Bhopal Gas Files: Politics became toxic as lobbyists ran amok in the Rajiv Gandhi Government

It will be 33 years in December since the deadly Bhopal gas leak from the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) but the victims are still awaiting justice.

Published: 27th August 2017 07:09 AM  |   Last Updated: 27th August 2017 07:38 AM   |  A+A-

Then PM Rajiv Gandhi visiting Bhopal Gas Leak victims in hospital

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 awaiting justice. Seventeen files containing voluminous secret documents from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), exclusively accessed by The Sunday Standard, reveal a story of greed and power games—a panicked Central government, a colluding state government, powerful private lobbies and mysterious projects, ambulance chasers and conflicting scientists.

Last week, a court dismissed a petition filed by two former top government officials, to quash the case against them for helping Warren Anderson, the prime accused in the December 2-3, 1984 Bhopal gas leak case, escape.

Lobby Pressure on PMO Was Intense: A year after the gas leak generated a wave of public anger against UCC, the chemical 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.

A child victim of the gas tragedy being buried in Bhopal

Burgher carried a message from Kissinger to Prime Minister Gandhi and enquired from his adviser L K 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 note said: “After consulting the Prime Minister 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 because the judge too favours it. If the government of India turns down the very idea of a negotiated settlement, Union Carbide 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 that 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 are handwritten six-page notes, which said, “HAK (Kissinger) ready to work with Indian representative. Settlement would be administered by the Indian government. Amount reasonable in eyes of US attorneys and fair in eyes of US judge.”

The Mysterious Project Alpha

Of all the details of various lobbies working for Union Carbide to contain the fallout of the Bhopal gas tragedy in the PMO files, most intriguing is telex message S No. 26 INND CO UDNX 1QS dated May 14, 1986, to Prime Minister Gandhi from his Greenwich-based uncle Ajit Hutheesing. The message is reproduced as it is here:

TDBN GREENWICH CT 1Q4/94 6 11 30
Prime Minister
Parliament House
Sub: Project Alpha

Disappointed at no follow up to our most fruitful meeting which you so promptly arranged STOP believe is should have early with Parasaran’s US agent which essential since developments here are disturbing STOP following my full understanding of present status I would send my recommendation on procedure and preliminary transaction structure STOP My personal interest is solely to serve you actively and hopefully successfully STOP time is of the essence STOP I await (Attorney General) Parasaran’s telephone call thanks for warm hospitality. AJIT HUTHEESING

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 anti-Congress 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 regarding 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 cyanide 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 attend 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.

 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 government-owned 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.

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