Saturday, June 19, 2010

Bhopal, BP, Cobalt-60: Will there be Enough Magic in this Toxic Confluence to Kill the Nuclear Bill?

The news that the Obama administration has gotten BP to pay $20 billion into an independently administered fund charged with compensating victims of the Gulf oil spill has gotten mixed reactions in the US. Many give Obama credit for wresting such a big "down payment" from BP, while others emphasize the fact that BP could--and may have to--pay much more in the long run.  And some are actually outraged because they think BP has been treated unfairly; this blogger has posted a clip of a US representative apologizing to BP for what he calls an illegal "shake down." This be-nice-to corporations approach may seem hard believe, until you read that the representative in question has received very, very large campaign contributions from BP and other oil and natural gas companies involved in the Deepwater disaster.  (He later woke up to political reality and took it all back.)

There is room to be critical of the BP-Obama agreement, but the plan does accomplish some important things: BP has had to put on hold plans to pay out dividends to shareholders this year, and many of the victims of the disaster will receive substantial relief without having to wait  years for a court settlement. Importantly, the agreement does not preclude the imposition of further fines or settlements against BP.

Now contrast this to India's approach to disaster management.  As we argued here last week, for many years that approach has been concerned, first and foremost, with sending an "appropriate signal" to foreign investors.  As we all know by now, Bhopal is the clearest example of this. After 26 years, very little has happened: the original settlement against Union Carbide was completely inadequate;people thus far tried for their role in the disaster have received ridiculously small sentences; and successive governments have failed to extradite Warren Anderson in large part because the signal they sent to the US were that extradition was not a priority

Oh, and one more small detail: the disaster at Bhopal continues, thanks to left over toxins at the old Union Carbide plant that neither Dow/Union Carbide nor the GOI have bothered to clean up. (For more on this story, read this piece in the Economic Times.)

Though it's taken a very long time, it is good to see the Bhopal issue getting some of the attention it should have gotten years ago. In fact there are new and important revelations being made every day.  And The Hindu reports that, after doing nothing for a very long time, the Bhopal Group of Ministers is actually meeting over the weekend.  The article states that "the mood at the meeting, sources said, was that something should be done, and done quickly.” It is hard to resist the temptation to make fun of this sudden change in "mood," but I'm going to sit on my hands and do so.  Instead I'll make three short, serious points:
  1. Anything good that comes out of all this will be thanks to political pressure made possible by the insulting nature of last week's Bhopal verdict and the many organizations, both here and abroad, who have been working on this issue for years. The government is only acting because it feels it has to; otherwise it would have done so years ago. 
  2. Congress/UPA governments and leaders deserve a large share of blame for this fiasco over the last quarter century; and their responsibility goes far beyond letting Warren Anderson escape in 1984. (In fairness, the BJP should be careful about what they say until they can explain why they did little or nothing to take care of this problem when they were in office.)
  3. This is not a problem without a solution! A broad coalition of groups working on this issue has put together a remarkably sensible and clear "Roadmap for Justice and Dignity."  Let's hope the Group of Ministers take heed of these demands.
It is eerie the way the uproar around the Bhopal verdict, the BP oil disaster, and the radioactive Cobalt-60 incident in Mayapuri have all happened so close together.  One speaker at last week's No More Bhopals rally in Delhi called this coincidence of toxic events, "magic."  And maybe it is magic: if nothing else, all these events are making it more difficult for the government to justify its be-nice-to-foreign-companies-even-if-they-cause-disasters attitude!

Last week, for example, the government withdrew an amendment to the Nuclear Liability Bill which would have further weakened the already ridiculously weak bill.  The revised bill wold have offered further protection to US nuclear equipment suppliers from liability in the case of a nuclear incident that “has resulted from the wilful act or gross negligence on the part of the supplier of the material, equipment, or his employee.” It's just a bit difficult to justify that kind of language, given the current climate, no matter what message you want to send to corporations!

But let's not forget the really stupid part of the Nuclear Liability Bill is its ridiculously low liability caps.The bill limits the overall amount of liability for each nuclear accident in India to about US $450 million or Rs 2100 crore.  This happens to be less than the courts awarded in the Bhopal disaster way back in 1989 But that's not all; the bill limits the liability of the private companies who would operate nuclear plants in India to mere 500 crores--(about $110 million). In the case of a big accident, the Government of India would generously make up the difference between the 500 crore that the responsible company would be liable to pay and the 2100 crore overall limit--a very nice gift to the operators of faulty nuclear power plants.

The government wants this Nuclear Liability Bill very badly; after all, it is part of the Nuclear Deal that UPA I was willing to risk a no-confidence vote over.  If I'm right, even if we kill it once it will return in a new form. And though the magic seems to be going our way this week, we're going to need more than magic to kill this bad bill!  Spread the word; let's stop it while we can!  Sign this online petition, if you haven't already. And while you are at it, sign this one from Greenpeace!

2 comments:

  1. I'm glad that India is waking up to the dangers of not making corporations accountable. This kind of pressure on the government would have been impossible in 1984. That's because of the media, bloggers, opinion sites, and the Internet generally.

    Everything has to start somewhere and I'm glad to see the reactions from civil society regarding Bhopal and BP. In a connected world, news travels fast and people begin asking "If they can do it, why can't we?". Again, in 1984, people had no idea what the US was upto generally. Now with twitter, facebook, and bloggers, we know every single detail.

    I have great hope in our future. Things are moving. This are starting. And most importantly, attitudes are changing. The world has really become smaller.

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  2. @Bhagwad: It is good to see progress. Though as I posted this, I saw another, less heartening perspective here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2010/jun/19/naomi-klein-gulf-oil-spill Naomi Klein suggests the BP oil spill may be much worse than we can even imagine. But as you say, it's harder to hide than it was, which is good.

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What do you think?