For the past two months, India has witnessed a national anger over the verdict of the Chief Judicial Magistrate court in Bhopal on the criminal case against the Indian subsidiary of Union Carbide.
In the early hours of Dec. 3, 1984, the clouds from 40 tons of a poisonous toxin called methyl isocyanate (MIC) leaked from the Union Carbide pesticides plant and settled over surrounding slums in Bhopal. Immediately, 3,787 died. Over the next few years the death toll rose to nearly 20,000 in 1992, when official counting was stopped. About 500,000 survivors were chronically ill, as the horrific effects of the gas continue to this day.
The judicial process took fully a quarter of a century. In 1989, the Supreme Court of India settled all civil and criminal liability at a paltry sum of $470 million. In 1991, the criminal case was reopened, but, in 1996, the high court diluted all charges, from section 304(b) which could punish the convicted with a maximum punishment of 10 years, to a milder section 304(a), which is used in traffic accidents for deaths caused by negligence, with lighter fines and prison terms.
So, on June 7 the court convicted all seven defendants on the grounds of negligence under Section 304(a) to two years imprisonment. The seven former employees were ordered to pay fines of just $2,125 apiece. And, they were all granted bail. The former chairman of Union Carbide Worldwide, Warren Anderson, was designated as an absconder.
The convictions, which the victims felt were too little and too late, were the first since the worlds worst industrial accident occurred at the Union Carbide plant. Shocked over the callous disregard for human lives by the trio comprised of the judiciary, the government and the big multinational corporation, the people from all walks of life reacted stridently.
The government, not anticipating the ferocity of the reaction, had to constitute the Group of Ministers (GoM) to come up with recommendations dealing with all aspects relating to the tragedy. The panel recommended a compensation package for the gas victims and declared that the government would make vigorous efforts to get former Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson repatriated.
Four days after the gas leak, Anderson was arrested but he was released within a few hours and he flew on a state government plane to New Delhi. From there he flew to the US. Indias political opposition has vehemently accused the government of helping Anderson escape from India.
A case of culpable homicide was registered on Anderson and he was declared a fugitive by the court for failing to appear for hearings. In 2003, after 19 years, the Indian government made a formal request for his extradition, but the US rejected it, saying the request did not meet requirements of certain provisions of the bilateral extradition treaty. Anderson reportedly is living in a luxury home in New York.
It was a blatant truth that the ruling elites were not willing to take legal action against Union Carbide and its former CEO, who were responsible for the heinous crime. Initially, the Indian government demanded $3.5 billion as compensation from the Union Carbide, which now owned by Dow Chemical, based in Midland, Mich. But, in 1989, the government settled for $470 million, which was about one-seventh of the original demand. Why did they agree to this little money? Indian lawyer Prashant Bhushan said, There is a drive to attract foreign investment overwhelming all other considerations.
So each victim received as little as $330 as final settlement. With this very small amount of money, the victims were just able to meet a few months of medical expenses. The same year, each person affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska received $40,000. The corporations had always treated the people from the South very shabbily. That was a reason that, on the fateful day, none of the plants six safety systems was operational.
Washington forced oil giant BP to agree to a $20 billion fund to pay damages for the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Why was the US administration not demanding similar accountability for the US firm, Union Carbide? Instead, the US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Robert Blake, reacting to the current court verdict, said, I dont expect this verdict to reopen any new inquiries or anything like that. On the contrary, we hope that this is going to help to bring closure. So the corporate interests are nurtured by both Washington and New Delhi.
But the sad story of victims continues. Although the plant was closed after the tragedy, 350 tons of hazardous waste are still packed up on the site and the government has now assured its cleanup. Thousands of people have become sick from water that is believed contaminated by the chemical waste. Within the first 72 hours after the gas leak, around 8,000 people died. Hundreds died in their beds and thousands more staggered from their homes to die in the street. Still, the survivors are suffering from painful and horrific damage to their lungs, heart, brain and other organs. The children are still born with deformities such as missing limbs, abnormal organs, misshapen heads and tumors.
Painful skin lesions, stomach problems and raw, itchy eyes are common complaints. Bhopal has the highest rates of gall bladder and oesophageal cancers, TB, anaemia and thyroid abnormalities. Young girls start menstruating much later than normal and suffer from painful gynecological problems.
Bhopals gas leak is a classic example of the corporate crime. But it was the by-product of the inherent, greedy, exploitative nature of corporations. While championing the cause for abolition of corporate system, now its necessary to establish real justice in Bhopal through global solidarity with the victims and calling for the due punishment to the individuals and corporations responsible for the gas leak tragedy.
N. Gunasekaran is a political activist and writer based in Chennai, India.
From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2010
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