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Justice for BP oil spill victims, none for Bhopal

Jul 02, 2010

Analysts say there is a great contrast between the US response to the oil spill and Bhopal disaster, where the poor and powerless faced humiliation at the hands of the rich and resourceful Western corporation. In Pratap Bhanu Mehta's words, Bhopal tragedy does remind that India is a weak state.

There’s no escaping the contrast between the US response to the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and its response to the world’s greatest industrial disaster in Bhopal 26 years ago.


On April 20, 2010, the Gulf of Mexico disaster claimed 11 lives, with the flow of oil reaching 60,000 barrels a day, polluting the flora and fauna in the ocean. President Obama in his first Oval office address to the nation thundered: “We will fight this spill with everything we have got for as long as it takes. We will make BP pay for the damage their company has caused.”

To begin with the British-based global energy company will pay up to USD 20 billion for the oil spill. And Vice President Joe Biden has made it clear that this payment pledge from BP is merely the beginning of the compensation that will be paid to victims of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Ken Feinberg, nominated by the Obama administration to administer the BP compensation fund, has plenty of experience expediting claims for victims, including those of the Holocaust and the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. There is no way BP is getting out of the spill muck any time soon.

Compared with this, analysts say, the Bhopal disaster reeks of the humiliation of a poor and powerless country at the hands of a rich and resourceful Western corporation.

It was in 1984 that a leak of toxic gas at American company Union Carbide’s Indian subsidiary killed more than 20,000, injured tens of thousands more and left the central Indian city of Bhopal with a toxic waste dump at its heart.

Warren Anderson, the company’s American chief executive, arrested while in India, skipped bail, never to return. The company walked away after paying a $470 million settlement; the victims of the ghastly disaster ended up receiving, on an average, a pittance of Rs 12,410.

The cruelest irony was the recent Bhopal court verdict coming 26 years after the disaster: two years in prison for eight Indian executives of Carbide at the time of the gas leak, one of them since dead, while the American interests involved continue to go untouched.

India had sought $3.3 billion in damages from the American company Union Carbide, but in 1989 settled for less than half a billion dollars. Charges of culpable homicide against the company’s senior officials were later reduced by India’s Supreme Court to a charge most often used against reckless drivers in car accidents.

“This (the Bhopal case) is one case where every organ of the (Indian) state failed,” Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Centre for Policy Research, said. “An event like this actually does remind you that India is a weak state.”

Peter Glover, a British writer on international affairs, specialising in energy issues, says it’s all about politics and money.

“Although UCC’s CEO, Warren Anderson, was arrested and charges were laid in the Indian courts, the Reagan administration succeeded in cutting an out-of-court deal which saw all charges dropped with a mere $470 million in compensation damages being eventually paid out. Anderson was on the first plane home. Neither he nor any of the American executives of Union Carbide’s parent company have ever faced prosecution.  Few observers doubt that the Reagan administration and Union Carbide sold the people of Madhya Pradesh down the Ganges. Consider the tens of thousands of deaths, the loss of family incomes, supporting the chronically injured, not to mention the loss of livelihood as UCC’s American executives abandoned the Bhopal site and, effectively, fled the country.”

Shastri Ramachandaran in an article for Global Times titled ‘Justice for BP, none for Bhopal Should Anger Asian Giant’ explains the contrast: “In the BP case, the US is a victim, but in the other, it is the defensive fortress for the corporate criminals responsible.”

He further writes: “Obama has no reason to be affected by Bhopal. Warren Anderson, Union Carbide's chief executive when disaster struck Bhopal 26 years ago, roams free and, despite an arrest warrant and extradition request out for him, is at no risk of being brought to account. Dow Chemicals, which owns Union Carbide, has rejected liability and stonewalled attempts to make it clean up or pay for cleaning up the toxins that remain at the Bhopal site.”

Indian commentators have taken the BP comparison further, arguing that the Obama administration cares more about fish and birds in the Gulf of Mexico than it does about Indians maimed by an American company. But the onus, others argued, lies with the Indian government.

“If we in India aspire to sup with those at the high-table in the world, then the Indian government cannot be allowed to undervalue Indian lives so contemptuously,” Sitaram Yechury, a member of the Rajya Sabha from the Communist Party, wrote in The Hindustan Times.

“By all counts, BP must be brought to book for the damage it’s caused... Such merchants of death must be made to pay,” Yechury adds, but reminds the Americans that the same standards be applied universally.

“The world’s worst ever industrial disaster took place on the night of December 2-3, 1984, when over 40,000 kg of toxic gas leaked from the fertiliser plant of Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL), killing over 4,000 people in a flash and injuring more than a lakh. While estimates vary, it is universally accepted that over 20,000 people have died so far and nearly 6 lakh people have contracted life-long infirmities. Investigations had established negligence on the part of the UCIL management.”

According to Yechury, Anderson had promised, in his bond, to return to India to stand trial in the case when summoned, but he never did so. The Government of India has so far failed to get him extradited for the trial. Questions about complicity on the part of the government and the Indian system of justice became louder when, mysteriously, all criminal charges against UCIL were dropped in 1989.

It was only the widespread public uproar that led to the Supreme Court reopening the cases in 1991. However, in 1996, again mysteriously, the apex court directed the charges to be converted from culpable homicide (maximum sentence of ten years) to death due to negligence (maximum sentence of two years). It was under this latter charge that 15 years later, this verdict’s been delivered.

“The government must seriously remedy this gross injustice, bring the guilty to book and deliver justice to the victims,” Yechury wrote. “The recently-constituted Group of Ministers, it is hoped, will rise to the occasion.”

He has further demanded that the Indian government must reconsider and withdraw the Civilian Nuclear Liability Bill (CNLB) that it had so hurriedly introduced in Parliament under pressure from the US. “In the Bhopal gas tragedy, Union Carbide paid Rs 713 crore as compensation after prolonged legal wrangling. Under the CNLB, the maximum compensation required to be paid by the supplier is a mere Rs 500 crore. This could be increased to Rs 2,100 crore when the liability is transferred to the government.”


“Obama, today, is asking BP to shell out US $20 billion or Rs 9,000 crore as the initial requirement. Is it unfair to ask the US to accept uniform standards in dealing with humanity? Perhaps it is, as the US’s track record is nothing to write home about. The question is what are we doing about it, and how we value the lives of fellow Indians,” Yechury says.

On its part the Manmohan Singh government proposes to adopt the measures announced by a Group of Ministers which includes increased compensation for victims and a fresh effort to extradite Anderson. The octogenarian former chairman of Union Carbide is still considered an absconder.

The government has also pledged that it will clean up the abandoned factory. Activists have long sought to make the Dow Chemical Company, the company that bought the now-defunct Union Carbide, pay for the cleanup. The Indian government has said that it would pay now and seek reimbursement if a court found Dow liable.

The new measures have done little to quell anger among victims and activists.

“The victims will get hardly 10% of the money and rest will go to the pockets of ministers and bureaucrats,” Satinath Sarangi of Bhopal Group for Information and Action, an advocacy group, says. “The Indian people have to pay for the crimes committed by the US corporations.”

Source : Infochange
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