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Industrial Accidents and Global Inequity: Bhopal and BP

The Bhopal and BP disasters - spaced a quarter of a century apart - contain a number of lessons for those working to promote global justice. Corporate wrongdoers should be held fully accountable, both in terms of financial responsibility and for the actions of their executives

Almost 26 years ago a poisonous cloud of methyl isocyanate poured forth from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India. On the night of 3rd December, 1984, some 4,000 people lost their lives and a further 300,000 were injured.

The people of Bhopal received no warning as the choking, toxic fumes descended upon them out of the dark night. The plant´s safety systems failed to work and no alarm was given. Some of the victims died directly from the poisonous fumes while others lay in the streets submerged beneath the tidal panic that rose up to drag them under as they fled the invisible gases. A 2004 Amnesty report calculated that the total death toll had by then risen to 22,000.

This disaster has had a devastating legacy on Bhopal. In addition to the immediate deaths and destruction of the environment, the surrounding soil and waters remain contaminated by Union Carbide's chemical waste. This has given rise to genetic deformities, cancer and congenital health problems, as well as many painful premature fatalities.

Despite the well-documented death, destruction and misery, caused by the Union Carbide `accident´, the people of Bhopal still await adequate compensation over a quarter of a century later. Those primarily responsible have never been brought to account. Although seven local company officials were recently found guilty of their role in the Bhopal disaster, they received only two years´ prison sentences in prison and a US$2,100 fine each - approximately what one might expect for a car accident in India. The far more culpable US executives have avoided legal censure.

Indeed, the US executives have never been seriously pursued. When Warren Anderson, then the Union Carbide CEO, visited India after the Bhopal disaster, he was spirited out of the country lest `overzealous´ officials might try and detain him. Anderson has since been protected by the US political and business community to avoid any intrusive questioning as to his actual role in the Bhopal catastrophe. Today, in his early 90s, Anderson, is free to enjoy his retirement in Florida. One hopes the BP Horizon Deepwater disaster has not incommoded him too greatly in his twilight years. 

Coming some quarter of a century after the Bhopal disaster, the BP Deepwater Horizon environmental disaster is the latest in a long line of industrial accidents which have become all too regular a feature of the industrial landscape. The BP gush - `leak´ is a ridiculous understatement for the 53,000 barrels of oil that were pouring out into the Gulf of Mexico just before it was capped - resulted in 11 direct fatalities and 17 injuries. It also caused untold damage to the marine and wildlife habitat as well as the local fishing and tourist industries.

Similarities and Differences

Both Union Carbide and BP received adequate warning of the risk of a disaster. Over 10 years before Bhopal, a Union Carbide report signed by Warren Anderson himself highlighted the unproven nature of Bhopal´s technology. A 1982 safety review by Union Carbide´s own experts emphasised the serious risk of substantial leaks of "toxic materials" at Bhopal. BP received adequate warning of impending problems, as numerous internal investigations alerted senior BP managers that the safety and environmental rules at Deepwater Horizon were being regularly flouted.

In the wake of both disasters, BP and Union Carbide downplayed the consequences. BP´s Chief Executive, Tony Hayward, pacified anxious US East Coast public, claiming the oil leak would be relatively inconsequential. After the Bhopal leak, Union Carbide´s public relations people asserted that methyl isocyanate was not poisonous but merely resembled a strong tear gas.

However, there has been one major difference in these two cases. BP has generally experienced a far rougher ride than Union Carbide. The same political-business community in the US that has protected Anderson from a potential Indian trial or litigation has been all too willing to line up to declaim the role of BP and particularly Hayward in allowing the Deepwater Horizon industrial accident to happen. There has been a ready supply of public figures willing to take pot shots at BP and Hayward. Obama has been at the forefront of the mob, openly declaring his longing to find a BP ass that he could kick as well as his intention to keep his "boot on BP´s throat."

While the indignation of the US public, led by its political and business cheerleaders can be well understood, one can only wonder what the reaction would have been if the Indian government and business leaders had reacted similarly to Bhopal. Let us not forget that for every human life lost at Deepwater Horizon, 2,000 Indians at least died as a result of Bhopal.

While Sainath´s observation that "Barack Obama's ‘hard words' on BP are mostly pre-November poll-rants" undoubtedly contain more than a kernel of truth, there is still a clear difference in the manner in which both companies have been treated. Union Carbide, particularly in the North (Northern Hemisphere) has never been subjected to the same public opprobrium and fury as BP.

As the best-selling Indian author Chetan Bhagat has cogently argued:

"It looks like Indian children's lives are cheaper than [those of] fish. Obama should bang his fist on the table. If he can do that for fish, how about our kids? Or are they only Indians?"

Union Carbide´s current owners, Dow Chemicals, maintain that the 1989 settlement of US$470 million paid to the Indian government settled the Bhopal compensation issue. This claim is open to dispute. The award was based on a discredited under-estimation of 3,000 fatalities at Bhopal. Given the current estimated 574,367 victims since the Bhopal disaster, including dead and injured, the average compensation amount would come in at just over US$800 per person. This sum would also have to help cover the cost of cleaning up the lands and waters around Bhopal. Moreover, the Indian government negotiated and accepted this settlement without involving the people of Bhopal.

On the other hand, BP was forced by the Obama administration to establish a US$20 billion compensation fund. However, it should be noted that the BP escrow fund, as currently proposed, is to be taken from BP´s oil and gas revenues in the Gulf, therefore making the US government at the very least a BP´s oil production in the region. This arrangement will almost certainly create a conflict of interest and therefore inhibit the US government's ability to strictly regulate BP.

What Can Be Done?

The Bhopal and BP disasters contain a number of lessons for people everywhere, particularly those working to promote global justice. Corporate wrongdoers should be held fully accountable, both in terms of financial responsibility and for the actions of their executives.

In this respect, the efforts on the part of the Indian government to attract foreign investment in its growing nuclear energy market, by passing a bill to limit the maximum liability of nuclear plant operators at US$111 million, is a serious concern. As Prashant Bhushan, a Supreme Court Lawyer, explains it would appear that Bhopal has taught us nothing. Here we are 25 years later, and the "drive to attract foreign investment [overwhelms] all other considerations."

In effect, nothing less than a transparent and easily enforceable framework of international sanctions and penalties will suffice to ensure that corporations are made accountable in the future, irrespective of their provenance or the location of `industrial accidents´.

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Justin Frewen

Justin Frewen is a freelance journalist and has worked as a Consultant with the UN since 1997. He is also currently a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Galway.

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