Before you read any further, if you are outraged about the Bhopal verdict, and the government’s response to it, there will be a rally today (Saturday) in Delhi at Jantar Mantar from 4-7pm. Details are on Facebook event page, here, or call Kabir Arora at 9911879675. A list of more things you can do follows this post.
On Thursday, I outlined, in simple terms, four things governments can do to keep corporations from behaving unsafely: regulate them strictly; punish unsafe corporations financially; punish the people who run corporations unsafely; and insure that corporations account for their long term liabilities before distributing profits to their shareholders.
Recent events, however, clearly demonstrate the unwillingness of the current government to take any of these simple steps. In fact, in the last week, we’ve seen three examples of the UPA doing the kinds of things governments do when they want to make corporations happy, whatever the cost. In this case, the cost may well be the health and safety of millions of people.
First, on Monday, a quarter century after what was by some measures the worst industrial disaster in the history of the world, we saw the guilty parties getting the kind of sentence a reckless driver might expect to receive after causing a traffic accident—two years in prison (with bail already granted) and a small fine. Though the government has acknowledged that the case against Warren Anderson (the head of Union Carbide at the time of the Bhopal disaster) is not closed, they gave no reason to believe his extradition from the US would be pursued in any serious way.
As if that weren’t bad enough, the day after the verdict, the government announced it was further weakening the already ridiculously weak Nuclear Liability Bill. The revised bill offers further protection to US nuclear equipment suppliers from liability in the case of a nuclear incident that “has resulted from the wilful act or gross negligence on the part of the supplier of the material, equipment, or his employee.” As bad as the bill was, and it was very bad indeed, it just got worse!
Then just yesterday, The Hindu revealed internal government memos that show that Home Minister Chidambaram and Kamal Nath, both of whom are members of the Group of Ministers on Bhopal, have been pushing a behind-the-scenes plan to let Dow Chemical, the owner of Union Carbide, escape from its liability for ongoing costs related to the Bhopal disaster. Not surprisingly, the plan originated with...Dow Chemical! The Hindu reports:
Documents released by the Prime Minister's Office under the RTI Act show that in 2006-2007, both Ministers recommended that a Site Remediation Trust be set up to let Indian corporates fund and implement remediation activities, leaving Dow free of any responsibility. This would send “an appropriate signal to Dow Chemicals, which is exploring investing substantially in India and to the American business community,” Mr. Nath said, in a memo dated February 2007. Mr. Chidambaram's recommendation came in the wake of the Indo-U.S. CEOs Forum meeting in October 2006, where Dow CEO Andrew Liveris wanted to discuss the issue. “I think we should accept this offer and constitute a Site Remediation Trust,” he said in his memo.
Coming all together as they have, it is natural to conclude these developments would be an embarrassment to the UPA II government. But that’s only true if one assumes the government cares about what the general public thinks. With the next election still years away, the UPA obviously feels free to say what it thinks its most important constituents want to hear. And these days it seems that this government feels that its most important constituents are large corporations—India Inc. or “the American business community”, it hardly seems to matter anymore. Viewed from that perspective, this week’s developments are far from embarrassing; rather, they send “an appropriate signal” to those the government is most eager to please.
There is only one remedy for that, of course, and that is to send “an appropriate signal” to our current leaders reminding them that in a democracy, it is the consent and support of the people, not the corporations, that give them the right to govern. Otherwise, they may think they’ve got us all fooled! But as Abraham Lincoln once famously said:“You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.”
It’s true that some of the people actually believe that pleasing corporations should be a government’s first priority, and they will support the government’s recent actions on that principle alone. But I’m confident that a very large majority of the people believe that a government’s first responsibility is always to the health and welfare of the people it governs. And if this government is counting on fooling those people for very much longer, it might find itself in trouble sooner than it thinks!
- Watch Greenpeace video about the Bhopal--Nuclear Liability Bill connection and sign their petition against the bill here.
- Lots of information; a good place to give money: bhopal.org
- Students for Bhopal explain how to Dump Your Dow!
- I'm a Bhopali--bloggers bring the attention back to December 3, 1984
- Join one of the many Bhopal-related Facebook groups here.
- See the Dhaba's Toxics & Trash page for more on Bhopal.