Corporate responsibility twenty years on

This piece originally appeared in Samar 19.
Looking over the twenty years behind us, it is time for solemn reflection, for grieving, for gaining collective wisdom and for empathizing with the victims, dead and alive, of the Bhopal gas tragedy of December 3rd, 1984. Among many other developments, these twenty years have witnessed unprecedented generation of wealth, a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, a massive assault on the environment in the name of augmenting human well being and a fatalistic resignation to injustice and marginalization. The very same decades have also seen a stronger need for spreading peace and prosperity, a growing discomfort with the stark disparity, the maturing of technology and human judgment to comprehend the environmental damages wrought and the surfacing of a latent will to question the formulation and deliverance of justice. In Bhopal, the struggle goes on with saintly patience, to seek justice, not as compensation, for the loss is too great to be compensated, but rather as a founding virtue of human society and as a distribution of the common goods of life such as honor and health.
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On the ill-fated night of December 3rd, 1984, 40 tons of lethal methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas leaked out of a poorly maintained storage tank in the Union Carbide pesticide plant of Bhopal. Borne by the wind, the gas spread through the city like a stealth killer suffocating and blinding people in its wake. People who ran out into the streets in utter panic found themselves caught in stampedes that trampled the unfortunate ones who fell down. In the following days, Bhopal faced the daunting task of burying and cremating thousands of corpses whose faces bore testimony of human vulnerability against a killer of its own making. Estimates of immediate death toll vary between 2500 and 8000. The leaking gas caught everyone by surprise—citizens fast asleep on a cold night, the overwhelmed public medical system, the sluggish district administration and the negligent Union Carbide management. Rightly dubbed as the worst industrial disaster, it was the beginning of a nightmare that Bhopal would have to live through for years to come.
The uncompromising need for disaster planning in an industrial society is perhaps one of the most important lessons to be learnt from the Bhopal tragedy. It is amply clear that no thought was ever given to the eventuality of the lethal gas leaking out of the facility. The fact that even the primary treatment for a victim affected by MIC was not known exhibits the extent of preparedness, or lack thereof. It is necessary that any official body drawing up a disaster plan have an intimate knowledge of the industrial processes required by the specific project as well as its products and by-products. Incorporating the element of independence and non-alignment of interests for such a body is of utmost importance because anything less would mean diluting the primary intent of disaster planning. It is worthwhile to mention here that the Government of India has since set up a national disaster management department under the Home Ministry with an emphasis on natural calamities. The effectiveness of any such setups will be as good as the response mechanism that it sets in motion.
With liberalization of the markets, an increasing number of regulations are being rescinded and governments are being cornered into according “national status” to foreign industries. It is imperative to delineate and clearly understand the jurisdictions of the domestic law, the corporations’ home country’s law, and of any other international bodies and instruments. The Bhopal gas leak case exemplifies the failure to define precisely these legal boundaries. The Government of India, which became the sole representative of the victims, appealed to the US courts before it moved its own courts, only to be advised that the Indian judiciary would be a more appropriate forum. Such ambivalence on the government’s part only eroded the remnant faith the victims had helplessly placed on it. The legal imbroglio was further deepened when Dow Chemical acquired Union Carbide in 2001 and subsequently refused to accept Union Carbide’s liabilities pertaining to Bhopal. For over ten years, Warren Anderson, the then CEO of Union Carbide has been ignoring summons by the Chief Magistrate’s court in Bhopal without any noteworthy consequences. Unless the government clearly defines the grey areas of legal jurisdiction and adds mettle to the enforcement of the court directives, future ventures would be emboldened to circumvent the law of the land.
Mechanisms and institutions capable of evaluating the environmental, social, cultural and economic cost of industrializing need to be developed keeping in mind the necessity of public participation. The apparent inevitability of development with the inflow of foreign capital and setting up of an industry is often misleading. Especially in rural or semi-urban settings in India, such ostensible development translates merely into a few unskilled jobs for the local community whereas the skill, technology and management are imported from other countries or the cities. The Union Carbide plant had similarly belied the hopes of the Bhopalis by providing no more than a 1000 jobs at any time. An estimated 20,000 people have died from the direct effects of the MIC gas and thousands more are dying a slow painful death. To hold up a financial value to a damage of this magnitude would be to transcend all limits of human decency.
One need not look hard for instances where industries have been set up on agricultural land, displacing farmers, with foreign capital and control to manufacture products that are consumed far away from the local community, or where water intensive industries have created near-drought conditions in the neighboring villages by drawing excessive amounts of ground water. The marginalized local population is left out of the cycle of benefit yet exposed to the pollution caused and the potential of an industrial mishap. It would only be fair to mention that the Ministry of Environment and Forests has instituted a mandatory public hearing for the “Environmental Impact Assessment” of projects, with some exceptions. This is a laudable effort in seeking the direct participation of civil society but creating a congenial atmosphere where the rural folks can voice their opinions without any trepidation remains an unfinished task. Paying for an ever-elusive development with their lives and livelihoods could never be justified if the social, cultural and environmental components were weighed.
Simply because accidents do not honor distinctions based on economic status or country of origin, safety should be everyone’s prerogative. Investigations probing the causes of the gas leak have unearthed egregious safety violations in the Union Carbide plant. The refrigeration system to keep the MIC gas below a certain temperature was shut off, numerous safety valves and alarms were dysfunctional and so were parts of the gas scrubbing facility meant for its neutralization. Such impudence to flout safety guidelines in a facility located in a densely populated area arises from the lack of enforcement mechanisms. The past few decades have witnessed the flight of hazardous industries from the developed countries into India and the mushrooming of indigenous ones with utter disregard to individual and collective safety. Such a mad rush might expose society to the ill effects of industrialization long before its benefits are felt.
While the legal squabbles continue, estimates of the death toll revised and a generation of physically and mentally damaged come of age. Twenty years after the tragedy, large amounts of toxic material lying around at the Union Carbide site continue to pollute the soil and water irreversibly. Estimates of the death toll will never reflect the depth of the wound left on Bhopal, which has only been rankled by the failure to deliver justice. A mother’s milk is the embodiment of life and sustenance—except perhaps in Bhopal where it is laden with mercury and organo-chlorines.
Somnath Mukherji is an electrical engineer in Boston and a part of the International Bhopal campaign.
Holding Corporations Accountable
by Satinath Sarangi
The International Campaign to Keep Pressure on Union Carbide’s New Owners
by Krishnaveni Gundu

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