Friday, March 24, 2006

Bhopal's Unfinished Business

Commentary by Martin Kelly
December 6, 2004

On December 1, BBC Television broadcast a documentary entitled ‘One Night in Bhopal’, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the world’s worst ever industrial accident, when a gas leak from Union Carbide’s plant in Bhopal, India engulfed the city in the middle of the night, killing between 3,000 and 10,000 people, an angel of death as merciless as that which killed the first-born of Egypt.

The disaster was the result of four catastrophic safety failures. Firstly, a workman failed to attach an anti-leakage appliance to a pipe he was cleaning, resulting in water mixing with a chemical called MIC, contained in a storage tank. The valves in the pipe were already insecure. The chain reaction caused by the mixture of water and MIC made the tank’s temperature rise to 200 degrees. At that temperature, the mixture began to give off ultra-toxic gas, which leaked through the valves.

The second failure was that the tank’s cooling system was not in use, but on standby.

The third failure occurred when the gas began to leak. Union Carbide India employees turned off the alarm designed to warn the shanty neighbourhoods surrounding the plant, for fear of starting a panic.

The fourth failure was that the flare tower, which could have burned off the leaking gas, was out of operation.

The gas attacked the eyes and the lining of the lungs, causing victims to choke on their own fluids.

The BBC reported on the aftermath of the disaster. The precise number of victims is still not known. Many were never identified. Union Carbide USA disavowed responsibility for the disaster, instead placing the blame at the door if its subsidiary, Union Carbide India. The public health advice Union Carbide issued after the disaster was that symptoms could be treated with household medications. Union Carbide’s own internal report blamed sabotage. The corporation eventually reached a non-liability settlement with the Indian government. Under the settlement, average compensation per victim amounted to approximately $550. The plant was closed in 1985.

The people of Bhopal continue to suffer very much higher than average incidences of eye, skin and lung diseases and genetic birth defects. The miscarriage rate in Bhopal is seven times the Indian national average. Women suffer very much higher incidences of severe menstrual problems. According to the BBC, at least one person in Bhopal still dies every day as a result of the gas exposure they received in December 1984.

Warren Anderson, the Chairman of Union Carbide at the time, is still wanted in India on manslaughter charges, having jumped bail in 1984 after his arrest by the stouthearted and fearless Swaraj Puri, the town’s Chief of Police. Anderson will be delighted to know that, 20 years down the road, Chief Puri is still working the Bhopal beat despite suffering from severe breathing difficulties brought on by gas exposure. Without any kind of central plan for such a civil emergency, Chief Puri led the people of Bhopal back to their homes saying that he would be the first to die if there were still any gas. Anderson apparently spends his time between Florida and the Hamptons, a gilded fugitive.

In September 1984, an internal report for Union Carbide USA made clear the dangers of mixing water and MIC. The report was not passed on to Union Carbide India.

Corporations are not social entities; they don’t hold barbecues or drive their kids to school. They exist for only one purpose, to make money. As Dennis Prager has memorably put it, the corporate mindset would put an orgy on ‘Captain Kangaroo’ if they thought they could get away with it.

But the Bhopal disaster was corporatism at its very worst. It could have easily been avoided, if all the controls that were in place had operated, and the townsfolk of Bhopal had been instructed how to protect themselves and their families in the event of a catastrophic leak. It might have been avoided if the safety report on the dangers of mixing water and MIC had been passed on to Union Carbide India. In its aftermath, its chairman shouldn’t have jumped bail – India is a country that possesses working courts and laws on evidence and procedure. The fact that they are still pursuing Warren Anderson shows that the Indian authorities believe he has a case to answer under the laws of the jurisdiction where the company he chaired elected to have a subsidiary engaged in probably the most dangerous of all manufacturing processes. Nobody in Union Carbide’s boardroom commissioned or built that plant with a gun at their head. He should not hide in the Hamptons, but, if he is still able to do so, should surrender himself for trial, and have the evidence against him tested in open court. The mark of an honourable man is his willingness to face up to the consequences of his own actions or the actions of those who act under his authority. Saying ‘It’s the subsidiary’s fault’ is a good plea when defending a tort case, but not really one should be able to sleep easily with.

America was right to have nothing to do with the operation of the International Criminal Court. That would place its strictures at a higher level of standing than the Constitution. Soldiers acting under reasonable orders should always be protected from civilian prosecution.

But Bhopal did not involve the business of states. It involved the doings of corporations. The actions of executives in the pursuit of profit should not require and should not have the same protections as the actions of soldiers in harm’s way.

One can, of course, imagine the immediate reaction of Union Carbide’s corporate superstructure. Legal would be on the phone to the insurers, explaining what steps they were taking to investigate the risk of exposure. Public Relations would be on the phone straight away to the banks and the major investors, trying to persuade them not to sell, and to the credit rating agencies, saying that there would be no need to downgrade the stock. Any lawyer who cuts a non-liability deal limiting exposure to a rough average of $550 per victim is a genius, and one can be sure Union Carbide would have hired the best their stockholders could buy.

For all the dangers that Indian outsourcing poses to western economies, maybe after Bhopal one can understand why India has concentrated on attracting white-collar jobs. An average payment of $550 makes one wonder what signal that gives out to the rest of the world concerning the value the West places on human life.

Maybe Warren Anderson can try to justify that the next time he swings round the neighbourhood. One is sure Chief Swaraj Puri would be delighted to meet him again. They have some unfinished business to discuss.