To Union Carbide, life is cheap: Bhopal – ten years later

Abstract:

Bhopal, India, was the scene of a devastating industrial disaster in the 1980s when a Union Carbide plant emitted about 40 tons of methyl isocyanate gas. The company settled out of court, and the government has not pursued the case on behalf of the many thousands of victims.

Full Text:

Were it not for the skull-and-crossbones graffiti scrawled on the old, dilapidated Union Carbide factory gates and the monument to the victims across the street, a casual visitor to Bhopal would never know that it was the site of one of the two greatest industrial disasters in history, rivaling that of Chernobyl. The hot and dusty downtown streets of this bustling central Indian city of more than 1 million people buzz with a swarm of bicycles, black-and-yellow motorized rickshaws and an occasional automobile. In the winding, ramshackle back alleys of Nagar Nigam colony, near the old factory, children play with abandon. Neighbors sit in front of their houses and shoot the breeze. It is here that Ishrat Siddiqui, a man who lived through the disaster, diverts a conversation about the night the poison cloud descended to ask me about the price of an American dog. An American dog? I have to admit that I don’t know. I bet you, says Siddiqui, that an American dog costs more than an Indian life.

A decade has passed since the Carbide pesticide factory spewed more than forty tons of lethal methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas into the slums of Bhopal, killing, according to recent government figures, more than 6,600 people and injuring well over 70,000, who continue to suffer. (Death and injury claims filed by citizens are much higher, exceeding 16,000 and 600,000, respectively.) In the intervening years, the disaster’s impoverished victims have waged an unrequited struggle for justice, but they have been ill served by the Indian government, which failed to pursue the victims’ case aggressively in court there, opting instead to go easy on Carbide in order to maintain a favorable investment climate. Carbide, the party responsible for the deaths of thousands of men, women and children, settled out of court for a paltry $470 million, thus avoiding any damaging legal precedent or liability. As this global company divested itself of its assets in India and elsewhere, it remade itself as a corporate environmentalist at home. Ultimately, Bhopal is the story of how business goes on as usual in the corporate world, albeit with a greener veneer.

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Siddiqui’s street economics are nearly on the mark. Just recently money from the settlement started making its way to the surviving victims and relatives of the dead. For each death, families are receiving $3,000. In the United States this equals the price of not one but two high-class pedigreed dogs. One might also compare these numbers with the $5 billion recently awarded to the plaintiffs in the Exxon Valdez litigation. By any measure, it’s clear that for global corporations, life is cheap in the Third World.

Of course, the simple fact is that the Bhopal gas disaster never should have happened in the first place. In an effort to cut costs, Carbide had dropped the safety standards at the Bhopal plant well below those it maintained at a nearly identical facility in Institute, West Virginia. Beyond such double standards, Edward Munoz, who was the managing director of Union Carbide India Limited (U.C.I.L.) when the Bhopal plant was built in the 1970s, told me there was “a childish comedy of errors” in the planning and construction of the factory. According to Munoz, Carbide applied to the Indian government for permits to build a facility in Bhopal that was five times the size needed to supply anticipated demand. Munoz maintains that while U.C.I.L. applied for the permits only in order to keep other transnational corporations out and to corner a segment of the Indian pesticide market, Carbide’s engineering department in South Charleston, West Virginia, overrode the Indian subsidiary’s wishes to keep the plant small, and on the premise of “the bigger the better” designed a 10,000-ton facility for Bhopal. The boondoggle continued when Carbide USA suggested building large tanks to store the massive amounts of lethal MIC that came with the oversized factory. Munoz and U.C.I.L. balked, advising that, if at all, the MIC should be stored in fifty-five-gallon drums for both safety and economic reasons. Again they were overruled. The Indian government never questioned any of these moves, believing that Carbide knew best. And so the deadly MIC tanks were installed in Bhopal. “The dynamite,” says Munoz, who by that time had been transferred back to headquarters, was in “the center of town.”

Today, a decade after that “dynamite” exploded, the lessons of Bhopal seem to have fallen on deaf ears in the Indian government. Although in the 1970s it kicked Coca-Cola and I.B.M. out rather than accede to their terms of doing business, by the time of the Bhopal disaster the Indian government had begun a process of liberalizing, privatizing and globalizing its economy in accordance with structural adjustment policies promulgated by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. This ultimately led to its signing of the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade this past April. Thus, despite the nationalist bravado and some sparring that went on after Bhopal, the Indian government treated Carbide with kid gloves, sending a clear signal to other transnationals that India would not deal too harshly with them in case of a massive toxic release or other such disaster.

So while Carbide, its image battered and bruised by Bhopal, has been struggling to get out of India, the country’s neoliberal regime has encouraged transnationals to return en masse to this nation of 900 million. Hundreds of companies like General Electric, McDonald’s, BMW and Mitsubishi are rushing to invest. Many are taking advantage of the country’s highly educated, low-wage work force as a platform from which to export to the industrialized North. Others are mesmerized by a middle-class consumer market that conservative estimates place at 100 million people – only one-ninth of India’s population, but still as large as the entire populations of Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands combined. The transnationals are beginning to sell this massive group of consumers everything from refrigerators and plastics to fast food, fast cars and, of course, MTV, Coke and Pepsi.

