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In 1984 the US rescued Union Carbide’s Warren Anderson – and now dares vilify BP’s Tony Hayward

BY JOHN ELLIOTT. I was there in Bhopal on December 7,1984, when Warren Anderson, then the chairman of Union Carbide, was whisked away from the stricken city to Delhi and back to the US – and we all knew that it was happening with the help of Rajiv Gandhi, then India’s prime minister.

Since then Anderson has been protected by the US business-political establishment from being extradited to India to answer for the appalling human and environmental damage wrought by his company’s gas leak in Bhopal a few days earlier. That was one of the world’s worst industrial disasters, leading to the death of over 5,000 people and continuing ill-health of over 500,000. (See my last visit and report six months ago).

Now that same American establishment that has protected Anderson has been pillorying Tony Hayward, BP’s chief executive, following BP’s oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. The tirade has been led by President Barack Obama, who has been behaving like a spoiled child for the past 50 or so days, casting around for someone to blame when it is his own officials who are primarily at fault.

The wrecked Bhopal plant, Nov 2009

These two man-made catastrophes have generated mega outbursts of irrational media coverage in India and the US in the past week, both fuelled by political cant.

In Delhi, politicians and media have been in a frenzy over the Bhopal gas leak following a court judgement last Monday that eight Indian former Union Carbide executives should serve two-year prison sentences and be fined about $2,000 (subject to appeals that could take years).

In neither case are the main political players really focussing on the primary issues – the appalling damage and threat to the environment in the Gulf, and health problems in Bhopal where thousands of people have suffered for over 25 years.

In both cases it is the US that is making sure its interest are protected. On Bhopal, Anderson was airlifted out of India when he could have been detained, and has been protected ever since by the American business-political establishment. On the Gulf spill, it is America that has decided that BP and Hayward, not its own officials and companies, should be the target for abuse and penalties.

“Whose ass to kick?”

Obama is frightened politically about the damage the spill will do to him and the Democrats. Consequently, he has been stoking anti-BP sentiment instead of steadying it, when the real culprits are officials in various US government organisations that for years have allowed oil companies to negotiate exceptions on environmental and safety procedures. The New York Times explained this on June 6. It started by talking about the managerial muddle on the BP rig, with unclear lines of authority and control, but it then went on to report how US officials had allowed the catastrophic situation to develop. :

“Deepwater rigs operate under an ad hoc system of exceptions. The deeper the water, the further the exceptions stretch, not just from federal guidelines but also often from company policy. So, for example, when BP officials first set their sights on extracting the oily riches under what is known as Mississippi Canyon Block 252 in the Gulf of Mexico, they asked for and received permission from federal regulators to exempt the drilling project from federal law that requires a rigorous type of environmental review, internal documents and federal records indicate.”

So when Obama said last week that he wanted to know “whose ass to kick”, the answer should have been American officials in the regulatory authorities. Sure, BP is massively responsible for what has happened, but for Obama to have personally attacked its chief executive, Tony Hayward, is mean and pathetic – and the president has ended up demeaning himself.

On Bhopal, the court sentences passed on the eight men are of course ridiculously small – and 25 years late. But the Indian media, egged on by politicians, has gone off chasing who it was who allowed Anderson to escape instead of focusing on Indian and Bhopal authorities that allowed a potentially unsafe chemical plant to be built so near the city, then allowed slum housing to mushroom nearby, and then failed to carry out regulatory checks.

Of the eight, the only well-known figure is Keshub Mahindra, chairman of Mahindra & Mahindra, one of the most respected and “clean” Indian groups. He was non-executive chairman of Union Carbide India at a time when such posts had no real corporate responsibility and were mainly involved in helping the company operate in the country. The other seven (including one who has died) were victims of an American management that had effectively walked away from the investment and wanted to dump it.

On the escape of Anderson, I was there in Bhopal at the time – December 7, 1984 – and later learned about what happened from both government and company sources.

Arjun Singh, then the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh (Bhopal is the state capital) heard that Anderson was flying into Bhopal from Bombay on a flight that stopped in Indore. So he ordered his police to the airport without (fearing leaks) telling them why, till the plane had taken off from Indore, when he told them Anderson should be arrested on arrival.

