New Delhi must not again betray the victims of Bhopal

The parent company of Union Carbide could be granted a triumphal return to India thanks to ruling class indifference
Siddhartha Deb, Wednesday September 5, 2007, The Guardian
A couple of years ago I visited Bhopal, the central Indian city where a toxic gas leak on the night of December 2 1984 killed at least 3,000 people within 24 hours. In the two decades since the disaster, the death toll reached at least 20,000, while another 100,000 people were estimated by Amnesty International to be suffering from “chronic and debilitating illnesses” caused by the lethal methyl isocyanate gas. The leak had come from a pesticide factory run by Union Carbide, a US multinational, and chemicals dumped on the 62-acre grounds had contaminated neighbouring slums and farmland. Successive studies found the ground water to be full of toxic elements, and the slum dwellers I met were dependent entirely on drinking water delivered by municipal tanker.
Although the continuing fallout of the gas leak was written into the lives of Bhopal’s citizens, etched into the alleys and burial grounds of the old fortress city, and starkly visible in the efforts of activist groups to get justice and rehabilitation for the survivors, the disaster had been airbrushed from history. In the US, the word “Bhopal” was like a stone dropped into a bottomless well. But the indifference closer to home, among an Indian elite harbouring superpower aspirations, was much more striking. India’s upper classes have shown barely any interest in the efforts being made by Dow Chemicals, now the parent company of Union Carbide, to ensure legal immunity for itself as it prepares for a triumphal re-entry into India.
As pundits in each country debate the strategic and economic implications of the US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement, bureaucrats are hard at work in the corridors of the chemical and fertilisers ministry in New Delhi. Their mission: to prepare a note for the cabinet on whether Dow should be allowed to operate in India without any “legal liability”.
Dow’s argument has long been that since the Bhopal plant was a Union Carbide operation and Dow Chemicals acquired Union Carbide only in 1999, 15 years after the disaster, it is being accused of guilt by association.
But Dow’s disassociation of itself from Union Carbide is a curious thing, applied largely to the question of legal liability. In all other aspects Dow has stood shoulder to shoulder with Union Carbide since making it a “wholly owned subsidiary”. Its defence of the disaster is mounted online at the tastefully named www.bhopal.com, to which the Union Carbide website links.
Through the site, Dow will inform you that “the Bhopal plant was owned and operated by Union Carbide, India, Limited, an Indian company in which Union Carbide Corporation held just over half the stock”, which seems another way of saying “It was their fault”. It won’t tell you that “just over half the stock” was a controlling stake and that senior positions in the Indian firm were filled on instructions from the corporate headquarters in Connecticut or the Asia head office in Hong Kong.
Dow will state that the Bhopal plant “produced pesticides for use in India to help the country’s agricultural sector increase its productivity”, but not that Sevin, the pesticide manufactured in Bhopal and promoted as a safer alternative to DDT, was made by a process that had inherent risks and was avoided by other chemical companies. Nor will Dow volunteer that Union Carbide badly miscalculated the demand for its expensive product, and that by 1983 the factory was running at a loss.
Dow will affirm that investigations conducted by the consulting firm Arthur D Little found “deliberate sabotage” by an unknown Indian worker to be the cause of the accident. They are less likely to tell you that the same study cited a “reflexive tendency” among workers to lie, and so relied on evidence from peripheral figures, including a canteen boy’s statement that workers had looked tense that night.
It is true, as Dow asserts, that Union Carbide paid compensation of $470m to the Indian state, and that the government is to blame for the decades it has taken for the money to reach survivors. But the settlement was a deal between the state and the multinational, with the people who suffered having no say in the process. Union Carbide manipulated the system, moving the trial from US to Indian courts, arguing that India had superb legal machinery. In all other aspects, though, India was a basket case of a country, from the managers who ran the plant and the unknown saboteur worker down to the victims whose living standards, Union Carbide argued, would be “incomprehensible to Americans living in the US”.
