The Bhopal Story:

Corporate Genocide, Judicial Treachery, Appeasement of Imperialism

Kavita Krishnan

More than 25 years after the infamous Bhopal Gas Disaster, the verdict of a trial court in Bhopal is nothing but a cruel mockery of justice. With charges already diluted by the Supreme Court of India, the trial court verdict could only be a formal burial of justice. Not only does the verdict insult the victims of one of the world’s worst industrial disasters by letting off the mighty CEOs who were the chief perpetrators either scot-free or with a ridiculously light sentence, it amounts to an assurance to MNCs they will enjoy total impunity in India even when their negligence and violations of regulations leads to loss of thousands of Indian lives and injury to several thousand more.
In December 1984, 40 tonnes of Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) leaked out of the Union Carbide Corporation’s pesticide plant in Bhopal, exposing over 5,00,000 people to the toxic fumes. 25,000 people died as a result, and hundreds of thousands of persons suffered irreversible damages to their health. The poison in the soil and water continues to affect future generations. 
After over 25 years, the trial Court gave its verdict allowing the Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson (declared an absconder) to go scot-free, while convicting eight representatives of the Indian operatives Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) for a mere two years.    
The injustice of the Bhopal verdict is not just a comment on judicial betrayal of justice – it rings a warning bell that every Indian should heed. It warns us as to how the Indian establishment’s policy of pandering to the United States and its corporations (a policy of which the Civilian Nuclear Liability Bill is the latest example) is injurious to the health and safety of India’s people. The US establishment is fully aware of these implications: it has reacted to the Bhopal verdict by “hoping that the verdict will not affect” the growing ties between India and the US and the Nuclear Liability Bill in particular, and instead will provide “closure” for the victims of the tragedy. The US double standards – of seeking ‘closure’ in a case where a US corporation caused thousands of deaths while pursuing criminal charges against corporations responsible for American lives lost – are all too apparent!           
Facing flak over revelations of how the Congress Government of Madhya Pradesh in the wake of the Bhopal Gas Disaster helped Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson to flee India and evade justice, the Congress party and UPA Government are now in damage control mode. The UPA Government set up a GoM to look into remedies for Bhopal victims and it has come up with a range of recommendations. Meanwhile some sections of the Congress are seeking to blame Anderson’s escape on Arjun Singh who was then MP CM, and Pranab Mukherjee has instead sought to defend both Arjun Singh as well as the then Central Government headed by Rajiv Gandhi. None of these attempts, however, can conceal Congress’ culpability in the crime of shielding and exonerating Bhopal’s perpetrators.
Nor is Congress’ culpability restricted to spiriting Anderson away from justice. In a bid to protect Union Carbide, the MP Government in 1984-85 even banned treatment of the disaster victims by sodium thiosulphate, for fear that success of this treatment would establish that the poisonous Methyl Isocyanate had entered the bloodstream and result in heavier damages for Carbide. In other words, the Congress-led MP Government was callous enough to withhold the only effective treatment for the victims because for it protecting Carbide was more of a priority than saving lives!
More than 25 years later, nothing much has changed. Even today, the Congress-led UPA Government is busy shielding Union Carbide and its successor Dow Chemicals while shedding crocodile tears for the victims of these companies, denied justice as well as clean-up and compensation. Moreover, it is further seeking to send suitable signals of submissiveness and sell-out to US MNCs by pushing the Nuclear Liability Bill which will institutionalise the impunity that Carbide-Dow have enjoyed in the Bhopal case, by protecting US reactor supplier firms in advance from any responsibilities towards compensation or clean up in the event of any disaster. In 1984, a CIA document commenting on Bhopal expressed the apprehension that “Public outcry almost certainly will force the new government to move cautiously in developing future foreign investment and industrial policies and relations with multinational – especially US – firms.” Governments from 1984 till the present have bent over backwards to prove to the US that these apprehensions are misplaced, and that they are willing to ignore or trample upon any public outcry in order to protect MNCs, especially US MNCs.
If Anderson remains an ‘absconder’, his successor, Dow CEO Andrew Liveris is a proud member of the US-India CEO Forum, which continues to play a key role even in the recent Indo-US Strategic Dialogue. Liveris, along with Indian counterparts like Ratan Tata have for years lobbied to free Dow from responsibility for cleaning up the Carbide factory site and other affected areas. Planning Commission Deputy Chairperson Montek Singh Ahluwalia as well as Congress leaders and UPA Ministers P Chidambaram and Kamal Nath have since 2006 been actively pushing Dow’s and Tata’s suggestion that a ‘Site Remediation Trust’ be set up, funded by Indian CEOs, that will effectively free Dow of any responsibility to clean up the disaster area. Can it be a coincidence that the very same Chidambaram and Kamal Nath are members of the GoM on Bhopal?
The BJP, which is trying to score political points over the Congress over Bhopal, too must be confronted with the fact that it has partnered the Congress in betraying the people of Bhopal. The Vajpayee Government never demanded that the US extradite Anderson. And in December 2009, the BJP State Government of MP joined Union Minister Jairam Ramesh in declaring that the factory site was free from contamination and proposing to turn it into a ‘tourist site’!
The GoM has come up with recommendations including enhanced compensation for the Bhopal victims; pursuance of extradition of Anderson; a curative petition against the Supreme Court’s 1997 order that diluted charges against UCC and UCIL from ‘culpable homicide’ to ‘negligence’; and funds and proposals towards clean-up of the contaminated site. In a nutshell, the GoM’s brief and intent seem to be to exonerate Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress leadership from charges of colluding with the US in saving Anderson and the UCC and hushing up the debate by announcing enhanced compensations. In other words, while bailing out the Congress rulers and corporate criminals, the GoM taxes the Indian people to bear the cost of compensation and clean-up.
But even on this score, the GoM uses the dubious figures used in the infamous 1989 sellout brokered by the Supreme court. For example, the GoM puts the number of the dead at 5,300 as against the actual figure of 22,146. Likewise, the figures for the permanently and temporarily injured are also gross underestimations.
And the biggest betrayal is once again on the issue of Dow’s liability. While the State Government of MP and the Centre will now argue about who foots the bill and bears the responsibility for clean up of the site, and Indian taxpayers will pay for compensation, there is virtual silence on Dow. The recommendations include no proactive measures to push Dow to pay for compensation and clean up or penalise it for not doing so. Rather, the attempt is to tacitly ‘settle’ the Bhopal issue without bringing Dow to book. It is significant that Chairman and CEO of Dow Chemicals Andrew Liveris will not attend the Indo-US CEO Business Forum meeting scheduled to be held in Washington on June 22 even as a high-level Indian delegation led by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee alongwith Commerce Minister Anand Sharma, Deputy Chairman of Planning Commission Montek Singh Ahluwalia and prominent corporate leaders from India will be attending the meeting.
The GoM recommendations are also silent on the prevention of future Bhopals: they ignore the protection offered to future corporate offenders by the Nuclear Liability bill.    

If justice is to be served, what we need and must demand is an independent and time-bound probe to fix culpability for the escape of Warren Anderson, and for subsequent attempts to absolve Dow Chemicals of responsibility. Dow must be made to pay for cleaning up the polluted sites and for medical care of the victims and must be blacklisted forthwith, the Nuclear Liability Bill must be scrapped, and Bhopal victims must be guaranteed not only comprehensive compensation and clean up, but also justice. Only these measures can ensure that the tragedy of Bhopal and its shameful consequences are never repeated on Indian soil!