Activists and groups representing victims of the 1984 Bhopal gas leak tragedy are asking if the government is letting the Dow Chemicals off the hook by deciding to pay for the clean-up of the contaminated site.

While they welcome the recommendation of the Group of Ministers (GoM) on Sunday to finally clean up the million tonnes of toxic waste a quarter of a century after the disaster, they are asking why it is the taxpayer left paying the bill, instead of the company which bought Union Carbide in 1991.

“The Dow Chemical is liable for clean-up and damage payment consequent on contamination on the principle of successor liability,” said an open letter jointly written by seven victims groups to the GoM chairman. It pointed out that the government already filed an application before the M.P. High Court seeking Rs 100 crore as an advance for clean up, in line with the Law Ministry's official position that the Dow Chemicals has inherited Union Carbide's environmental liabilities in Bhopal.

While Saturday's meeting of the GoM decided to vigorously pursue that case, it also saw a discussion regarding ambiguity over the ownership of the Bhopal site. However, the victims' letter insisted that such issues were not material, as the Dow Chemical's liability was based on the “polluter pays” principle.

“The GoM is skirting the issue of the Dow's liability,” said Gopal Krishna of the NGO Toxics Watch.

Sunita Narain, of the Centre for Science and Environment agreed. “I am not saying that they should link the decontamination to the question of who pays for it, but they must deal with it,” she said. “Otherwise, it will be as bad as letting Anderson go.”

The victims' groups felt that “it would be seen as an even bigger crime because the Dow Chemical's evasion of liability is continuing to harm people and causing damage to the unborn.”

Timing linked to India-U.S. CEO Forum?

They also questioned the timing of the GoM's report. While the GoM was given ten days until June 24 to complete its task, its chairman P. Chidambaram announced that it would submit its report three days early.

“The timing of GoM's impending statement, a day ahead of the meeting of the influential U.S.-India CEO Forum in Washington D.C., has added to the sense of unease among survivors organisations,” said a statement by victims' groups.

The Forum, which will be attended by prominent Indian industrialists and addressed by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, begins on June 22. Previous meetings have been used as a lobbying platform by the Dow Chemicals.

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