Byline By M J Akbar: Is peace on sale in Bhopal?
Here are answers to the questions you no longer have to ask. First: how long would deputy chairman of the planning commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia, protégé of the Prime Minister, ranking leader of the World Bank Alumni Association and senior advocate of multinational corporate interests, have taken to send Rs 983 crores to Union Carbide or Dow Chemicals if Bhopal’s workers had killed the plant, rather than the other way around? My guess is 983 seconds. Ahluwalia would have probably sent the funds by wire.
The Madhya Pradesh government made a request for Rs 983 crores as additional compensation for the rehabilitation of gas victims. Ahluwalia could not find the money in 2008. When, in 2010, public anger at 26 years of injustice – not from Carbide, or Dow Chemical, but from Indian courts and brazenly insensitive Delhi governments – reached a crescendo, Ahluwalia discovered the money in 983 seconds, and released it quietly, a few hours before the first meeting of that desperate vote-saving device called the Group of Ministers.
Why was there no money two years ago and why is there money today?
Money was never the problem; Ahluwalia and his masters simply did not care for the gas victims. They were far more worried about the health of Dow Chemical, which was threatening to teach India a lesson for not eliminating any hope for liability payment from the company that had bought Carbide. Gas victims do not participate in discussions between India and American industry. They can’t speak English, and don’t live in Lutyens bungalows, so how would they understand the exchange rate between Delhi and Wall Street?
Does the Union government have Rs 1000 crores lying around in petty cash, which an upwardly mobile bureaucrat can pick up whenever he chooses to? Or does the Planning Commission have a secret account for emergencies like a sudden outburst of public opinion?
Officially, no: all expenditures must go through due process and find a claim on the national budget. But there is lots of moolah available from diversion; if you can’t dip your hand into the holy Ganga, there is always a quiet tributary teeming with fish. Each year, many departments cannot actually spend their allocated money and therefore return unspent portions. The minorities ministry has been notorious for finding ways in which it can avoid expenditure. In any case, a Union government can always find money if it wants to.
Why did the Madhya Pradesh government wait 24 years before it asked for Rs 983 crores? Why not in the first 983 days? Or in the next thousand days? Why wait for over 8000 days?
The snail-pace of the system is the easy, but bogus, answer. Over the last quarter century, Congress and BJP have shared power in Madhya Pradesh for about an equal number of years. They have offered a range of Chief Ministers from the charismatic to the useful to the voluble to the forgettable. Irrespective of their comparative merits, each CM has been motivated by one primary desire, re-election. That is the basic propulsion machine of our democracy, as indeed of any other democracy. The great tragedy of Bhopal is that it never became a game-changer in electoral politics, either in India or in the state, and so politicians simply did not care enough about the consequences of their indifference or malice.
A decisive general election was held within four weeks of Bhopal, but the mood of the voter in 1984 was shaped by the martyrdom of Mrs Indira Gandhi and the youthful promise held out by Rajiv Gandhi. Congress won every seat in MP, and very nearly every seat in most of the country. Five years later, it was Bofors, to be followed by Mandal and Ram Mandir. Life moved on. Bhopal’s dead, as happens so often, became a vague memory, a cause limited to activists rather than national purpose. It has taken 26 years for Bhopal to enter the political narrative, which is why Opposition parties are reactivating their comatose limbs, and government is discovering money that it could not find for a quarter century.
Will Prime Minister Manmohan Singh hold Ahluwalia, or anyone else, accountable?
The UPA government and its fulcrum, the Congress, believes that this is only another passing storm, albeit one of unsuspected turbulence. They can see the storm becoming a gale, with a couple of tornados hidden within the chaos. They have probably allotted private codenames: Tornado Digvijay, Gale Rasgotra, Storm Narasimha, and perhaps even Irritating Disturbance Singhvi. Hurricane Arjun [Force 4] is still to break, although, if it follows traditional patterns, it will veer and dissipate before hitting landfall. By the summer of 2011, Congress hopes, Bhopal will return to that old backburner, and a general election will still be a thousand days away.
It must be praying that Rs 983 crores will buy at least 983 days of peace.