There has never been a difference between Union Carbide and Dow Chemicals in any of these aspects, and yet the Indian government and business barons are going out of their way to accommodate this shape-shifting monstrosity, trying to protect it from the courts and citizens’ groups. Politicians may be under pressure from the US to resolve the question in favour of Dow, and they may salivate at the promise made in the company’s brochure that India is its “second growth region – alongside China”. But there is nothing new about such globalisation. Forty years ago, while setting up the Bhopal factory, Union Carbide had spoken eloquently about India as the largest agricultural market in the world after China. That didn’t stop the corporation from letting the plant decline and die – the fate of the faceless people of Bhopal – once the profits didn’t match up to expectations.
There is an American saying the Indian government should think on as it tries to decide. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
Siddhartha Deb is a writer who lives in India and the US; his latest novel is Surface.
siddhartha.deb@gmail.com
See link below for discussion generated by this article…


FoxandDuck
September 5, 2007 2:42 AM
There is a protest site at https://www.bhopal.net/
ellis
September 5, 2007 3:14 AM
Of course if Dow does get itself off the hook there will be a substantial bonus from the rise in the stock price; enough to finance a considerable amount of political activity.
Teacup
September 5, 2007 7:26 AM
Shri Deb,
I agree with your statement that we in India have not done as much as we could for the victims of the Bhopal tragedy. I do not agree with your castigation of Dow, though. Their stand is legal and logical.
We have a long history of holding out the begging bowl. We need to stand on our own feet and help our own citizens
KGersen
September 5, 2007 7:41 AM
Siddhartha, thanks for highlighting this. Finally the Indian government should be using the enhanced economic and strategic importance of India to demand the US forces Dow to cough up – this is the only way, through political pressure.
Unfortunately rampant bureaucratic corruption combined with the sheer spinelessness and stupidity of the officials in India will mean Dow will worm its way back into India.
Also Siddhartha thanks for not turning this into one of the clueless anti-reform / anti-‘neo liberalism’ (whatever the f*ck that means) gibbering that normally comes forth on CiF. Though I’m sure the usual jokers will be along soon.
peekaboo
September 5, 2007 9:47 AM
Well the smug Indian middle class and the Indian media would rather forget Bhophal or any other tragedy that affects the poor. Millions made homeless by the recent monsoon floods and at risk of starvation have made more headline news abroad than inside India according to reports. There you have it. The world’s greatest democracy in action(greatest democracy according to the western media – the Indians are beginning to believe in this after having read about it so many times in our press) . To some extent reflecting the mentality of colonised peoples, the Indian ruling class is much more excited about the prospect of becoming a junior partner to Bush’s neo conservatives on the global stage than showing solidarity to their own people
Nityanand
September 5, 2007 10:10 AM
Dear Siddharth:
I must commend you on a splendid, though depressing article about the consensus of the elite that is emerging in India on the matter of Bhopal. This needs to be seen in the context of the increased fervour of Government-enforced evictions of the houses and commercial establishments of the poor, the unfettered hand-over of agricultural land often amidst bloody battles with peasants to corporations, and overall clamp-down on dissent against land acquisition or mindless industrialization.
Your article comes even as a newspaper article in India’s Economic Times (http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/articleshow/2338330.cms) cites an unnamed official source who states that Dow has offered to bear the cost of clean-up provided all legal hurdles are removed and its entry into India is unhindered by long-festering liabilities in Bhopal. Strangely, Dow’s predicament – of being unable to invest because of the liabilities – has touched a sympathetic chord in the hearts of the Congress-led Government. Dow’s predicament, more than the sufferings of at least 25,000 people who have been condemned to drinking poisoned water, has moved the Government to find ways to clean-up the mess (read the “legal” mess). For a country whose spirituality has gained world renown, India is now reduced to a hollow shell where principles of justice and rights can be set aside for a material consideration.
