should have been a human rehabilitation story, into a manic witch-hunt. No one cares for what should be the real issue; what can and should we do now for the 15000 helpless people who died and several handicapped survivors suffering from permanent serious disablements ?
By the same common yardstick, why has the Indian media shown such a charitable disposition towards Mr Keshub Mahindra, for instance ? Just because he was a mere non-executive chairman? With the courts convicting him, should not issues of corporate governance have been the subject of late-night discussions as opposed to surreptitious trips to Long Island? Why are we not morally outraged that Mahindra ( now 85 years) is challenging the lenient court verdict despite the fact that he had a mammoth moral responsibility just like Andersen?
In fact, more than Andersen and Mahindra ( one was an overseas chief and the other an independent director) the focus should have ideally been on Vijay Gokhale who was the Managing Director and thus directly responsible for day to day operational performance of UCIL. Technically, the buck stops with Andersen for sure, but it pauses all the way to the top. For corporate crimes involving criminal negligence leading to human deaths there is rarely just one individual responsible, it is usually if not always a collective failure. Or at least a systemic one. In Bhopal’s case the catastrophic industrial malfunction was as a result of probably both.
The big question though remains unanswered ; in the light of Union Carbide and now BP oil spill , what we are doing to ensure that the liability clauses of the private sector oil companies and others in the energy sector operating in India and even PSUs ( although they will have a natural sovereign obligation despite equity dilutions) is being reassessed? Or are sufficient safeguards already built-in ? Or will be only react when the milk is spilt , sorry, or when the oil spills over? Like the silly cops in Rajneeti. I am glad though that the nuclear bill has been bought under a searching spotlight.
The fact is that if you have not experienced the event yourself , your views are bound to either myopic, self-serving , synthetic or plain jaundiced depending upon which side are you on. I believe the majority of media journalists were tiny toddlers in 1984 , barely five to ten years old and clinging to their mother’s apron strings when the deadly pernicious fumes leaked from the Union Carbide plant on the night of December 2nd-3rd 1984 in Bhopal.
I still remember how vulnerable we appeared as a nation in late 1984 ; the assault on the Golden Temple , the brutal killing of a popular national leader while in office , the Sikh killings that followed, and the advent of a young simple man at the helm who given a choice would have preferred the Indian Airlines cockpit to leading India’s elderly cabinet ministers in Parliament .Then Bhopal happened.
The US was at that time a vigorous manifestation of the powerful military-industrial-commercial complex that it inherently has been , leveraging its political clout for commercial gains as it looked for fresh markets . The IMF and World Bank was its multilateral tool for increasing its domestic leverage in susceptible Asian and Latin American economies needing short-term injections of investment . In short, US was the real money-bags Big Brother leaving Moscow , the ideological Orwellian -big bully far behind. Union Carbide in fact belonged to that era of ruthless American economic domination. Countries like India had limited elbow room to negotiate hard terms with these formidable transnational firms. They spoke the sharp language of monetary imperialism and we were considered mere “ lucky” Third World beneficiaries. Andersen’s departure must be seen from that perspective. Even if it was London and not Bhopal , he would have boarded a Concorde.
In the circumstances, the Rajiv Gandhi government did the best it could. Sure, it could have done better. But in hindsight, even I could have been a Sachin Tendulkar.