BY ROB GOWLAND WRITING IN THE GUARDIAN
Of course, I don’t know if it was deliberate, although I like to think it was. It’s the romantic in me.
A week or so ago, George W Bush was in India, glad-handing everyone in sight while furiously stoking a hi-tech arms race on the sub-continent.
A week later, SBS ran the very outspoken documentary One Night In Bhopal, recreating the night in 1984 when operations at the US-owned Union Carbide plant in the Indian city of Bhopal went pear-shaped and killed over 7000 people.
Union Carbide were aware that the plant’s design was flawed, that catastrophic failure releasing clouds of the extremely toxic chemical methyl isocyanate (MIC) as a heavier–than-air gas across the city was possible.
But they didn’t tell the locals. Nor did they instruct the people of the city in basic safety measures in the event of a gas leak. That would have left the company open to compensation claims.
The Bhopal plant was established to manufacture a pesticide that Union Carbide told the Indian Government would help Indian farmers fight crop disease and feed the poor, and make millions of dollars (for Union Carbide, of course, not for Indian farmers).
Like other transnational corpor-ations elsewhere, Union Carbide’s reasons for locating the plant in India had nothing to do with bettering the lives of Third World people.
It had everything to do with low construction and operating costs (and hence higher profits) and looser occupational health and safety laws as well as much weaker environmental protection laws.
One cannot escape the realisation that Union Carbide were doing what a host of other transnational corporations do: siting their potentially toxic plants and other dangerous facilities in Third World countries, so that any victims will be poor (and hence relatively powerless) and above all not white.
Imagine the ruckus if the Bhopal plant had been in Dallas or Melbourne, and had caused 7,000 middle class whites to snuff it.
Even while thousands of men, women and children were dying hideous and painful deaths Union Carbide kept putting out press releases minimising the severity of the Bhopal gas leak, “hosing down” the calamity until it had become stale news and would go away.
So confident and arrogant were they that the company’s CEO actually flew to Bhopal to see the site of what he persisted in calling “this incident” for himself. Unfortunately, the local Chief of Police, Swaraj Puri, who had experienced the horrors of that night at first hand, took the opportunity to do the logical thing and arrested him for manslaughter.
The newsreel footage shows the corporate big-shot shaken to the core at having been arrested because people had died as a result of his company’s pursuit of greater profit. I mean, he is clearly thinking, “What’s next? Arresting employers for not protecting workers’ safety on the job?”
Union Carbide, however, is one of the USA’s most powerful corporations, so its CEO was speedily released on bail. He promptly jumped on a plane back to the States and never returned to stand trial.
He nowadays divides his time between his residences in New England and Florida, his sleep untroubled by any fears that the US Government might actually extradite him to India.
I doubt too that his sleep is troubled by nightmare visions of people coughing uncontrollably until they drowned from the liquid in their lungs. That is the vision the people of Bhopal had to live with as their family members died around them.
Today the effects are still being felt there; on average one person a day still dies as a result of what happened that night 22 years ago in Bhopal.
Bush’s visit to India was not without incident either. Wherever the US President went, he was greeted by flag-waving protestors chanting “Go back Bush!”
That, of course, is par for the course as far as Presidential visits are concerned these days. Only the White House lawn and Camp David seem free of protestors.
Not that Bush probably sees any of them, any more than he saw the Indian protestors: his motorcade has so much security there is no possibility of actually seeing the people in the streets.
One of Bush’s top priorities during his Indian visit was to drive a wedge between India and China, and if possible to derail the India-China-Russia mutual defence agreement. His approach had a singular dichotomy: sometimes – with varying degrees of subtlety – he threatened India with dire consequences if the country did not accept America’s leadership in all things.
At other times, he sought to position himself – and the USA – as India’s lifelong friend and ally. Had he watched One Night In Bhopal he would have been given a clear indication of exactly what to do.
Extraditing the CEO of Union Carbide to India to stand trial would be a very popular act in India (not to mention in a number of other countries where transnational corporations tend to throw their weight around).
Somehow, however, I just cannot see the Bush White House doing it. Can you?