The free-marketeering Indian government is also gutting the country’s environmental, health and safety protections to keep the investments flowing fast and smooth. While India’s national and regional governments passed a spate of environmental laws in the immediate post-Bhopal era, many of these have been rolled back as structural adjustment, GATT and growing foreign investment have rolled in. The unsustainable export of natural resources has accelerated. Prohibitions against siting industrial facilities in ecologically sensitive zones have been eliminated, while protected areas are being rezoned so that cement plants, oil refineries and dams can be built. Pesticide production is rapidly expanding. Regulations on forestry appear to have been loosened at the behest of the pulp and paper industry, fisheries controls have been undermined by transnational joint ventures and mining laws have been watered down as a result of pressure from the mining corporations. Meanwhile, in the state of Goa, Du Pont obtained a remarkable post-Bhopal clause in its contract with the government that would absolve it of all liability in case of an accident at the chemical plant it’s been attempting to build in the face of strong community opposition [see Mark Schapiro, “Du Pont’s Post-Bhopal Blues,” November 2, 1992!. As Bhopal community activist Abdul Jabbar asserts, “GATT will bring more Bhopals. The Indian government has not listened.”

The lessons of Bhopal, it seems, are falling on deaf ears in the United States as well. The harsh reality is that the potential for another Bhopal still exists, not only in the Third World, where corporate globalization is running rampant, but right here at home. Nowhere is this danger graver than in Bhopal’s sister plant in Institute, West Virginia. Carbide sold the Institute plant to the French transnational Rhone-Poulenc in 1986. While this move may have helped address Carbide’s image problem, the fact remains that the Institute plant, already beleaguered by a series of accidents, is the only facility in the United States and perhaps in the world that still stores massive quantities of highly volatile and dangerous MIC in the large tanks that Edward Munoz unsuccessfully advised against in Bhopal. “Bhopal to me would have proven that storing MIC can be a lethal proposition for a lot of people,” he remarks. “We thought that we could control the conditions in Bhopal, or we wouldn’t have built a tank. To assume that we can control the storage conditions in Institute is very optimistic.”

For its part, Carbide has worked hard to remake itself as an environmental corporation of the 1990s, producing, among other things, fluffy advertisements trumpeting itself as a company committed to “cleaner air, purer water, less waste.” Indeed the post-Bhopal era has witnessed reduced emissions from Carbide, as well as from many of the nation’s largest polluters. In various cases, corporate safety precautions have been tightened; after all, massive toxic events are bad for business. Legislation such as “right to know” laws, passed in Bhopal’s aftermath, have also armed communities living in chemical plants’ shadows with information about toxic releases, forcing greater corporate accountability. These shifts are paralleled by a corporate onslaught calling for reduced government intervention and a greater degree of self-regulation. Trust us, they say, we too are now environmentalists.

But below the surface, Union Carbide, the tenth-largest chemical corporation in the United States and still typical of the industry in general, has not changed all that much. “Sure they tried to clean up their act, but look at the record of accidents in Carbide facilities after Bhopal,” comments Ward Morehouse, a member of Communities Concerned About Corporations, a collection of community, religious, environmental and labor activists fighting the abuses of Carbide and its corporate brethren. Indeed, after an explosion in Carbide’s Seadrift, Texas, plant in 1991 that killed one and injured thirty-two more, OSHA fined the company $2.8 million after finding that Carbide had ignored and then attempted to cover up a series of reports by its own safety engineers urging changes that might have prevented the accident. In 1988 and 1989 the company was found to have grossly understated the amount of toxics it had released over that period. According to Morehouse, the company also has a “sick record” of distorting injury statistics it reports to OSHA.

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On December 3, Carbide plans to fly its company flags at half-mast to mark the tenth anniversary of the Bhopal gas disaster. By lowering its banners the industrial giant hopes to project the image of a concerned corporate citizen. Flags will fly low across its remaining empire of petrochemical factories as far-flung as Seadrift, the Guandong Province of China and Cubatao, Brazil. Yet to many, Carbide’s gesture is hollow. Wil Lepkowski, who has been following a decade’s worth of Bhopal fallout from his perch as senior editor at the weekly Chemical and Engineering News, told Carbide’s top brass, who solicited his opinion, that a more appropriate gesture would be to “put a memorial up to the victims in front of every one of their factories.” Members of victims’ groups that continue to organize in Bhopal have their own ideas. They are demanding adequate health care and compensation. And they are calling for the extradition of former Carbide chief executive officer Warren Anderson to face criminal proceedings in India.

Meanwhile, people around the world are organizing diverse events to commemorate the tragedy; joining forces as part of an international day of action on December 3, these groups are supporting the victims’ demands while calling for bans on some of the world’s most dangerous chemicals and advocating greater democratic control over corporations. Together, they are keeping the memory of Bhopal alive.

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