When a chambermaid of Sofitel Hotel in Manhattan complained of molestation against no less a person than Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former French finance minister, the then IMF managing director and a potential candidate in French politics to succeed Nicolas Sarkozy, the American legal system moved firmly and quickly to dislodge the latter from a waiting Air France flight, book him for the alleged misconduct and lodge him in the notorious Rikers Island jail, pending trial. Later, he was granted bail on a surety of a million dollars, subject to his remaining under house arrest. No influence peddling. No political interventions. This happened in USA in May, 2011.
Contrast this with what happened in the aftermath of the world’s worst industrial disaster on December 2-3, 1984 at Union Carbide’s pesticide factory at Bhopal when methyl isocyanate gas leaked from the plant, engulfed the densely populated areas adjacent to the city, killed more than 10,000 helpless people and disabled more than 5,50,000 permanently, depriving them of their livelihoods. The first information report filed on December 4, 1984 cited the CEO of the culprit company, Warren Anderson as the prime accused, along with eight other employees of the Indian subsidiary. Warren Anderson flew to India soon after the disaster, apparently on an assurance by someone influential that he would not be arrested. However, on arrival, sensing the mood of the people of Bhopal, the state government thought it fit, rightly so, to take him into custody to face the charges before the local court. An official press release, sounding quite candid, announced the arrest and the reasons for it.
What followed was intense diplomatic interaction between Washington and New Delhi. Delhi called the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh who in turn called the authorities concerned. The intention was apparently to find a way to release Anderson and allow him to get out of the country to escape the legal system in India. To subject a foreign CEO to any judicial process was considered unthinkable by those that ruled India at that time, as it is the case even today.
What followed thereafter was truly bizarre, in contrast to what happened now to Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Anderson was granted bail for a paltry sum of `25,000. A second official press release tersely announced that “he ( Anderson) has been released because he was not required here for the investigations in the case”. Not only that, he was given a state-owned aircraft to fly from Bhopal to Delhi to chat over tea with those who mattered. He was given a ceremonial send off at the airport to ‘flee’ the country and its judicial system.
What Anderson said at a press conference on December 10 at Danbury summed up the essence of India’s crony capitalism in its truest sense. He said: “I want to stress that we were treated with the utmost courtesy and consideration. The reason given for holding us in the guest house (at Bhopal) was concern over my security”.
While the CEO of the company was thus allowed to flee India, thousands were dying at Bhopal, and many more thousands were losing their sight, blinded by methyl isocyanate. The government failed to display the same kind of alacrity for the security of their lives, as they had displayed for the security of Anderson.
Warren Anderson was declared a ‘fugitive’ by the chief judicial magistrate of Bhopal on February 1, 1992, for failing to appear at the court hearings in a culpable homicide case in which he was named as the prime defendant. The same authority issued him an arrest warrant on July 31, 2009, once again, 25 years after the crime. The US government has apparently declined to extradite Anderson, citing lack of sufficient evidence.
Twenty seven years after the disaster, most of those affected are yet to receive relief. Those responsible for the disaster have got away with minor penalties. The prime defendant has remained ensconced beyond the reach of our legal system. Those that had earlier helped him flee the country have remained untouched and gained power in the political arena. Bhopal has become an occasional issue for political parties to spar with each other but only to score political brownie points. The promises made by successive governments to nail the accused and bring them to justice has remained hollow, as the will to pursue the case to its logical end was lacking. More than two decades after the tragedy, the government is struggling to appear atoning for its past sins. It filed a belated and half-hearted case to revive the matter in court. To dismantle the remnants of the killer plant seems to be the grandiose solution, as though it would provide any solace to the victims.
Union Carbide and its successors in India continue to receive the kind of treatment that Warren Anderson received in December, 1984. In 1999, when Dow Chemicals acquired Union Carbide, it was reluctant to inherit that company’s civil and criminal liabilities. The logic of post-1991 economic liberalisation in India was apparently based on the premise that corporates should be given the red carpet welcome and showered with whatever gifts they seek, irrespective of whether they respect the law or not. The officialdom at the highest level in Delhi has done exactly that for Dow Chemicals.
The infamous Bhopal case represents only the tip of the iceberg of India’s crony capitalism. When Enron swindled the US investors, its promoters were brought to book within months. In India, Enron had apparently ‘educated” Indian politicians, a euphemism for bribing them outright. Neither the government tried to nail Enron’s misdeeds nor bring to book those that received kickbacks. Instead of establishing the culpability of Enron and its successors and taking action against them, our leaders had till recently tried to shift the burden of their sins to the Indian taxpayer.
The way the American legal system has dealt with the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair should teach us a lesson or two in governance. Others will respect us, if we respect ourselves and respect our laws. However mighty and influential one may be, he or she cannot be placed above the law of the land.
E A S Sarma, a former Union power secretary, is currently based at Visakhapatnam.