And Not to Yield
For more than twelve years, there has been a continuing campaign in Bhopal for economic rehabilitation and health care for the victims of the world's worst industrial disaster, and for accountability of those who caused such widespread pain and suffering. The victims themselves have been at the forefront of this struggle and shown their determination in the face of indifference and active opposition by the chief perpetrator of the disaster-Union Carbide Corporation-all too often in unholy alliance with government authorities in Bhopal and the nation's capital, Delhi. Parallel efforts in solidarity with the victims soon sprang up in other parts of India and in other countries as well. What follows is an account of this solidarity support in the United States, the home of Union Carbide Corporation. This account is followed by a brief discussion of lessons from this experience which may serve as guideposts in future struggles along similar lines. It should be understood that the story told here is but a footnote to a historical event which took place primarily in Bhopal and Delhi. Lessons from that struggle have been recounted in many public fora by one of the key figures in the quest for justice in Bhopal, S. Sarangi, the moving spirit behind the Bhopal Group for Information and Action and the Managing Trustee of the Sambhavna Trust, which has established the Bhopal People's Health and Documentation Clinic.
Initial US Response
When the world's worst industrial disaster occurred on December 2-3, 1984, persons active in the US voluntary sector shared with the rest of the world the horror at seeing thousands die and tens of thousands seriously injured. To bring matters closer to home, this wanton destruction was done by a major US corporation and raised fundamental questions about corporate power, the integrity of the environment, work place safety and community exposure to the risk of catastrophic accident, and ultimately, democratic control over these giant institutions which are now bigger than most nation states. One of the first responses by the U.S. voluntary sector was a conference held in Newark, New Jersey on March 20-21, 1985 on the theme "After Bhopal: Implications for Developed and Developing Nations." It was organized by the Workers' Policy Project in New York City and co-sponsored by a wide range of labor, human rights and public health organizations.
The Formation of the Citizens' Commission
This led to the creation of the Citizens' Commission on Bhopal. That body, which was a logical sequel to the Newark Conference, reflected the determination of a broad spectrum of consumer, environmental, church, worker, scientific, and other organizations to see that justice would be done to the victims of the Bhopal tragedy, that those responsible were held accountable, and that the lessons of that tragedy were not forgotten. One consequence of the Newark Conference and the formation of the Commission was an investigation into what really happened in Bhopal and what it meant for American workers and communities at risk. This investigation resulted in a book titled The Bhopal Tragedy: A Report for the Citizens Commission on Bhopal. Another task before us was the filing of amicus briefs in the early stages of the civil litigation growing out of this disaster. Hundreds of thousands of claims for wrongful death and personal injury were lodged against Union Carbide Corporation for its gross negligence in designing and operating the pesticide factory which gassed the sleeping city of Bhopal. (That litigation began in the Federal District Court in New York, although it was ultimately transferred back to India.)
Settling in for the Long Haul
The Citizens Commission on Bhopal at its height involved the representatives of as many as 50 voluntary organizations. While the breadth of concern that this wide participation reflected was a strength, the major limitation was the difficulty in achieving consensus on a meaningful program of action. Gradually the Commission became less active, and in its place emerged a much smaller but more cohesive body known as the Bhopal Action Resource Center. BARC was a joint effort of two groups-the International Center for Law in Development and the Council on International and Public Affairs. It still maintained a broad range of contacts in the U.S. voluntary community, as it focused on monitoring developments in the U.S. related to the tragedy, maintaining active contact with victims' organizations and voluntary groups in India, and striving to see that the voices of the victims were heard in the decade-long struggle for justice that ensued.
Mobilizing International Activism
Recognizing that the lessons of the Bhopal disaster were worldwide in scope and that the principal obstacle to justice for the victims was a US-headquartered corporation with global reach, those active in BARC took the initiative in forming in 1986 an international network of like minded groups in other countries known as the International Coalition for Justice in Bhopal. ICJIB consists of half a dozen voluntary organizations in Japan, Hong Kong, Netherlands, United Kingdom, and the United States. One of the major initiatives of ICJIB was to petition the Permanent People's Tribunal in Rome to hold a series of sessions on industrial and environmental hazards and human rights. The first of these was organized by the Bhopal Action Resource Center at the Yale Law School in 1991. Subsequent sessions were held in Bangkok, in Bhopal itself, and finally culminated in a final session in London in November-December, 1994, on the tenth anniversary of the disaster. A book based on this final session of the Tribunal is in preparation for publication under the title Righting Corporate Wrongs.
