No more Bhopals

Somnath Mukherjee, The Statesman, December 1, 2006
On 26 July, 2006, 34-year-old Sunil Verma hung himself from the ceiling of his room. He was wearing a T-shirt which said: “No more Bhopals”. It was 22 years ago on the intervening night of 2-3 December that a cloud of lethal gas from Union Carbide’s (UC) pesticide factory took the life of his parents and five of his siblings. Sunil was one of many victims that the world’s worst industrial disaster continues to claim after more than two decades. Today, 150,000 people continue to live with mental and physiological damage besides the 20,000 who have succumbed to them.
Was Sunil’s death a tragedy? The editor of a local newspaper in Boston had objected to my usage of the phrase “Bhopal gas tragedy”. Tragedy, he had said, connotes a sense of inevitability, a mysterious hand of destiny and fate. I stood corrected. There was nothing inevitable about either the gas leak of 1984, or Sunil’s death. The seeds of the disaster were sown the day the site of UC’s plant was chosen in the midst of a densely populated poor neighbourhood despite the large amounts of lethal chemicals needed during the manufacture of Sevin. Storing inordinately large amounts of methylisocyanate (MIC) in the plant, cutting corners in safety mechanisms, importing unproven technologies and a general neglect due to less than desired profits, precipitated the disaster on that wintry night.
The disaster was just as preventable as Sunil’s death. It might be fanciful to indulge in thinking about a societal arrangement where these could actually be prevented. A society where the trickling down of benefits actually broadens over time, where the risks are borne in proportion to the benefits received, where safety is everyone’s prerogative irrespective of national origin or economic status, where a democratically elected government is at least for the people even if it is not by the people, where justice is not served in proportion to one’s wealth and political clout, where each human life receives equal dignity, where Sunil the survivor’s life is as important as that of Warren Anderson, the contemporary CEO of UC.
While the jurisdiction of a state stops at its political boundary, transnational corporations (TNC) straddle the spaces beyond the reach of state apparatus. Institutions like the WTO, IMF and the World Bank serve the dual purpose of moulding the inchoate international structures along with pounding the uneven ground to ease the TNC’s quest for market, cheap labour and raw material. The disproportionate occupation of the policy space by such institutions de-escalates the priorities of the larger citizenry when weighed against corporate interests.
Union Carbide merged with Dow Chemicals in February 2001, which refuses to accept the liabilities and the criminal charges facing UC. The absence of a comprehensive legal framework within which TNCs operate is demonstrated by the fact that the Government of India (GoI), before appealing in its own courts, sued UC in the US in April 1985, only to be advised to go back.
The Bhopal Gas Disaster Act of March 1985 conferred the exclusive right on the GoI to represent all claimants and act as the parens patriae. The death toll from the gas leak kept climbing and the survivors waited helpless and uncompensated, while litigations went on in the Supreme Court. It was only after 5 years that a settlement was reached between the GoI and UC to pay a compensation of $470 million closing all court cases pending against Union Carbide. Only the criminal case against Warren Anderson was reinstated in October 1991. Why did the GoI settle for a fraction of its original claim of $3.3 billion? People’s sense of justice being hurt, the meagre compensation and the apparent impunity of UC led several individuals and survivor groups to file a class action law suit in the Federal Court of New York in November 1999, which was summarily dismissed by Judge John Keenan. In November 2001, the US Second Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the class action law suit, only to be dismissed again by the same judge.
While the litigations became more complex, the stockpiles of chemicals lying in the abandoned UC site in Bhopal slowly leached into the groundwater, irreversibly contaminating it with dangerous heavy metals, pesticides, volatile organo-chlorines and halo-organics. The marginalised urban communities that were poisoned by drinking the water fell through the interstices of state institutions and corporate power. It is rather ironic that while some interstitial spaces abet the power of the TNCs, others take away the safety nets of marginalised populations. It was finally in March 2004 that the Appeals Court of New York ruled that the district court had the power to order UC to clean up the contaminated site of the factory and in the next month the case was moved away from Judge Keenan’s court.
On 13 July, 2004, the US government rejected the GoI’s request to extradite Anderson. So far Dow Chemicals and Anderson have been able to dodge the judiciary of both the US and India, successfully pitting one against the other. As late as January 2005, the Chief Judicial Magistrate of Bhopal has asked Dow Chemicals to explain why Union Carbide should not be present for the ongoing criminal proceedings against it.
“Corporate social responsibility” is a commodified social space created by the corporations where social responsibility can be dispensed at their own terms and used to earn social credits with an eye towards the bottom line.
Dow invested $30 million in its advertising campaign called “The Human element” as an element in the periodic table. Certainly, the human element has been missing in how the composition of MIC has been guarded as a trade secret to this day, against the life and
wellbeing of thousands. Dow donated Rs. 2.2 crore to Jimmy Carter’s foundation, Habitat for Humanity, to build homes for the needy near Mumbai while turning a blind eye to homes and hearths in Bhopal that it has destroyed for the past 22 years. Such philanthropic acts also belie its history of being the manufacturer of inhuman substances like napalm and agent-orange, used by the US Army in the Vietnam war.
In India’s brave new phase of industrial modernisation, we should take some lessons from history on the 22nd anniversary of the Bhopal disaster and find mechanisms and institute structures to secure ourselves against its repetition.
In what Jack Doyle calls a “a global toxic trespass” in his book, Trespass against us, almost every 10 seconds a new chemical compound is invented and an average of three enter the market everyday. These chemicals go into every new gadget that make modern living “convenient”. Long-term effects of all of these chemicals on the human body and environment cannot possibly be well understood. Innocuous everyday items like sofa-sets, non-stick frying pans, children’s soft sleep-wear have carcinogenic chemicals that make it safer, convenient and comfortable to use. A study by the Environmental Working Group published in July 2005 documents the presence of 287 chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of babies born in US hospitals, of which 187 are known carcinogens.
Why are people carrying such heavy body burdens without their knowledge or consent? Perhaps, Sunil was living with a burden too heavy to carry. He chose death to escape it, leaving behind a warning for the world ~ No more Bhopals. Perhaps he knew that we all live in Bhopal.
(The author is an electrical engineer based in Boston)

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