Crimes of Bhopal

Holding Corporations Accountable

On the night of December 2-3, 1984 the chemical disaster at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal led to deadly poison clouds surrounding a half million people as they slept. The disaster killed more than 8,000 in its immediate wake. The death toll today is well over 20,000 and rising with more than thirty survivors dying every. Today, well over 120,000 survivors are in desperate need of medical attention for chronic exposure induced diseases, including breathlessness, persistent cough, early age cataracts, loss of appetite, menstrual irregularities, recurrent fever, back and body aches, loss of sensation in limbs, fatigue, weakness, anxiety and depression. An overwhelming majority of the exposed people earned their living through hard labor. Thousands of families are on the brink of starvation because the breadwinners are dead or too sick to work.

Over 20,000 people in the surrounding area rely on drinking water contaminated with carcinogens and other disease causing chemicals that have seeped in to the ground water from the plant. Union Carbide's own report on the contamination indicates that over one-third of the factory premise is hazardously contaminated. A recent report of the Fact Finding mission on Bhopal shows that the poisons in the ground water are present in high concentrations in the breast milk of women in the surrounding communities.

Union Carbide simply abandoned the factory. It has yet to pay for containing the toxic groundwater, rehabilitating the degraded land, or making arrangements for an alternate supply of drinking water.

Corporate Crimes

There is substantial evidence that Union Carbide, with complete control over the pesticide factory in Bhopal, was deliberately negligent in the factory's location, design, operation and maintenance. Two years before the disaster, the corporation's safety experts warned of a "potential for the release of toxic materials" in a confidential business memo. Warren Anderson, the company's chairman and other senior executives ignored the warning. He nonetheless went ahead and reduced plant personnel, shut down vital safety systems, but kept people in the neighborhood in the dark about the deadly chemicals stored, used, and produced in the factory. Less than three months prior to the disaster, an internal Union Carbide memo warned of a "runaway reaction that could cause a catastrophic failure of the storage tanks holding the poisonous [methyl isocyanate] gas" at Union Carbide's Institute, West Virginia plant. This warning was not shared with the management let alone operators of the Bhopal facility. Subramaniam W. Morehouse in his book The Bhopal Tragedy describes what happened after the disaster as the following:

Three days after the disaster, Anderson, on a PR visit to Bhopal, was arrested along with other officials and soon released on bail. He was then escorted to New Delhi on a special government aircraft and allowed to leave the country. He never came back. Neither did any representative from Union Carbide Corporation.

In January 1987 the Indian government's counsels for the prosecution -- the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) -- had charged Warren Anderson and the corporation and nine other Union Carbide subsidiaries and officials with manslaughter, grievous assault and other serious offences punishable by over 10 years of imprisonment and fines. In 1992, Union Carbide Corporation and its former chairman, Warren Anderson, were proclaimed "absconders" by a judgment of the Bhopal District Court for their failure to appear to face criminal charges.

Fifteen years later, India's prosecutors would rethink their position. On May 24, 2002 in a small dusty courtroom in Bhopal, the CBI presented an innocuous looking four-page application before the Chief Judicial Magistrate. They would dilute the charges they themselves had pressed against Union Carbide and its former chairman Warren Anderson in the criminal case on the disaster in Bhopal. They would rather have the two U.S.-based accused be charged with negligence that is punishable by up to two years in prison or fines. The CBI, without doubt following instructions from the highest authorities in the government, were seeking to convert the worst industrial massacre in history to a crime equivalent to a car accident.

This retreat from justice for the victims of Bhopal may be the most recent, but is not the first. Indian government agencies have actively colluded with the corporations and underplay the number of the dead, grossly under-assess the extent of injuries, and suppress medical information potentially disadvantageous. For years after the disaster, the Department of Chemicals and Petrochemicals banned the publication of medical research on Bhopal. The ban was lifted in 1996 but the Indian Council of Medical Research is yet to publish its decade-long research on Bhopal victims.

Through the Bhopal Act of March 1985, the Indian government arrogated to itself the sole power to represent the victims and sued the Corporation in the US for upwards of three billion dollars. Five years later it settled with Union Carbide for a paltry sum of 470 million dollars -- which cost the company 43 cents per share.

Victims of Bhopal have seen different political parties running the government in the last ten years and, yet, none of these governments has taken any steps to extradite the corporate culprits for the corporate crimes of Bhopal. According to a secret internal memo, the Indian government's deliberate inaction stems from concerns that it would "jeopardize the investment climate".

The present government has surpassed all other previous ones in appeasing multinational corporations. Ironically, it is dominated by a party that flaunts its nationalist pretensions. The prosecution's recent move in diluting the criminal charges will essentially make the prime accused in the case un-extraditable from the US.

In February 2001, Union Carbide in a "vanishing act" merged into the Dow Chemical Company of Midland, Michigan, USA. Dow, now the largest chemical corporation in the world, has inherited the medical, social, environmental and criminal liabilities arising out of the Bhopal disaster. Defying established legal procedures and judicial principles in USA and India, Dow's position on Bhopal is that it does not hold itself liable for a factory they never operated in a place they never have been. Continuing with Union Carbide's tradition of liability evasion, Dow refuses to provide for long term health care, income support to the destitute and the disabled, and cleaning up the ongoing contamination.

Global Campaign for Justice

The legal-judicial story of Bhopal illustrates the worldwide inadequacy of codes and structures to hold corporations and their senior officials accountable and of the utter lack of international foray for redress of corporate crimes. Corporate crime has become more institutionalized, legitimate and intense with the advent of globalization.

