According to the sources in the government, in a major U-turn, the Union law ministry has submitted a note to the Group of Ministers headed by Home Minister P Chidambaram on the Bhopal gas tragedy, where it has, reportedly, recommended that the government of India should undertake the cleanup operation of the site of Union Carbide.
The earlier recommendation had been that Dow chemicals should undertake this as part of their responsibility after they had bought Union Carbide.
This is a major shift on the part of the government with the recommendation now on the lines that enough time has been wasted and the government should not wait for Dow Chemicals to cough up the money, but ensure the clean up immediately. This includes removing the toxic material, the sanitation, the water cleaning and all other aspects.
The GOM held a two hour-long meeting in the afternoon on Friday, with the group deciding to have two sessions on Saturday, similar sessions on Sunday and Monday, after which the report would be finalized and given to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to be discussed and then implemented by the Cabinet.
Union Home Minister P Chidambaram began the meeting by issuing a gag
order to the ministers. He said that the prime minister should receive the report from the GOM and not through the media, and asked all the ministers not to discuss the deliberations of the GOM in the press. It was virtually a diktat with very few ministers willing to discuss the issue with the media even off the record.
While the Friday meeting is being seen as an attempt to get an overview of the situation and list out the various areas where the government needs to focus on the four areas which were identified as compensation, remediation, lean up and the legal aspects
If the Congress sources are to be believed, the issue of then CEO of Union Carbide Warren Anderson's 'flee' was not discussed in the meeting.
The chemical secretary made a presentation on the existing facts while the law ministry also gave a note which dealt with the existing case in the Jabalpur high court, the question of who should do the clean up, the fact that the government should once again revisit the report which had been earlier submitted by the former attorney general as it would throw fresh light on what needs to be handled.
On the issue of relief and rehabilitation, some of the ministers like Union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad and Babul Al Gaur of Madhya Pradesh and others emphasized that rehabilitation should be the priority item of the GOM.
There was a suggestion that a commission should be set up to implement the rehabilitation of the victims, but a final call is yet to be taken up on it. The dispute over this is that since relief and rehabilitation is a state subject, the Centre may find its hands tied.
But a way out would be to have a representative of the state government on the commission just as Babulal Gaur, a Madhya Pradesh minister, who has been invited to the GOM.
Sources in the GOM said that since the Centre would be spending the money and preparing the entire blue print for the rehabilitation of the victims, they would certainly not want its credit to be taken by Bharatiya Janata Party led Mahdya Pradesh government.
The attempt would be to ensure that the political message goes loud and clear that it is the Centre that is working out the modalities of the package.
With the Madhya Pradesh government panel has demanded Rs 975 crores as compensation for the victims, sources said that the government would be
looking at this issue closely as announcing a compensation package is very much a part of the GOM's agenda.
Sources went on to say that politically, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance would be keen to send a signal of the party's sympathy and empathy for the victims, and this could mean enhancing the compensation package from the amount demanded by the state government, and probably doubling the figure so that the victims get a fairly tolerable sum of around Rs 10 lakhs for each person. This after an unbearable wait for 26 years.
A senior minister said that in the next three days that the GOM meets, "everything under the sun" would be discussed in connection with the Bhopal gas tragedy before the final report is submitted. The mandate
of the core committee which met on Thursday evening is that the GOM must look and act sharply, and every step should be well thought out to ensure that the opposition does not take advantage of the situation.