Monitoring Union Carbide Corporation
Bhopal was not an accident. Even Carbide's own documents show that it was a disaster waiting to happen-a textbook case of corporate failure to meet even the most minimal standards of proper social performance with regard to human safety and the physical environment. Where there were choices to be made, the Carbide management opted to maximize profit and minimize costs, even though they knew they were playing with innocent people's lives. Since the disaster, more than 600,000 claims have been filed with the Indian government against Union Carbide (with at least another 250,000 claims still unregistered, the government has recenty reopened the registration rolls). Union Carbide has fought tooth and nail to avoid paying anything more than a token amount of compensation, although, on its own admission, it has spent about $50 million on legal fees. Particularly deplorable is the manner in which the due process of adjudication and the due process rights of the victims were circumvented by the premature and unwarranted announcement of the February 1989 order by the Indian Supreme Court, imposing an unjust settlement on the victims without consulting them. The order is all the more deplorable because it allowed UCC to escape without facing legal or financial responsibility, because the amount of the settlement is too little to meet the victims' needs, and because the unmet burden will fall on the Indian taxpayer rather than the guilty corporation. The settlement of $470 million was equivalent to only $793 each for the 592,000 who had then filed claims. It was not even sufficient to cover health care and monitoring costs for the gas-exposed population, let alone economic rehabilitation or compensation for their suffering. Indeed, the settlement was so favorable for Union Carbide that its stock price rose $2 a share in the New York Stock Exchange the day it was announced! There are still charges of culpable homicide outstanding against UCC and Warren Anderson, the CEO of the corporation at the time of the disaster, in the Bhopal Magistrate's Court.
Union Carbide has tried to evade the jurisdiction of the criminal court in Bhopal by selling its shares in its Indian subsidiary under the guise of providing finance for a hospital for the disaster victims. These shares were Union Carbide's last tangible assets in India. Now that it has sold them off, it has severed all its connections to India and tried to relegate Bhopal to the dustbin of history. The activities of the Bhopal Action Resource Center in late 1980s and early 1990s involved continued monitoring of the failure of Union Carbide Corporation to fulfill its often-claimed "moral responsibility," and the struggles of communities across the U.S. and all around the world against the risks imposed on them by corporations conducting ultra-hazardous operations in their midst. Two further books grew out of this: Nothing to Lose but Our Lives, and Abuse of Power. In December 1995, the Council on International and Public Affairs took the initiative in bringing together numerous American environmental and social justice organizations to launch the Campaign for Justice in Bhopal. The Campaign signed on to a full-page ad in The New York Times headlined "Should Corporations Get Away With Murder?" which drew public attention to Union Carbide's refusal to answer to the criminal charges in the Bhopal courts. It also urged the New York State Attorney General to institute charter revocation proceedings against UCC under Section 1101 in the New York Business Corporation Law, which states that corporations acting "contrary to the Public Policy state" are subject to dissolution.
International Tours of Bhopal Survivors
Another major effort by BARC, which again involved the cooperation of many voluntary groups across the U.S. involved in similar struggles against the imposition of enormous risk without their consent, was the organization of a tour of North America and Europe by a delegation of victims from Bhopal. They undertook their international tour in the spring of 1989 to protest the outrageously unjust settlement of the civil litigation engineered by Union Carbide Corporation and the Government of India without their consent and in gross violation of their constitutional and human rights. This led, among other things, to the arrest of several members of the delegation by off-duty Houston police officers hired by Union Carbide at its annual meeting, which was held in April 1989 in Texas. The victims and their U.S. supporters were simply trying to distribute literature presenting their side of the story outside of the meeting to Carbide shareholders coming for the annual meeting. A second tour of the victims to the U.S.A. and Europe was organized by BARC in the fall of 1994 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the world's worst industrial disaster. This tour was organized under the sponsorship of Communities Concerned about Corporations, a nationwide network of workers, community activists, survivors of industrial disasters, and socially concerned investors. CCC also took the lead in a series of events in Charleston, West Virginia, commemorating the tenth anniversary of this great disaster. International Medical Commission on Bhopal The continued deterioration of the health of the victims in Bhopal led to the formation of the International Medical Commission on Bhopal, which included medical and community health specialists from a dozen countries around the world. The formation of this Commission was one of the major recommendations of the Session of the Permanent People's Tribunal on Industrial and Environmental Hazards of Human
Rights held in Bhopal in October 1992.