Bhopal underlines the need and the possibility of involvement of the victims in defining and confronting corporate crime. In this respect the following guidelines for re-defining corporate crime have been proposed by survivor organizations in Bhopal:

  1. Deaths, injuries and long-term impacts to health and environment caused by hazardous industrial systems must be seen as corporate murder, assault and terror;
  2. Failure to disclose hazards and hazard mitigation plans, misinformation regarding chemicals stored, produced, spilled, leaked and emitted, suppression of information critical to individual and public health and safety, following double standards of safety in different countries, choosing unsafe technologies when safer alternatives are available and other glaring instances of premeditated policy of putting profits before people must be treated as criminal offence;
  3. In all cases of corporate crime, the burden of proof must be on the offending agency;
  4. Penalties for corporate crimes: criminal fines on the corporation and imprisonment of representatives; and
  5. In all cases of corporate crime, individual executives must be made criminally accountable, made to pay fines and undergo deterrent punishment.

Under this approach, holding corporations accountable for their crimes will involve the solidarity of victimized communities and their supporters worldwide. In these times of globalization, the specter of a recurrence of Bhopal looms over large parts of the world, particularly in countries of the South where corporations are relocating hazardous industries. Moreover, prior to Bhopal, Union Carbide was known as the author of the worst industrial disaster in USA. Described as the Hawk's Nest scandal, according to the Wall Street Journal Europe (3/1/85), 'in a Depression-era scandal in West Virginia, 476 workers died of the lung disease silicosis while building a diversion tunnel for a Carbide-sponsored hydroelectric project. Hundreds of other workers, 80% of whom were black, suffered and died later. A critical account of the massacre reports 'it is apparent that the illnesses and deaths that resulted were not only known to them, but expected by them. For as the purchasing agent for the contractor candidly stated "I knew we were going to kill these niggers, but I didn't know it was going to be this soon." Senator Holt of West Virginia reported that the company further stated openly that "if we kill off those, there were plenty of other men to be had."

In the U.S. and around the world, a community's "right-to-know" is under fierce attack or non-existent. In Bhopal, corporate secrecy has prolonged the suffering of the victims. Before the disaster there was only one minor scientific paper published on the health consequences of methyl isocyanate among a few exposed firemen. Today, most of the medical information on the chemical remains with the Union Carbide Corporation. They continue to withhold its unpublished data as a "trade secret". This suppression of information is impeding the medical care of the survivors. Lack of treatment protocols, in the absence of information, is leading to indiscriminate prescription of potentially harmful drugs that compound exposure induced injuries. Analysis of prescriptions issued at a clinic run by the "Charitable Trust" set up by Union Carbide shows that 26.3% of the drugs prescribed were harmful, 48.5% of drugs were useless according to standard text book of pharmacology and 7.6% of drugs prescribed were both harmful and useless.

Bhopal also illustrates the global reach of corporate crime. The merger of Union Carbide with the Dow Chemical Company unites the victims of Bhopal with the victims of dioxin-related illness, death, and deformity worldwide that can be attributed to Dow. Dow is the creator of organochlorine aliphatic and aromatic polymers, feedstocks, and agricultural chemicals. In the U.S., the relentless efforts of local activists such as Diane Hebert have shown that Midland, where Dow has its global headquarters, is one of the most dioxin-contaminated human settlements in the country. In Vietnam, over 19 million gallons of the dioxin-containing defoliant Agent Orange were dumped by the United States over 4.5 million acres of the country-side between 1962 and 1971. Dow was one of the principal manufacturers of Agent Orange, to which millions of Vietnamese people were exposed during the war.

The disaster in Bhopal is not an isolated event. There are slow and silent Bhopals occurring in a routine manner in almost every part of the world. There is abundant scientific evidence to establish that corporations are responsible for indigenous human populations disappearing, marine mammals declining, species loss accelerating, clean water becoming scarcer, forests dwindling, ocean fisheries collapsing, productive top soil diminishing, contamination by pesticides and industrial chemicals steadily growing, and chronic diseases rising.

The gas-exposed people of Bhopal have not remained passive victims of Union Carbide's crimes. From immediately after the disaster, they have organized to demand justice and have run legal and direct action campaigns to bring the corporate criminals to justice. Attempts to obtain justice through the Indian and American legal systems have been to no avail so far. Three organizations of survivors, whose members are overwhelmingly women, continue to hold weekly meetings and demonstrations as part of the longest battle of its kind. They have received support from communities victimized by corporations around the world as well as from trade unions, environmental and human rights organizations and others. The Sambhavna Trust Clinic based in Bhopal is the only organization supporting the struggle of the survivors.

Sambhavna is a Sanskrit/Hindi word that means "possibility." Read as "sama" and "bhavna" it can also mean "similar feelings" or "compassion." The Sambhavna Trust Clinic offers free medical care to the chronically ill survivors through modern medicine, Ayurveda and Yoga. In the last six years, this clinic has given effective and sustained care to more than 11,000 people and provided support to about the same number through health initiatives in 10 severely affected communities. Sambhavna was awarded the MEAD 2001 Award by the Margaret Mead 2001 Centennial Committee for exemplifying the American anthropologist's statement: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world."

More than ever, today, ensuring justice in Bhopal is vital to protect the lives and health of the people considered expendable by the institutions of globalization. Through global linkages among victims of corporate crime, this large group of thoughtful, committed citizens must work together to change the world.

For more information on the Bhopal disaster and Sambhavna please visit http://www.bhopal.org

Comments

And I thought that Cyber Crimes news are bad. This article shows how poor most of the people are, and some of them steal to have something to eat. It's shameful that our society became like this. Something must be done to stop these robberies.
I just hope that this will not go out of proportion. Peace and stability on that region is very fragile and sensitive. - James Stuckey

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