Anderson had planned his visit as some sort of mercy and goodwill mission. As the plane landed in Bhopal, he looked out of the cabin window and saw the police cars, so said to Mahindra, who was sitting beside him, how good it was of the state government to provide him with an escort.

He was immediately arrested and taken to the Union Carbide guest house on a hill overlooking the city. Along with a crowd of Indian and foreign journalists, I stood that afternoon at the guest house’s front gates waiting for Anderson to emerge. Shame on us all, he was whisked out of the back gate without most of us seeing him, and was released on bail after being held for just six hours. He was put on a government plane to Delhi, and then flew to the US.

Although we did not know that afternoon whether Anderson was being flown to Delhi to be detained there, we had no doubt that Singh, a leading Congress politician, was acting on the orders of – or at least with the approval of Rajiv Gandhi, the Congress prime minister. The government is now saying that Singh sent Anderson out of Bhopal because he feared civil unrest if the executive was seen in the city. But that does not explain why, presumably at the behest of the US, Anderson was then allowed to leave the country.

But whether Singh or Gandhi were wrong to have done that is not now relevent. The real crime has been committed by the Indian and American authorities, and by Union Carbide and Dow which has now taken over the company, by not punishing the right people and cleaning up the health hazards in Bhopal.

Now there’s a cause where President Obama could usefully “kick ass”.

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Obama need not come under undue pressure about Anderson

To The Editor,

Sub:- Obama need not come under undue pressure about Anderson.

Ref:- (i)- Judicial delay a blessing in disguise for Bhopal tragedy victims due to Mexico gulf BP oil leak.
(ii)- Obama may use example of Bhopal settlement to streamline US corporate laws.
(iii)- Coy’s non – technical directors and managers should me made culpable only after coy’s technocrats and State regulatory and inspection bureaucrats.
(iv)- Every limited coy should be made separate and independent entity.
(v)- GOI giving undue importance to judiciary.
(vi)- Need for uniform Compensations for dead and injured in all tragedies.
(vii)- USA should drop all the civil cases in US courts regarding Bhopal tragedy.
(viii)- GOI should enact law for third party insurance for hazardous industries.

Dear Sir

Though no doubt, justice delayed is justice denied but had the last week judgment by subordinate court [in 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy in which 20,000 were killed and over five hundred thousand were injured / maimed and in which 7 officers of the company (coy) Union Carbide India limited (UCIL) have been sentenced to 2 years of imprisonment] come within eighties when there was no globalization, then it would have gone in oblivion after some impotent protests of victims and others and some hollow noises by media. But not only now the times are different but also the similarity with ongoing crises in USA regarding Mexico gulf British Petroleum’s oil leak has made all the difference in highlighting this matter to the extent it has now become possible to do. But this matter will not see its logical and legal conclusion unless the following is done:-

(1)- Anybody who has experience of working in large scale chemical / petrochemical industries knows that regarding licensing, construction, continuous technical up-gradation, maintenance, operation, safety and inspection of such hazardous plants there are eight agencies involved (i)- Regulatory / licensing Govt. departments (ii)- technical consultant who provides technology and design / supply and supervise the construction of plants, equipments and machines. (iii)- Technical department of the factory (iv)- operation department of factory (v)- Maintenance department of factory (vi) Safety department of factory (vii) Management of factory with financial and administration powers (viii)- Inspection department of Government. But so much noise is created in Indian media by all, regarding fixing culpability in this tragedy without explaining the role of these 8 agencies where each / any of these 8 agencies failed which resulted in this Bhopal tragedy.

(2)- Hence US Govt. (which has reportedly promised to look into the matter of extradition of UCIL chairman Warren Anderson if India requests so) should not succumb to any pressure from Indian Govt. or its people or media or NGOs etc to harass Anderson unless Govt. of India (GOI) first submit a report to US Govt. about the role of these 8 agencies and about the failure or innocence of these 8 agencies in this tragedy. Otherwise it will have highly damaging effect on the moral of non-technical entrepreneurs (promoters and other share holders) , directors and managers of the corporate world of not only of USA and India (where all most all the leading industrialists are managing hazardous industries) but also of entire world in this age of globalization. Of course if Anderson is found prima-faci guilty after going through said report by Govt. of India then he should be extradited to face justice in the courts of India.

