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The lessons not learnt from Bhopal

Last updated on: December 04, 2009 19:35 IST

Dow and Bhopal together illustrate vividly how the authority of nation-states and their government is being usurped by the corporations of all hues giving birth to a perverse trans-nationalism, writes Gopal Krishna.

It is true that India missed the industrial revolution era between 18th and 19th century because "The capital to finance the Industrial Revolution in India instead went into financing the Industrial Revolution in England."

The sense of loss must have been prominent when in 1948, immediately after Independence, the government of India introduced the Industrial Policy Resolution. This outlined the approach to industrial growth and development but it did not include precautionary principle and intergenerational equity in it. After the adoption of the Constitution, the Industrial Policy was comprehensively revised and adopted in 1956.

To meet new challenges, from time to time, it was modified through statements in 1973, 1977, 1980 and 1991. This included Industrial Licensing which is governed by the Industries (Development & Regulation) Act, 1951 that has been amended from time to time. Therefore, it would not be inapt to suggest that the policy was not designed to make industrial growth and development disaster free.

These policy resolutions never took note of the findings in nature, science and the environmental movement that began in 1962 with the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring which provided a stimulus to environmental movement. 

One recollects a banner that read: 'Corporate Greed Kills -- From Bhopal to Baghdad' demanding justice for Bhopal and Baghdad.

Do policy makers pay heed these messages from these banners of the environment and peace movements and see the writing on the wall?

Aren't they relevant in any way?

There is unanimity that the Indian state has never ever made any adequate effort to make the country and its citizens disaster proof. The legislature, judiciary and the executive have adopted an ostrich policy in the face of staring disasters. The Parliament, the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs and the Supreme Court are accountable for world's worst industrial disaster. Most recent insincere statements like "We owe it to our fellow citizens to put in place procedures and precautions to ensure that such a tragedy never occurs again. I share the grief of those affected by this horrible incident" from the prime minister is not sufficient. The National Disaster Management Authority has confessed that it is not prepared even now to deal with disasters from hazardous industries.

Notably, the two studies on the current toxicity in Bhopal released on December 1, 2009 re-confirms the presence of toxic chemicals in the soil and groundwater in and around the Dow Chemicals facility. One study tested soil samples from inside the factory and the solar evaporation pond outside. They also sampled drinking water sources outside the plant, and surface water inside the factory. The factory site and the solar evaporation pond are still heavily contaminated. It is "a continuous source of groundwater contamination". All soil samples contained chlorinated benzenes, in addition to lead, mercury, arsenic and chromium. Mercury levels are as high as 8188 parts per million, or 164 times higher than Canadian standards for acceptable levels in industrial areas. These are the findings of Delhi based Centre for Science and Environment.

Another study of four hand-pump samples reveals that three of four samples have above-safe levels of chlorinated solvents, particularly chloroform and carbon tetrachloride. Chloroform levels were two to three times higher than US Environment Protection Agency's drinking water guidelines, while carbon tetrachloride exceeded World Health Organisation's drinking water guidelines by 900 to 2,400 times. This is a study by the London-based Bhopal Medical Appeal.

On December 2, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh issued a statement on Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster saying, "Twenty five years ago, the country woke up to a terrible tragedy in Bhopal. A lethal gas, methyl isocyanate, had leaked from the pesticide plant of Union Carbide India at Bhopal into the atmosphere. The leakage resulted in over 5,000 people losing their lives and many others being incapacitated permanently. The enormity of that tragedy of neglect still gnaws at our collective conscience. The families that suffered and lost their dear ones can never really be fully compensated." He concluded, "I reaffirm our government's commitment to resolving issues of safe drinking water, expeditious clean up of the site, continuation of medical research, and any other outstanding issues connected with the Bhopal gas tragedy."

Have these studies and the earlier studies and PM's statements located the source of the disaster?

What is quite ironic is that the state and central governments which were and are accused of neglecting public interest and safeguarding naked corporate lust for profit ended up donning the mantle of prosecutor against the Union Carbide Company when they should have been and should be prosecuted as partners in crime. It did so by making the parliament to pass Bhopal Gas Leak Disaster (Processing of Claims) Act, 1985 and debarring the victims from fighting the compensation claims individually.

Notably, the Act defined "Bhopal gas leak disaster" or "disaster" as the occurrence on the 2nd and 3rd days of December, 1984, which involved the release of highly noxious and abnormally dangerous gas from a plant in Bhopal (being a plant of the Union Carbide India Limited, a subsidiary of the Union Carbide Corporation, USA) and which resulted in loss of life and damage to property on an extensive scale.

While the corporate world continues to view this man made industrial disaster as a case of technical error. As far as the Indian Parliament and the government of India is concerned, it was an engineering nay an engineered political disaster, which has not been diagnosed adequately till date. Be it the Indian Parliament, the executive or the judiciary, what is unmistakable is that their collusion with the US-based company is corroding their legitimacy.