BARC and other member organizations of ICJIB helped to raise money to support the work of the Commission which visited India and undertook clinical evaluation of a number of victims in January 1994. The Commission's final report was released in New York on December 3, 1996, the twelfth anniversary of the disaster. There has been ample evidence over the years that the leaked gases had severely damaged the eyes, lungs and other vital organs as well as the immune and reproductive systems of the affected people in Bhopal. The Commission unearthed further evidence of extensive neurotoxicological damage. Its findings confirm that as many as 50,000 victims have been permanently disabled by their exposure to toxic gases from the Union Carbide plant.
Bhopal Medical Appeal
One of the major recommendations of the Medical Commission was the establishment of a network of community-based health centers to serve the chronic health care needs of the victims. Independently, plans have been developed by Indian activists, scientists, and public health professionals who have been working with the victims, and a charitable trust (Sambhavna Trust) formed in Bhopal to establish and operate a health care monitoring and treatment center. The Bhopal Medical Appeal was launched on the tenth anniversary of the disaster through a series of advertisements in major newspapers in the United Kingdom. That appeal is now being extended to the U.S.A. and possibly other countries.
Learning from the Struggle
What have we learned from more than a decade of struggle in solidarity support of the victims of the world's worst industrial disaster? Here are some of the lessons from that struggle. Whether they will have any relevance to future solidarity struggles is unclear. Such struggles tend to be highly specific, limiting the relevance of lessons of one struggle for another. The first and most sobering lesson from this particular struggle is that we were able to do very little that directly impacted on and had positive effect on the victims in Bhopal. Perhaps because of our efforts we may have helped to sustain awareness about the story of their plight in the U.S. a little longer and given it a little more visibility. But there is no clear and compelling connection between that result and the daily lives of the victims. This is an important consideration since the primary motivation of many of those involved in this struggle was basically humanitarian. A second major lesson from this effort to fight corporate power is that we had singularly little impact where it really mattered; that is, on Union Carbide's behavior toward the victims. We certainly have been a nuisance to Union Carbide but not much more than that. Indeed, the futility of trying to challenge corporate power, at least in the United States in the late twentieth century, impelled me to search for very different ways of tackling corporate structures of power, resulting in the establishment of the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy which I co-direct with Richard Grossman and which is seeking to attack the roots of corporate power in non-traditional ways.
Yet another lesson, even more depressing, is the abject failure, at least thus far, of the judicial systems of two countries to deliver anything even remotely resembling justice to the victims. Furthermore, established courts of law are inherently difficult arenas for struggle by people's groups and solidarity movements which typically lack substantial enough resources to be able to sustain litigation over protracted periods of time. And yet the victims really had no choice but to seek justice through the law courts, and once they had exercised that choice, people's groups and solidarity movements had no alternative but to try to intervene. Aside from raising some underlying legal issues, our involvement in the litigation process has been largely inconsequential. Since the principal adversary in this struggle is a globe-encircling undertaking, it is perhaps axiomatic that any response to harms inflicted by that adversary would need to also "go global." Yet "going global" is inherently harder for people's movements, even for more formally organized non-governmental organizations, than it is for a giant multinational corporation. Face-to-face meetings of key persons involved in resisting corporate domination or demanding corporate reparations for damages- essential to building understanding and trust-are extremely expensive. Even intercontinental communication by telephone or fax is costly enough. But these concerns do not inhibit large corporations which can easily fly its people all over the world and spend-as Union Carbide did in the Bhopal struggle-millions of dollars on legal services and public relations.