Dow’s intent to pay for clean-up of Bhopal is a confirmation of the high-level conspiracy in the Government, involving none less than the Prime Minister himself, in negotiating away Dow’s inherited environmental liabilities in return for a few dollars. Two months ago, the Bhopal survivors released documents obtained through Right to Information that confirmed that several senior Ministers, the Cabinet Secretary and the Prime Minister himself were batting for Dow and attempting to settle the matter of out-of-court in view of the investments to be brought into India by Dow Chemical. What if Dow didn’t have any plans to invest? Would we still negotiate an out-of-court settlement for the company? Or is the Government’s largesse in such matters reserved only for the rich and big companies? At least a 100 children born to parents exposed to poisoned drinking water have been documented with congenital deformities – a new generation of Bhopal victims. Will the out-of-court settlement undertake to offer a lifetime of care for these children? Will it offer them their childhood?
To me, this is a shameful repeat of the first betrayal of Bhopal in 1989, where many of the same characters present in the current Congress-led Government, secretly settled with Union Carbide to write off the latter’s liabilities for a paltry Rs. 50,000 per victim.
An out-of-court settlement of this kind is a slap in the face of the struggle for justice by Bhopalis. Bhopalis have repeatedly said that their demand that Union Carbide be punished, and that liability be pinned has as much to do with universal notions of justice as it is to ensure that what happened to them is not repeated with any other community in India or elsewhere. Any company with deep pockets can evade liability for two or more decades and then settle out of court when it chooses to do so. This is unacceptable. Liability has to be fixed if we are to prevent a repeat of more Bhopals. Lest this be relegated to a rant against industry, I must hasten to add that pursuing strict liability is the only way to ensure that industry and commerce serve human society rather than the other way around.
Sincerely,
Nityanand — A depressed and ashamed Indian
Fishman
September 5, 2007 10:12 AM
I only heard about Bhopal a couple of years back. The fact that a disaster that dwarfs 9/11 in terms of casualties is not etched into the conscience of the world is telling.
Tha lack of culpability, the poor compensation, the sheer negligence and the who-cares-attitude (sadly displayed by a lot of rich Indians themselves) just makes you ashamed.
MerkinOnParis
September 5, 2007 10:33 AM
The Director, who should have faced corporate manslaughter charges, was given safe haven in the states, with no chance of extradition.
Every time you brush your teeth, the red stripe should remind you of Bhopal.
chrish
September 5, 2007 10:47 AM
You may well be able to criticise the legal processes in India relating to this case. Although the India legal system is probably one of the best in the developing world. I don’t think you can really blame Dow Chemical though.
Dow Chemical only bought Union Carbide after the India courts had already ruled that Union Carbide should not face any more legal liability for the accident. If this is undermined then in future cases it may be impossible for companies to continue in operation in a situation like this as there would always the possibility of new actions against it. This might be detrimental not only to the workers of the company, but also for those looking for compensation as the company would be unsaleable.
calmeilles
September 5, 2007 11:08 AM
KGersen: “Finally the Indian government should be using the enhanced economic and strategic importance of India to demand the US forces Dow to cough up”
Does not that article say that Dow has “coughed up” to the tune of four hundred millions, that the Indian government has received it, but that the victims of Bhopal have not?
To me the implication is that however culpable Dow as inheritor of Union Carbide might be the failing now is in the Indian authorities.
Although justice might demand greater compensation for the victims the Indian government has squandered any moral right to seek more money.
Nityanand
September 5, 2007 11:21 AM
In response to Chrish who has suggested that Dow should not be held liable for Union Carbide’s mistakes, let’s not forget that Union Carbide had unresolved liabilities when Dow acquired it. Dow was not allowed to forget it. But Dow maintained post-acquisition that it inherited merely the assets, not the liabilities. In due course of time, this was revealed to be another racist position. Dow paid more than $2 billion to settle Union Carbide’s asbestos liabilities in the US. Its policy of not addressing Carbide’s pending liabilities applies only to liabilities involving damage to brown-skinned persons governed by lesser nations than the United States.
Dow acquired Union Carbide in February 2001. At that time, Union Carbide had several unresolved liabilities in India. It was absconding from a criminal case in Bhopal where it was accused of manslaughter. It had unresolved environmental liabilities and also faced potential liability arising from the numerous people poisoned by water contaminated by toxic wastes it had abandoned in Bhopal.