Dow Chemical Company that purchased Union Carbide Corporation and its Indian investments in 1999 has consistently denied inheriting any liability for the Bhopal gas disaster.

Is Dow Chemicals Company liable?

The whole world says that it is liable but our Parliament, the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs, Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs and the Supreme Court maintain a conspiratorial but deafening silence.

A May 14, 2008 letter by shareholders to the US Securities & Exchange Commission notes that the company hasn't disclosed potential liabilities related to Bhopal. In December, 2007, a resolution by key shareholders, such as the New York City Pension Funds, asked the company to address liability issues concerning Bhopal. But in India, it is a case of safeguarding corporate interest in all ways possible.

Letters accessed through Right to Information Act reveals high level lobbying by the company to absolve it from the case and all its liability. Latest reports suggest the way the Manufacturing giant Dow Chemical Company has spent $1.4 million in the third quarter of this year alone, to lobby on transportation, health reform and other issues, according to a recent disclosure report. In June 2006, Dow Chemicals Company sought appointment with the prime minister's principal secretary to discuss company's 'legacy issues'.

The Department of Chemical and Petrochemicals informed the Prime Minister's Office that Dow has appealed to the Madhya Pradesh High Court asking for its name to be deleted from the case. Abhishek Singhvi, spokesperson of the Congress party and a member of the Rajya Sabha, appears as the counsel for Dow in the MP High Court case and persuasively argues that Dow cannot be held responsible.

As finance minister (now home minister) P Chidambaram wrote to the prime minister on Dow's legacy issues. It is now publicly known that Ratan Tata, chairman of Tata group of companies and co-chair of Indo-US CEO Forum wrote to the prime minister reiterating his proposal that the private sector could contribute to create a remediation fund for clean up of the site.

Other ministerial colleagues of the prime minister besides a Madhya Pradesh minister too have spoken arguing on behalf of the company unmindful of the fact that while Dow Chemicals Company itself admits in its 2008 annual report that present and future liabilities associated with asbestos cases against Union Carbide Company are expected at $2.2 billion in the US. It takes on the burden of the Union Carbide liability on its books but refuses to accept the same in the case of Union Carbide in India. In the US, Dow Chemical has set aside this amount to address future asbestos-related liabilities arising out of the Union Carbide acquisition.

If Dow can assume responsibility for asbestos-induced illnesses among victims in US, why then should it deny responsibility towards the victims of Bhopal and its continuing toxic legacy. UCC formerly made products containing asbestos, and UCC once mined asbestos for sale to customers. The mine of the UCC was sold in 1985. Hundreds of thousands of people have sued asbestos companies that made products containing asbestos. Many manufacturers of asbestos-containing products are bankrupt as a result of asbestos litigation.

Is it about Dow and Bhopal alone?

A landmark book What Went Wrong: Case Histories of Process Plant Disasters and How They Could Have Been Avoided points out how chemical companies still blunder into serious accidents because they don't remember previous incidents or attempt to find out about industrial tragedies of the past that had serious consequences.

Dow and Bhopal together illustrate quite vividly how the authority of nation-states and their government is being usurped by the corporations of all hues giving birth to a perverse trans-nationalism.

Industries of all ilk have some lesson or the other to learn from world's worst industrial disaster. In the 25th year of the disaster in the city which has often been referred to as India's Baghdad what is starkly noted is the absence of efforts into effectively retaining, retrieving and sharing information about the disaster which was caused by satanic collaboration between the US based company and the government of India. That's one lesson from Bhopal that chemical makers and other industries haven't fully grasped.

Like the political crisis in Iraq's Baghdad, the global environmental crisis requires not only rhetoric or cosmetic solutions, but a death and rebirth of modern human being and his/her world view that acknowledges the sacredness of human and all life forms.

The government's industrial policy is responsible for the world's worst disaster. Some 13 prime ministers have come and gone since the formulation of the first industrial policy and some seven of them have occupied  the prime ministerial chair after the industrial tragedy but sadly, regimes keep changing but the order remains the same. Corporations like Union Carbide and Dow are indulging in unacknowledged warfare which is charitably referred to as pollution and contamination must be brought under strict parliamentary scrutiny but before that the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs, the institution apparently accountable for giving clearance to Bhopal plant must be brought under parliamentary control.

Although belated a beginning can be made by holding a Joint Parliamentary Committee probe into the disaster, to fix accountability and to regain the genuine autonomy of Parliament. The assault on Bhopal clearly shows the dubious intent of the current policy regime. Peace, industrial peace must be built but it cannot be done without reversing the business as usual policies which demonstrate their intent.

Gopal Krishna