Editorial: Remembering Bhopal

IN what should be considered one of the most searing indictments of the modern industrial age, a cruel pattern of double victimization has come to characterize major industrial accidents. First, a preventable and foreseeable accident occurs, killing hundreds or thousands of (usually poor) people, maiming a larger number and causing personal and family tragedies on a massive scale with incalculable cost. Then, the surviving victims and the families of victims both dead and alive are victimized again, as the corporate or government perpetrator responsible for their pain and suffering engages in a series of cover-ups, denials, fingerpointing, financial maneuvers and legal shenanigans to escape accountability and avoid providing anything resembling fair compensation.

 Bhopal represents the worst compound of injustice.

 In December 1984, the residents of Bhopal, India were gassed in one of the most severe cases of corporate violence ever. Thousands of poor people died in the immediate aftermath of the deadly gas leak from a Union Carbide pesticide factory, and thousands more have since died from disaster-related complications. Estimates of the running death toll range from a low of 3,000 to a high of 16,000. Hundreds of thousands more suffer from blindness, permanent lung damage, gas-related cancers, post-traumatic stress disorder and other ailments.

 Ten years later, the Bhopal victims' anguish continues, not only because of their ongoing physical suffering and contraction of new diseases, but because they have received practically no money to pay for medical care, replace lost earnings or compensate for injury and the loss of loved ones.

 Union Carbide and the Indian government share responsibility for the decade-long denial of even money damages to the Bhopal victims. Supposedly to prevent the victims from being exploited by U.S. lawyers who sought to represent them, the Indian government took over legal representation of all Bhopal claimants against Union Carbide. Although the case against Carbide was initially filed in U.S. courts, where the Bhopal plaintiffs could hope to receive the largest award, a U.S. federal judge ruled that the case should properly be heard in Indian courts. Instead of appealing, the Indian government accepted this ruling. In Indian courts, the Indian government won a verdict of more than half the $3.2 billion it sought on behalf of the victims. That amount was slashed on appeal, however, and, before the Indian Supreme Court rendered a decision on the case, the government and Carbide settled for a paltry $470 million.

 Carbide paid the settlement, but the Indian government, plagued by inefficiency and corruption, has failed to dispense the small sum of money available. Bhopal residents have received a minimal payment of approximately $7 monthly; these small payments will eventually be deducted from the sums paid to victims.

 Meanwhile, Union Carbide, stung by one of the worst public relations debacles in history, has managed to recover rather well. Although Carbide has estimated the cost of the Bhopal disaster to the company at around 50 cents per share, its stock price rose $2 per share the day the company settled with the Indian government. In the wake of the disaster, the company had to reposition itself; it has now divested itself of many of its operations, including recently its facilities in India, and tried to establish itself as an environmental leader in the chemical industry. While acknowledging that Carbide has made some progress in reducing toxic emissions from its plants, activists denounce the company's efforts to paint itself green, and contend the company's operations remain particularly dirty and dangerous.

 The effort to achieve some decent measure of accountability, to recognize the criminal nature of the tremendous preventable violence unleashed in Bhopal, has now been reduced to an attempt to bring the equivalent of manslaughter charges against retired Carbide Chief Executive Officer Warren Anderson and a handful of other Union Carbide executives. (In its settlement with Union Carbide, the Indian government agreed not to pursue any criminal charges against Carbide employees, but in response to petitions from the victims, the Indian Supreme Court subsequently voided the grant of immunity.)

 Not surprisingly, Anderson, who was briefly detained in India in 1984 after the accident but released on bail, has declined to present himself to Indian authorities for trial. When the charges against Anderson were reinstated, Carbide argued that Anderson had nothing to do with the Bhopal accident. "As the chairman of Union Carbide Corp., Anderson had no involvement with the operations of the Indian company," the company said in a statement. "Anderson's only connection was after the tragedy when he attempted to bring aid and relief to the victims in Bhopal."

 But an Indian court disagrees. It has found Anderson an "absconder" for failing to appear in court after being summoned, and ordered and reordered the Indian government to seek his extradition from the United States.

 The Indian government has dragged its feet in seeking extradition. Abandoning India's traditional nationalist orientation, the government is now eagerly seeking foreign investment - and a move so bold as to impose criminal liability for the avoidable deaths of thousands of citizens would send the wrong message to foreign investors.

 In case the government did not arrive at this conclusion on its own, Union Carbide explicitly stated it after the reinstatement of charges against Anderson: "To persist in continued harassment of Anderson ... would send a signal to the world that the Indian government is permitting those who favor local political expediency to dominate its policy-making."

 And so, despite the valiant efforts of the Bhopal victims themselves to organize and demand justice, little appears forthcoming.

 For future Bhopals to be averted, new mechanisms of corporate accountability and control will need to be devised. That is the challenge to citizens around the world posed squarely by Bhopal's double tragedy.