The Bhopal survivors are right in rejecting an out-of-court settlement. To hell with charity. This is a fight for rights, and a 23-year old fight cannot end with the villain of the masterpiece going about business as usual.
chrish
September 5, 2007 11:45 AM
‘In response to Chrish who has suggested that Dow should not be held liable for Union Carbide’s mistakes,’Nityanand
September 5, 2007 11:21 AM
I didn’t suggest it, the Indian courts stated that Union Carbide would not be exposed to further liabilities from Bhopal. This was not true of the US asbestos liabilities. The subsidiary/JV of union carbide was based in India, as were it victims. I think that the Indian courts were the correct place for claims relating to Bhopal to be decided. Sometimes recourse to US courts might be appropriate in circumstances like this. But I have always heard that the Indian legal system compares very favourably to many in developing countries and am not convinced that it would be appropriate for the US courts to intervene.
bigbusinessrules
September 5, 2007 12:02 PM
Like Chrish above, many people are misled into believing that the $470 million settlement in 1989 negotiated between Union Carbide and the Government of India extinguished all future liabilities. That is not true. The 1989 settlement was restricted to gas-disaster related damages alone. Also, it was restricted to the civil liabilities only. Although in 1989, the Government agreed to extinguish the criminal charges faced by Union Carbide and its executives as part of the settlement, the Supreme Court in 1991 overturned that decision stating that money can’t extinguish the crime of having killed more than 8000 people and injuring half a million. The charges of “culpable homicide not amounting to murder” against Union Carbide Corporation, Warren Anderson and Carbide’s Indian subsidiary and executives is currently being heard in the Chief Judicial Magistrate’s Court in Bhopal. However, the American accused — Carbide and Anderson — were proclaimed absconders or “fugitives” in 1992 after they failed to honour repeated summons to show up in the Bhopal court.
Neither does the 1989 settlement extinguish the liabilities related to the environmental contamination. A reading of the settlement will make it very clear that the settlement amount was meant o address only the damages arising out of the disastrous leak of gases on the night of December 2-3, 1984. The environmental contamination predates the disaster, and would have been an issue regardless of whether or not the disaster happened. The contamination was a result of the routine operation of a dirty chemical factory. In May 2004, the Government of India sent its official position to a New York court where the matter of Carbide’s liability in cleaning up the Bhopal contamination is currently being heard. The Government of India rightly observed that the 1989 settlement is unrelated to the environmental contamination liabilities, and that these liabilities ought to be resolved by Union Carbide. Union Carbide is a 100 percent subsidiary of Dow, and exists as a legal entity. Dow cannot play a cat and mouse game flaunting Carbide’s assets when it suits its business, and distancing itself from Carbide when the liabilities come home to roost.
Indeed, since 2001, Dow has even profited from the sale of Carbide’s patented/trademarked products in India, despite the fact that Carbide is an absconder. In 2005, Indian Oil Corporation — a major oil multinational owned by Indian public — cancelled a deal with Dow after Bhopal survivors exposed that Dow was trying to pass off Carbide’s technology as its own.
Dow’s disregard for the law when it stands in the way of profits is phenomenal. In 2007, it was fined $325,000 by the US Securities Exchange Commission for having doled out $200,000 in bribes for Indian officials registering Dow’s pesticides.
Sure, India’s corruption and corrupt politicians are to blame for the situation. But let’s remember that Dow is not the poor little rich corporation it is made out to be. Under Indian law, a bribe-giver is as liable as a bribe-taker.
And let’s not get carried away by moral grandstanding that corruption is endemic to India and the “Third World” nations. Multinational Corporations from UK, Germany, Japan, Australia and US lead the world in innovative ways of bribing and manufacturing elite consensus. Remember Enron, Xerox, Anderson. Check out www.corpwatch.org if you want a blow-by-blow account of how US corporations and the President’s men profit through illegitimate deals.
marksa
September 5, 2007 12:04 PM
Nityanand
“For a country whose spirituality has gained world renown, India is now reduced to a hollow shell where principles of justice and rights can be set aside for a material consideration.”
lets not forget that the famous ‘spirituality’ is really that of a emaciated man who can look fairly spiritual, sad to say. Its a western construct and is nothing to be proud of.
