Justice for Bhopal -- Corporate Crimes and Their Bodycount

Rahul Mahajan

Recently, Americans have been focused on corporate crimes that cheated
stockholders and taxpayers out of money to benefit executives and politicians.

This week we must focus on a crime that cost thousands their lives, as
executives and politicians try to cut a deal to escape what little
accountability remains.

To persuade us of its importance, Rashida Bi -- one victim of that
corporate crime -- is risking her life on hunger strike (for constant
updates on the hunger strike, as well as details about the strikers'
demands, see http://www.bhopal.net/hunger-index.html).

The story began goes back to the 1984 Union Carbide accident in Bhopal,
India, which released a cloud of methyl isocyanate (MIC), hydrogen
cyanide, and other toxins. Somewhere between 4000 and 8000 people died at
the time, and victims' advocates estimate that in total over 20,000 have
died as a result of this largest industrial accident ever, with 150,000
suffering continuing injuries and medical problems.

The cause was extreme corporate malfeasance. The plant was not up to
minimal Union Carbide safety standards -- large quantities of MIC were
unwisely stored in a heavily populated area, the refrigeration unit for
the MIC (which is supposed to kept at temperatures below 32 F) was
deliberately kept turned off to save $40 per day in Freon costs, the
safety systems were dismantled, and the alarm system was turned off. This
even though the same plant had earlier suffered potentially lethal
accidental releases of gases like the deadly nerve agent phosgene. Both
civil and criminal charges were filed, including a charge of culpable
homicide against Warren Anderson, then Carbide's CEO.

The civil case was settled, after extreme obstructionism on the part of
Carbide, for a paltry $470 million -- a few hundred dollars each for
victims still suffering a nightmarish array of cancer, tuberculosis,
severe birth defects, reproductive and menstrual abnormalities, eye
problems, and more. The settlement, reached without consulting the
victims, was so favorable that when it transpired Carbide's stock jumped
two points.

Carbide's callousness is so extreme that it has disclosed neither the
exact chemical composition of the gas cloud, calling it a "trade secret,"
nor the results of its own medical studies on the effects of MIC. As a
result, the few doctors available to help the victims have great difficult
working out the best methods of treatment.

The U.S. government has consistently refused to honor its own extradition
treaty with India, which requires it to send Anderson to be tried in India
for his reckless indifference to human life.

Dow Chemical, which acquired Union Carbide in 2001, refuses to admit any
liability for Carbide's actions. Dow also plans to mass-market Dursban, a
product banned by the EPA in 2000 because it can cause severe neurological
damage (especially to children), to Indians as a household insecticide
(see http://www.bandursban.org).

This happy state of affairs, however, is not enough for Dow. It has also
pressured the Vajpayee government in India to reduce the charges on
Anderson and others from "culpable homicide" to "hurt by negligence," a
non-extraditable offense -- and also to use part of the pathetically low
compensation to victims for cleanup of the area, shifting liability from
the polluter to the victims of the pollution. The final decision on some
charges will be made on July 17.

Rashida, another victim named Tara Bai, and activist Satinath Sarangi of
the Bhopal Group for Action and Information are ready to fast to the death
to prevent these moves. Although the fast is just into its third week,
because of the extreme heat in Delhi and the crippling effects of gas
injuries, Rashida and Tara are failing fast.

The fast is also intended to draw world attention to the continuing
exigent circumstances of Carbide's victims. For years, none of the victims
had access to any sustained affordable medical care. More recently, the
Sambhavna trust (http://www.bhopal.org), a nonprofit NGO, provides some
care to about 10,000, barely 6% of the total number of surviving victims.
At least 5000 families must still regularly drink water contaminated by
mercury and roughly a dozen volatile organic compounds as a result of the
accident.

It is easy to focus on the shameful complicity of the Indian government,
which has consistently shown more interest in courting foreign investors
than in the health of its citizens -- and activists are calling for
Americans to complain to the Indian ambassador (see
http://www.corpwatchindia.org/action/PAA.jsp?articleid=1843). It's also
clear that Dow must be held accountable.

But let's not forget the actions of our own government, which consistently
goes to bat for U.S. corporations, no matter how disgusting their actions.
Enron was a major beneficiary, with both Clinton and Bush officials on
numerous occasions pressuring India, Mozambique, Argentina, and countless
other countries into signing sweetheart deals that benefited Enron
stockholders and not their own people (see http://www.nowarcollective.com/enron.htm).

Enron was hardly unusual, however; U.S. corporations count on this kind of
coercion in their international dealings. Although this latest initiative
is still new, and there is as yet no direct evidence in the news that U.S.
government officials are running interference for Dow, whatever we find
out later -- presumably after the hunger strikers are dead -- will hardly
come as a surprise, with the most pro-corporate administration in U.S.
history currently in power.

Recent scandals make it very clear that we are governed by politicians who
are little more than corporate shills, enriching themselves as they
defraud the public. This is no mere matter of individuals, but a cancer at
the heart of our political system. Rashida and her associates remind us
that these scandals are not just about ill-gotten gains for a few folks
like George W. Bush. They have a body count.