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The horror side of capitalism:
Bhopal 25 years



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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December 9, 2009

LONDON - To describe the Bhopal disaster of 25 years ago when a chemical plant owned by the Indian subsidiary of Union Carbide sprang a leak and killed 4,000 people instantly and another 15,000 later in an agonizing Hiroshima-like death as "the unacceptable face of capitalism" does not do it justice.

It was malevolence beyond belief. Union Carbide made only the most modest of efforts to compensate their victims and when later the company was bought out by the American company, Dow Chemicals, the same insouciance was continued.

Imagine what would have happened if an Indian company had had an accident like that in the U.S. The bosses would be behind bars for a very long time. The company would have been milked dry by the courts to compensate the victims and to provide top-notch medical care for the survivors.

Here was one of the most sophisticated chemical companies in the world telling its employees not to replace old pipes, lowering the wages of workers, denying all but the most minimal of training and using an anachronistic method of production of fertilizer that all in the industry knew perfectly well could be lethal.

Workers who tried to alert the management were summarily fired. There were no action plans to deal with disasters and all the manuals on plant operations were in English that few of the employees could read. The gas scrubber, meant to clean the dangerous gasses that were continuously emitted, did not work. The refrigeration system meant to inhibit the volatization of the gasses did not work. The steam boiler meant to clean the pipes was also out of action. The valves meant to prevent leakage from the pipe had not been serviced for years. On the night of the disaster one valve was leaking badly but there was no attempt to repair it. The company’s own experts had drawn attention to these faults and warned that a massive disaster was in the making. They were ignored.

But the Indian government has known that recompense is impossible against this American giant. There is no way that its own court orders can be enforced in the U.S.. It has been given the brush off. Meanwhile, the retired chief executive of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson, lives on Long Island's Hamptons in great luxury with his conscience, apparently, untouched.

During the night of December 2nd a large amount of water leaked into one of the main holding tanks. A runaway chemical reaction gathered speed, aided by the high temperatures and the failure of safety systems that should have isolated it. The temperature inside the tank soared to 200 degrees Celsius. (400 degrees Fahrenheit.)

When the gas exploded it stayed close to the ground, killing all in its path. Besides the 4000 who died instantly and the 15,000 who died slowly another 100, 000 have serious ailments - blindness, lung disease and cancer.

The government of India did a lot. Parliament passed an act giving the government full authority to represent all the victims, both in India and outside. It ordered the company to build a 500-bed hospital to take care of the victims.

The company however did the absolute minimum. Children under eighteen were not registered for aid even though 200,000 children had been exposed to the gasses.

The site has never been cleaned up, despite its location near villages. It has even become a dumping ground for hazardous chemicals.The company has defended itself by arguing there was sabotage.

Dow set aside $470 million to cover potential liabilities. This worked out for the families of the dead at $2,200. The wounded got $550. A Dow spokesman explained that the amount was "plenty good for an Indian".

The companies could get away with this because multinational companies are protected under American law from liability. The Indian authorities fearful of driving away foreign investment has not pushed the issue as hard as it could. The government of Rajiv Gandhi reached a meager out of court settlement. The compensation money only trickled to the victims.

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Warren Anderson and eight other executives were charged with homicide. They have managed to avoid an international arrest warrant. Senior Indian executives charged with manslaughter are still having their cases heard in Indian courts.

And so it goes on, with no more publicity except on this 25th anniversary.

"The poor you will always have with you" seems to be the motto of Dow Chemicals and the American and Indian governments. Is it not time overdue with more sensitive leaders in power in both the U.S. and India to review the Bhopal file and get some serous action before next year is out?


Copyright © 2009 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172
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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
Is that worth the Nobel Prize?
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Jonathan Power's 2001 book

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The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International



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