(3)- On the other hand GOI is unnecessarily blaming (i)- Supreme Court of India (SCI) for diluting charges from culpable homicide to criminal negligence (ii)- Subordinate judiciary for letting Anderson escape through bail (iii)- judiciary for delay of 25 years in disposing the case.

(4)- Will GOI enlighten the people that what stopped GOI, who is rightly seized of this matter of Bhopal tragedy of such an immense scale since beginning (i)- from filing review petition in SCI if GOI did not agree with the so called dilution of charges by SCI (ii)- from incorporating explanation to Indian Penal Code to its relevant sections of 304 and 304 -A for the benefit of such victims in future (iii)- from immediately pursuing the matter of extradition of Anderson with US Govt. (even if innocent goofing-up by GOI and Madhya Pradesh State Govt. is granted for argument sake in the escape of Anderson after bail by court without appeal against bail). There is nothing on record to show that GOI persistently pursued the matter of extradition of Anderson with US Govt. since December 7, 1984 when this escape of Anderson was widely reported in media. and (iv)- from constituting fast track court for the trial of accused of Bhopal tragedy especially in view that fast track courts are not a novelty in India.

(5)- Therefore GOI is not only unnecessarily blaming judiciary but also giving undue importance to judiciary in a parliamentary system of democratic India.

(6)- Nothing has done more harm to corporate culture than the practice of holding companies and subsidiary companies in India regarding matters of unethical leverage and security / accounting scandals and also about succession. Hence USA should persuade India to stop this undesirable practice and instead should ask for registration of each company as a separate independent entity. This will take care of succession related matters too of DOW, which has allegedly taken over UCIL with lot of controversies about criminal and civil liabilities of DOW after take over.

(7)- Though in this matter Obama will face great resistance from US corporate sector but by this time (with 18 months in white house) Obama must have realized that in this age of globalization the example from other concerned countries can be gainfully used to bring pressure on the intransigent domestic constituencies in order to make them see reason in due course of time.

(8)- GOI should also bring a suitable legislation about uniform compensation (taking regard to the income tax / land revenue paying capacities of the victims) to killed and injured in various tragedies like rail, road, air accidents floods, tsunami, fire, terrorist attacks etc. Presently it is unjust and arbitrary method by which various Govt. of States and Centre give compensation to these victims.

(9)- One can understand that the victims of 26/11 terrorist attack in Mumbai can approach Pakistani judiciary because as per law in Pakistan any Pakistani who indulges in criminal acts on Pakistani soil but which has repercussions in other country, can be tried by criminal courts of Pakistan and also Pakistani civil courts may entertain civil suits on the basis of and pursuant to sentences awarded in criminal proceeding. Hence US Govt. should move US courts to drop all the civil proceedings related to Bhopal tragedy as there is no sentence awarded to any US citizen in relation to Bhopal tragedy.

(10)- Because hazardous industries may cause immense deaths and injuries to general public and it may not be possible for such industries to pay compensation out of its cash resources (had there been any Indian coy than UCIL of USA, then even after winding up of the coy and selling its all the free assts it wouldn’t have been possible to many Indian coys to pay worth mentioning compensations to the killed and injured / maimed victims of Bhopal tragedy), therefore GOI should make it mandatory through comprehensive legislation (depending upon the severity of the hazard) that the hazardous factories will have to take third party insurance in order to cover the likely victims from general public (other than the employees of such hazardous factory). It should not be forgotten that in a limited company its owner (the share holders) have limited liability.

(11)- Here it is needless to say that once the criminal liability of these 8 said agencies are decided and accused tried in criminal courts of India then civil liability regarding compensation to victims and other civil liabilities regarding environment etc can easily be recovered by Indian judiciary from Indian State and UCIL (especially when every limited coy is registered in India as separate and independent entity).

Yours truly

Hem Raj Jain

Greater NOIDA, (U.P.)
(Address and telephone number supplied)

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