BRIDGET HANNA, BHOPAL MEMORY PROJECT, DECEMBER 5, 2006
Bridget Hanna at work in the Sambhavna Clinic, Bhopal
It’s December again, time for Christmas music, office holiday parties—and the anniversary of the world’s worst industrial catastrophe, the Bhopal gas disaster. Twenty-two years ago this week in Bhopal, India, a midnight feast of methyl isocyanate and hydrogen cyanide was served to 400,000, courtesy of the U.S.-based Union Carbide Corporation, now fully owned by Dow Chemical. The gas killed about 8,000 people that night, and has slowly poisoned to death at least another 12,000 since. In fact, in Bhopal today people are still dying, suffering, drinking contaminated water, and worrying about the future of their children, many of whom suffer from deformities or genetic disorders.
Outside India, Bhopal was important for two reasons. Firstly it publicly illustrated the failure of national and international legal and regulatory systems to hold transnational corporations accountable in a poor country—to date, Union Carbide has not yet faced criminal charges or admitted responsibility for the disaster. Judges in the U.S. refused the Indian government’s request to try the civil case here, and once back in India it was settled in a backroom deal, netting about $500 per person for a lifetime of disability. Perhaps the best evidence of the inadequacy of this compensation was provided by the “invisible hand” of the much-admired free market—Union Carbide stock rose a couple of points when news of the low settlement broke. The second effect of Bhopal was that it delivered a personal message about chemical safety to communities around the world. The realization that a disaster like Bhopal could happen in the U.S. was instrumental in the late 1980s passage of the community Right to Know Act and parts of Superfund. But 22 years later, Bhopalis are still drinking contaminated water, and we are less and less safe at here. Problems raised by Bhopal are more pressing and more connected today than they were in 1984
The long-term failure of India and the U.S. to hold Dow/Carbide accountable for what happened in Bhopal has emboldened the chemical industry. Safety is only as cost-effective as the relative value of life and environmental damage, and since the Indian government has been unable, and the American government unwilling, to force Dow/Carbide to take responsibility, life remains cheap. Dow Chemical refuses to clean up or provide important information regarding the gas to doctors treating survivors. “Self-regulation” initiatives of the industry—such as Bhopal-inspired “Responsible Care” program—reduce safety concern to merely a public relations problem in order to prevent government regulation.
Meanwhile Dow/Carbide continues to market in products known to be dangerous. Dursban, for example, a Dow Chemical pesticide banned in the U.S. for its effects on children’s brains, is still being advertised and sold in India. The Indian government, under pressure by activists, has continued (ponderously) to pursue the criminal case against Union Carbide and its former CEO Warren Anderson (both facing charges of culpable homicide). In 2003 they submitted extradition orders to the American Justice department. The U.S. declined to offer up either Union Carbide or Anderson for justice.
Paradoxically, while Union Carbide is a wanted criminal in India, its owner Dow Chemical—with the blessing of the Indian government—is planning a major expansion into the country. Perhaps its warm welcome has something to do with the fact that Dow arrives hand-in-hand with the American government. The U.S.-India CEO Forum, held in March of this year (during the visit of George W. Bush to his new friend, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh), included 25 top American executives. Among them was Andrew Liveris, CEO of Dow Chemical. The Bush tour ended with agreements to send nuclear power to India and mangos to the U.S., and the release of a cheerful list of joint resolutions. The first item insisted on “welcoming the report of the U.S.-India CEO Forum.”
Other bullet points on the list—painfully ironic considering the Bhopal issue—reiterated commitments to “prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction” and improve “capabilities to respond to disaster situations.” It should be noted that the same methyl isocyanate gas that leaked in Bhopal was used as a chemical weapon against the Kurds by that exemplar of civic responsibility, Saddam Hussein.
The fact that the U.S. government and Dow are still putting pressure on India to absorb more chemical risk is one irony of Bhopal. But the irony at home is just as chilling. In the 1980s, when concerned community groups succeeded in getting some of the strongest legal environmental protections passed here, the concern was a lethal accident. Since 9/11 however, the concern has become terrorism. In New Jersey alone there are 15 facilities where a terrorist act could cause serious injury or death to over 100,000 people, and at least one that could potentially kill over 12 million. Rather than tightening regulation on chemical plants however, the current administration has used this tragedy as an excuse to gut the protections—such as Right to Know—that were put in place after Bhopal. Last week, the EPA announced that it was beginning to close its nationwide network of libraries that provide access to community groups about chemical hazards. And after five years of the curtailment of civil liberties here in the name of homeland security, the final recommendations of the 9/11 report released in 2005 awarded U.S. chemical plants the dismal terrorism preparedness grade of ‘D.’
Bipartisan efforts in the Senate and House last year prepared a bill that would have at least allowed states to enforce stricter safety measures, and to order chemical companies to replace their most dangerous and volatile components with safer alternatives. But last September, a few Republicans working behind closed doors eliminated those stipulations—along with provisions to protect water sources from contamination—in a rider attached to the 2007 spending bill. We are less safe than we were after Bhopal, partly because we have not helped India to bring Union Carbide and Dow to justice.
Those who survived Bhopal advocate not just for their health and rights but also to make sure there are ‘No More Bhopals,’ not in India, not anywhere. They can’t forget the disaster—plagued as they are by chronic illness and second-generation genetic damage. The medical effects of the gas are still terribly understood and poorly managed, and many gas victims have no choice but to drink water saturated with contaminants—like mercury and tetrachloride—that leak from Union Carbide’s abandoned factory. They are subject not only to the exigencies and failures of their own government, but to the weight and influence of ours. Given the current regulatory climate however, it is not clear that if tetrachloride were to show up in your eggnog this month, it would be noticed. Even in the newly Democratic legislature, passing real reforms to curb the behaviors of corporations will remain an uphill battle as long as the chemical industry still thinks it can get away with murder.
Bridget Hanna is director of The Bhopal Memory Project, co-editor of The Bhopal Reader (2004), and a volunteer with the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal. She is currently a graduate student in the Department of Social Anthropology at Harvard University.