Monday, November 29, 1999

GoM agenda: Healing touch, pressure points

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Seeking to zero down on the right healing touch to rectify the political damage from the 26-year-old Bhopal gas tragedy, the Group of Ministers (GoM) set up by the PM will look afresh at remediation measures as well as the complexities of giving additional compensation to victims. This also raises the legal issue of whether Dow Chemicals can be made to pay for the added reimbursements.Significantly, a background paper on the subject prepared by the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers for the GoM, which meets on Friday, also notes the role of the Narendra Modi government. It talks of Gujarat denying permission to dispose of 350 MT of toxic waste from the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal at the Bharuch Enviro Infrastructure Ltd (BIEL) facility at Ankleshwar, after giving a "no objection" in January 2007. Gujarat cited opposition from NGOs and Ankleshwar residents to deny the permission.Sources said the issue of doling out extra compensation - along the lines of compensation to victims of anti-Sikh riots - will not be as simple since the government would not like to be seen as footing the bill for Dow Chemicals, which now owns Union Carbide. Particularly when the BJP and Left have already charged it with trying to dilute culpability of foreign suppliers in case of a nuclear accident in the civil nuclear liability Bill.Sources said that one of the options before the GoM - headed by Union Home Minister P Chidambaram and including eight other ministers - would be to let Dow liability be decided by courts. The Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers has pointed out that it is already fighting a case against Dow Chemicals in the Madhya Pradesh High Court where it is seeking a deposit of Rs 100 crore as initial corpus to address environmental remediation due to the Bhopal gas leak. The ministry view is that a favourable verdict would clearly settle such liability issues relating to Dow.Another issue before the GoM, sources said, would be proper identification of not just direct victims but also those belonging to the second generation who were affected by the exposure to toxic gas, so that final compensation could be paid to them. According to the background note, there are 11,820 absentee claimants as of September 2009 who are yet to receive the original compensation. The actual compensation awarded till October 2009 was Rs 3,058 crore to 5,74,372 claimants.Sources said the GoM will also have to ensure that the political credit for the additional compensation, if decided, is not taken by others. To this end, the GoM will look into whether the compensation can be awarded by an empowered committee constituted by the Centre or whether the state government, which is now under the BJP, be allowed to disburse the funds - with a Central monitoring panel overseeing it.Sources said that environmental remediation would be addressed by the GoM, including recharging of the contaminated site. The issue of disposal of the toxic waste is likely to be addressed soon, they said, with the commissioning of additional incinerators at the Treatment, Storage and Disposal facility (TSDF) at Pithampur near Indore, where 40 MT of lime sludge from the Bhopal factory was disposed of in June 2008.While the issue of extradition of former Union Carbide chief Warren Anderson could be discussed by the GoM, the sources were not certain if it would be taken up formally as an agenda item by the committee.

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