Of course the Indian state has failed – it should have extracted a suitable amount of compensation, distributed it and cleaned up the area by now. This is a circular position unfortunately -if the government and regulatory authorites were that efficient it wouldn’t be considered a ‘third world country’.
Nityanand
September 5, 2007 12:13 PM
This is a common misconception that many people harbour that the 1989 settlement addressed everything, including the liabilities currently being discussed. It is true that India has a robust legal system. THat is why we need to revert to what the Indian courts say. The matter regarding Dow’s liabilities (inherited through Union Carbide’s own) is currently pending in the Madhya Pradesh High Court. Why settle out of court if the court can be trusted to do the right thing? Also even a perfunctory reading of the Bhopal settlement will convince you that the settlement restricted itself to the gas disaster. In a letter dated June 28, 2005, the Government of India has categorically stated:
“It is the official position of the Government of India that the previous settlement of claims concerning the 1984 Bhopal Gas Disaster between Union Carbide and Union of India has no legal bearing on or relation whatsoever to the environmental contamination issues raised in the case at bar.”
So this is not a matter of opinion, but of legal point. Union Carbide’s liabilities in Bhopal remain current. The criminal charges against Union Carbide are pending. Carbide, the company that Dow acquired, is a fugitive from justice.
Somu
September 5, 2007 1:15 PM
Dear Siddarth,
India is at a cross-roads between choosing her people against corrupt corporations, in the name of FDI. DOW chemicals is a classic case of socially irresponsible company who ignored all the legal battles and protests of Bhopal survivors, with such discontent, till now but when it is time to invest in India, it talks of its “Social Responsibility”. However this is their “Legal and Moral Responsibility” as they are still using UC patents for its profits.
DOW should be made to not just pay for clean up but also for the health problems caused to Bhopalis and that too as its legal liabilities.
chrish
September 5, 2007 2:35 PM
‘Neither does the 1989 settlement extinguish the liabilities related to the environmental contamination. A reading of the settlement will make it very clear that the settlement amount was meant o address only the damages arising out of the disastrous leak of gases on the night of December 2-3, 1984. The environmental contamination predates the disaster, and would have been an issue regardless of whether or not the disaster happened.’bigbusinessrules
September 5, 2007 12:02 PM
If there are issues of this nature then I accept, of course, that Dow Chemical may well be liable, just as it was liable to US asbestos legislation.
chui
September 5, 2007 2:58 PM
As far as Dow Chemical, the US Government and the judicial system, for the benefit of the industrial complex, the poor Indians of Bopal were expendable, and unfortunately the Indian politicians and the haves of India have swallowed that ideology line, hook and sink.
Indian policy of playing the same flawed economic game set up by the US and Uk will not rid it self of the poverty of the hundreds of millions that live on the streets of its largest urban areas, or over half of its population of millions more villages in the rural areas and the plight of those poor.
The greed creed with the perverse ideology of inequality and rights only of the like minded, as seen in the west and responsible for all current woes will follow India with a plague that it may recover from. Hopefully Mr. Singh may want to refresh his memory why Gandhi fought so hard against partition and was concerned about the whole of India and just not the Urban areas, that are still the worst ever as compared to the European and American Cities. India needs to be fixed from bottom up and m=not the other way around.
OILthieves
September 5, 2007 4:51 PM
No article better sums up the modern history & future of India. we often get a confusing picture of the battle between modernisation & tradition. It is clear fom this article the few modernisers are being armed to overthow the majority traditionalists. Capitalism must triumph because it’s capitalism.
If india want to enter the new world order, wants ot be invited to posh restaurants & get “influence” as a “super power” it’s overclass my=ust betray it’s underclass. they didn;t hesitate to sign on the dotted line.
