The reconstituted Group of Ministers (GoM) on Bhopal, which was asked by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to report back to the Cabinet by June 24, will meet on Friday and again on Saturday with the object of wrapping up its work as expeditiously as possible, government sources said.
According to NGOs which have been tracking the gas leak case through the years, successive GoMs on Bhopal have met just 17 times in the last 19 years since 1991.
Given the new sense of urgency in the government, with Opposition parties still in attack mode, Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni told journalists that the GoM, which would meet for two hours on Friday afternoon, would focus on “reaching out to those people who unfortunately have not got adequate compensation.”
Government sources said this additional compensation would be paid through a centrally empowered body, such as an empowered commission suggested by the previous GoM, which proposal was, however, was rejected by the Madhya Pradesh government.
Apart from the human aspect, the GoM will look closely at the legal aspects — sources said the members would examine the possibility of a curative petition to see whether the criminal negligence charge could be changed back to culpable homicide not amounting to murder (the Section originally used by the Central Bureau of Investigation, which was later downgraded by the Supreme Court) so that the punishment could be enhanced from two to 10 years.
The sources added that the GoM would see whether Dow Chemicals could be fought through the courts.
The Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers, which was fighting the case against Dow in the High Court in Jabalpur, was seeking a deposit of Rs.100 crore as initial corpus to pay for the sanitisation of the defunct Carbide plant and its environs.
If the Ministry won the case, it would help to settle liability issues relating to Dow.
The GoM is also expected to discuss the possibility of stand-alone legislation for man-made disasters, something that Union Law Minister M. Veerappa Moily — and a member of the GoM — has already been talking about.
It will suggest the creation of a mechanism to identify not just the original victims but also those belonging to the next generation and those affected by exposure to the toxic gas so that they can also be compensated.
The background note, prepared by the Department of Chemicals and Petrochemicals, says that 11,820 claimants (as of September 2009) are yet to receive the original compensation. Till October 2009, Rs.3,058 crore had been paid to 5,74,372 claimants.
A significant aspect of the current effort, the government sources point out, is that Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh is a member of the GoM; in the last GoM, the Ministry went unrepresented.
It will clearly have to play a key role in the remediation and decontamination exercise in Bhopal, apart from ensuring that the regulatory machinery in other chemical plants is tightened.