Friday, December 4, 2009

Bhopal: answering questions, making fun of bad guys, taking action!

This week, we are talking only about Bhopal.  For more about what you can do, go here or see more links at the bottom of this post. Actually doing something is the best way to remember what happened, and what continues to happen, in and around the Union Carbide/Dow plant in Bhopal. 

In the comments to my last post on this subject, I got this:
Dear Hari,
A friend raised some questions after we looked together at an editorial in the Hindu. Would you be so kind as to answer. The editorial can be found here.
And here are [my friend's] questions: 

"Didn't the corporation hold itself accountable by compensating the victims $140+ million? If the corporation paid the victims directly rather than paying the Indian government, would that have made a difference?  
 "Isn't this urge to hold Anderson accountable and labeling him as "absconding" similar to pulling bus drivers out of buses and beating them for hitting a pedestrian when, the brakes didn't work in the bus, the driver had no proper training, the driver has to routinely bribe police to do his job, the bus has no windows or seatbelts, the entire transportation system is massively overcrowded, the driver was swerving to avoid a camel cart, and the pedestrian was hanging on to the outside of the bus in the first place? I suppose I'm suggesting that, although Dow was there to make as much money as possible, they were working within a system that allowed the tragedy.  

 "The gas leak in Bhopal NEVER should have happened, but isn't at least half the culpability on the shoulders of the Indian government and the way it doesn't take care of its people or enforce it's own regulations?"
--A Reader

Well, dear reader,  There are three points I'd ask your friend to consider. 

1) Union Carbide did pay a court ordered settlement, but it was insultingly small, especially considering this was the worst industrial accident in the history of the world.   Compare Union Carbide's response to the total amount paid by Exxon after the Exxon Valdez disaster--even after the US Supreme Court the original judgment against Exxon.  Or look at what victims of the World Trade Center attack received (some from the US Federal Government, some from lawsuits aimed at airline and security companies).  This vast inequality happens, by the way, because in the eyes of our legal and economic systems, the lives of poor people aren't worth much.  (Read about that here.)  As a result, the world can justify giving victims medical treatment and compensation that Warren Anderson--or your friend--would consider absolutely unacceptable. Also, it bears saying that Union Carbide and Dow did not even bother to clean up their mess!  (Someone should definitely be in jail for that, by the way!)

2) We say Warren Anderson is "absconding" because he is...absconding! He was arrested, granted bail, and snuck out of the country on a private jet.  That is illegal in any country in the world, last I checked.  And the Indian authorities and people are not asking to have him returned to be beaten by an angry mob, we are asking to have him returned to stand trial in a court of law.  That is not mob justice, that is...justice!  And Anderson is nothing like the Blueline Bus driver your friend cites.  He is much more like the business man from an influential family who drives over a group of poor people and police, flees the scene in his BMW and then uses his influence to evade justice. Yes, companies like to make money.  Yes, drivers like to drive fast. Yes, the "system" encourages this behavior.  But when companies or drivers cause accidents due to negligence, then the system also says they may be held accountable by criminal and civil courts. Simple as that.

3)  We at the Green Light Dhaba have never said the Government of India was blameless in this or many other matters.  Government officials can be held responsible for not standing up for justice strongly enough diplomatically and legally.  They can be held responsible for the bureaucratic nightmare they've created for many of the victims.  They can be held responsible for not taking the need for more clean up seriously.  They cannot be held responsible for leaking the gas that killed thousands.  That responsibility lies with Union Carbide and it's current owner, Dow Chemicals, who knew what it was getting when it acquired Dow.

I hope that clarifies things for your friend!

OK, now it's time to make fun of some bad guys!  Five years ago, some justice-loving pranksters called the Yes Men actually tricked the BBC into thinking Dow Chemicals had agreed to do the right thing in Bhopal.  The stunt wiped $2 billion off Dow's share prices before it was exposed.  Dow was obviously embarrassed because the Yes Men had shown just what a truly fair response would have looked like.  See the BBC interview that started it all here.

Recently, the Yes Men took "B'eau-Pal" Water to Dow headquarters.  You can read about that prank here. There is also a video of the action. (Spoiler: Dow representatives do NOT agree to drink the water!)

While we are making fun of people, let's not forget our own Environmental Minister, Mr Jairam Ramesh. Here's what he had this to say when he recently visited the site of Bhopl disaster: “I went inside, touched toxic material, and I am still alive. I am not coughing.”  The best response I've heard to Mr. Ramesh's remarks was from activist Satinath Sarangi, quoted by the Washington Post: “It is like saying, ‘I held a cigarette and did not get cancer.’ Many of the chemicals at the site are persistent organic pollutants that remain in the soil for hundreds of years.” 

Well, Mr. Ramesh has been a bit of a loose cannon this fall,  but this takes the cake.  In spite of the time he's spent in some very fancy universities, he still hasn't learned to think before he speaks!  Either that, or he's one of the bad guys. Time will tell, I suppose.

Where you can go to learn and do more:


  1. I love the yes men. They've pulled many such stunts over and over again. It's like they know the old adage - "Show, don't tell". So instead of telling us what should be done, they show it!

  2. Actually the government IS to blame for the leak too, by not bothering to ensure the facility had adequate safety measures in place.

    Jairam Ramesh also thinks what Bhopal really needs is not site remediation or justice for the victims, but a monument costing over a hundred crores, to remember the victims of the disaster.

  3. @Bhagwad, Yes, they are funny. They've done a lot of crazy things over the years.

    @Workjunkie, You are right. Responsibility is always complicated. When expensive markets put up rusty barb wire in their parks to protect their flowers (at the expense of children who might easily fall on it), or when construction contractors leave huge unmarked holes in the pavement, we can and should always blame both the parties directly responsible and the government which does not enforce the laws. But saying the law is not enforced does not excuse the company that flouts it. In the case of Bhopal, Union-Carbide/Dow should pay for the mess financially (and in the criminal courts if necessary) because one way that companies learn to be careful is when governments hold them accountable, even after the fact. But the government should always be held accountable for their inaction, incompetence, etc.--at the ballot box, if necessary.

    And yes, a monument! Let's just build one of those.

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What do you think?