Another characteristic of the Bhopal struggle is more formidable for people's movements than for their adversaries whether they be corporations or governments, and that is the ability to sustain struggle over very long periods of time. The perseverance of activist victims in Bhopal is legendary and served as an inspiration to others involved in the struggle. But it is a truism in litigation that the party with the deepest pockets has an enormous advantage over the party or parties who do not. That truism manifested itself all too often in the Bhopal struggle and not only in the realm of litigation. Given all of these constraints and limitations, popular resistance to corporate power must involve coalition-building and creating other forms of solidarity that will make possible coordinated action on a more substantial scale than would be possible if just one or two groups were involved. But the breadth of solidarity ties or the breadth of coalitions is both a strength and a weakness as the Citizens Commission on Bhopal clearly demonstrated. The wider the coalition, the more difficult it is to get consensus for action except at the lowest common denominator of agreement. Yet another lesson from the Bhopal struggle is the seemingly inevitable emergence of interpersonal conflicts. These existed at varying levels of significance over different periods of time in both India and the U.S. While they certainly had some adverse impact on popular resistance to corporate and government power, in retrospect they do not seem to be that consequential.
Of course, struggles like this would proceed more smoothly and with fewer diversions without such conflicts, but they seem to be an inevitable part of any effort to resist established structures of power. It is very likely that such conflicts also exist within these structures of power. But the hierarchical nature of a corporation or government bureaucracy would appear to keep these conflicts largely submerged, at least from public view. Occasionally, where interpersonal conflicts in structures of power can be identified, they can sometimes be exploited by those involved in popular resistance.
Finally, a word about mobilizing financial resources to sustain a struggle like that seeking justice for the Bhopal victims. This task proved frustrating and difficult throughout the period of struggle going back now more than a decade. Groups in India had some limited success in tapping progressive European funding sources. But to the best of my knowledge, with one minor exception, no funds were received from any established philanthropic institution in the US such as the major foundations. Most of the human inputs to the struggle were pro bono in one form or another. Very limited support was received, mostly to support the international tours of victim groups, from some church groups, labor unions, and a handful of individual donors. The same was generally true of financial support for the International Medical Commission on Bhopal. This situation is both a blessing and a curse. Its negative consequences are obvious, especially when confronting adversaries with very deep pockets in financial terms. But the lack of such support also meant that the struggle for justice for the victims of the world's worst industrial disaster could never be said to have been bought or its message distorted or diluted by funding sources.
Looking back on the long, difficult, and still ongoing struggle for justice for the Bhopal victims, it probably should be emphasized that such struggles are sui generis-that is, unique unto themselves. Hence the relevance of these lessons for other struggles remains to be determined. The Bhopal struggle has also shown how years of activist effort can be wiped out in a single day as the terms of the struggle themselves slide and shift at the behest of a powerful and amorphous adversary. At a recent shareholders' meeting, there was some mention of the possibility that Union Carbide Corporation may itself be bought by another corporation and renamed. As I attempt to consider such a possibility, I am forcefully reminded of Milan Kundera's statement that "the struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting."
Ward Morehouse is President of the Council on International and Public Affairs. He is a member of the permanent panel of judges of the Permanent People's Tribunal, a founder of the International Coalition for Justice in Bhopal, and has written extensively on the issue of corporate accountability.
Related Publications on the Bhopal Gas Leak
The Bhopal Tragedy: A Report for the Citizens Commission on Bhopal by Ward Morehouse and M. Arun Subramaniam (New York: Council on International and Public Affairs, 1986).
Nothing to Lose but Our Lives: Empowerment to Impose Industrial Hazards in a Transnational World, edited by David Dembo, Clarence J. Dias, Ayesha Kadwani, Ward Morehouse (New York, New Delhi, and Hong Kong: New Horizons Press, Asian Regional Exchange for New Alternatives, and Indian Law Institute, 1988).
Abuse of Power: Social Performance of Multinational Corporations - The Case of Union Carbide, by David Dembo, Ward Morehouse, Lucinda Wykle (New York: New Horizons Press, 1991).
Righting Corporate Wrongs, forthcoming (New York and London: The Apex Press, 1997).