For this reason all talk about a new Indian renaissance is hubris. flattery from conmen & deceivers. There’s no foundation. The elite promise much but can’t deliver. only by tightening the bonds of slavery can they get results.
It’s the old jumping before you can walk.
It’s equality stupid.
Stretch99
September 5, 2007 5:12 PM
Indian Govt. failed it’s own people in Bhopal by not getting the best deal possible through US courts. The US Govt. failed miserably in not insisting that Union Carbide clean up it’s mess, look at the difference of how it has dealt with BP in the Texas refinery explosion as comparison. The world failed in not protesting by abandoning Union Carbide products after the Bhopal disaster, but continuing as normal, look at the difference made by those that sanctioned against Shell during Brent Spar environmental disposal. The chemical industry failed in keeping Bhopal’s misery ongoing for decades without solving the problems for the thousands. The UN failed because it ignored the issue.
When Dow took over Union Carbide, it also took over the responsibility of the accident. The accident was preventable with simple fool-proof shutdown systems that are routinely installed in plants around the world. For too long thousands of people in Bhopal have suffered, and continue to suffer. Their plight is there for the world to see, if it were not blind.
There is no excuse for Dow to clean up the mess and provide dignity in people’s life. It is up to Indian Govt., US Govt., people of the world and UN to ensure that the past mistake is corrected now !
wooden
September 5, 2007 7:55 PM
As a Chemical Engineer who worked for over 25 yars overseas I find the attitude of the Americans to this disaster incredible.
Whe an incidnet in Houston resulted in death attributed to BP the yanks turned their ire on the charman of BP. BP is operating in a well deveoped country and it is quite clear that America has adequate law to allow the “locals” to look after their safety interests.
If BP London is responsible for every upset in Texas the moral if not the legal impeative is to hold Union Carbide adn it’s heirs responsible for Bophal.
springpondbver
September 6, 2007 5:56 PM
How to kill pests without killing yourself or the earth……
There are about 50 to 60 million insect species on earth – we have named only about 1 million and there are only about 1 thousand pest species – already over 50% of these thousand pests are already resistant to our volatile, dangerous, synthetic pesticide POISONS. We accidentally lose about 25,000 to 100,000 species of insects, plants and animals every year due to “man’s footprint”. But, after poisoning the entire world and contaminating every living thing for over 60 years with these dangerous and ineffective pesticide POISONS we have not even controlled much less eliminated even one pest species and every year we use/misuse more and more pesticide POISONS to try to “keep up”! Even with all of this expensive pollution – we lose more and more crops and lives to these thousand pests every year.
We are losing the war against these thousand pests mainly because we insist on using only synthetic pesticide POISONS and fertilizers There has been a severe “knowledge drought” – a worldwide decline in agricultural R&D, especially in production research and safe, more effective pest control since the advent of synthetic pesticide POISONS and fertilizers. Today we are like lemmings running to the sea insisting that is the “right way”. The greatest challenge facing humanity this century is the necessity for us to double our global food production with less land, less water, less nutrients, less science, frequent droughts, more and more contamination and ever-increasing pest damage.
National Poison Prevention Week, March 18-24,2007 was created to highlight the dangers of poisoning and how to prevent it. One study shows that about 70,000 children in the USA were involved in common household pesticide-related (acute) poisonings or exposures in 2004. It is estimated that 300,000 farm workers suffer acute pesticide poisoning each year in the United States – No one is checking chronic contamination.
In order to try to help “stem the tide”, I have just finished re-writing my IPM encyclopedia entitled: THE BEST CONTROL II, that contains over 2,800 safe and far more effective alternatives to pesticide POISONS. This latest copyrighted work is about 1,800 pages in length and is now being updated at my new website at http://www.stephentvedten.com/ .
This new website at http://www.stephentvedten.com/ has been basically updated; all we have left to update is Chapter 39 and to renumber the pages. All of these copyrighted items are free for you to read and/or download. There is simply no need to POISON yourself or your family or to have any pest problems.
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1-616-677-1261
“An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come.” –Victor Hugo

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