文章 Articles

Unlearned lessons of Bhopal

Washington shows foreign companies such as BP the big stick, but offers a big shield for its own multinationals abroad, argues Randeep Ramesh. We are doomed, he warns, to repeat historical mistakes.

Article image

While US president Barack Obama is lambasting BP for spreading muck in the Gulf of Mexico, he should perhaps pencil in a date with the people of Bhopal when he visits India later this year. While 11 men lost their lives on BP’s watch and the shrimps get coated with black stuff, the chemicals that killed thousands of people in Bhopal in 1984 are still leaching into the ground water a quarter of a century after a poisonous, milky-white cloud settled over the city.

The compensation – some US$470 million – paid out by Union Carbide, the US owner of the plant and now part of Dow Chemical, was just the cash it received from its insurers to compensate the victims, a process that took 17 years. But it’s one rule for them and another for anybody else.

Obama wants “British Petroleum” to pay back every nickel and dime the Deepwater Horizon disaster costs. To make sure BP gets the message, the president says he backs congressional plans to retrospectively raise the liability limit for claims from US$75 million to $10 billion. That’s real money.

While foreign companies in the United States are shown the big stick, Washington offers a big shield for its multinationals abroad. In the case of Bhopal, it was the US that blocked India’s requests to extradite Warren Anderson, the former chairman of Union Carbide who accepted “moral responsibility” for the accident until a short spell in an Indian jail changed his mind. June 7, 2010, saw just the prosecution of local Indian managers – 26 years after the event.

That was then. Surely India, which says it is an emerging power that wants to shape the world, would be able to stand up to the United States today? And wouldn’t a more moral president see that foreign lives are as precious as American ones? Apparently not.

India’s still playing a craven toady to a US that is ruthlessly pursuing an agenda where commercial interests are put above the lives of others. Delhi has stripped a flagship nuclear bill of a clause that allowed companies to be sued for negligence in the event of a – God forbid – accident.

It is bizarre to see a leader of the developing world offer up its citizens’ lives cheaply to secure investment from foreign companies and governments. Under the civil liabilities for nuclear damage bill -- central to a deal on the controversial nuclear pact with the United States -- costs for cleaning up a catastrophic failure would end up being paid by the Indian taxpayer.

Sure, India is desperate for the nuclear deal – which will see it become the only nonpermanent member of the United Nations security council to keep its atomic weapons and trade in nuclear know-how. But at what price? Today we know.

Washington made it clear it wanted India to set the bar low on liability – so that shareholders of large US corporations would not be forced to pay out for sloppy, deadly mistakes. So any future victims in India would be left at the mercy of the country’s justice system, like those poor souls who lost lives, loved ones and their health and were condemned to spending years lost in the courts with little to show but false hope.

Delhi had argued that international suppliers would not be willing to enter the Indian nuclear market without such a bill. But has Russia been willing to do so? And Germany accepts no cap on nuclear liability. In the United States the nuclear lobby accepts a liability set at US$10 billion.

In Bhopal, what happened in the years after the leak was a bigger scandal than the original accident. Although Delhi was cack-handed, the United States bears most of the blame. Unlike BP, Washington did not threaten US companies for deaths in the past and is actively working to ensure they evade responsibility in the future. Obama’s administration has not learned the lessons of history. It means we are doomed to repeat its mistakes.

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

Homepage photo shows people affected by the Bhopal disaster protesting at Dow Chemical offices in Mumbai. Copyright © Greenpeace / Kadir Van Lohuizen

Now more than ever…

chinadialogue is at the heart of the battle for truth on climate change and its challenges at this critical time.

Our readers are valued by us and now, for the first time, we are asking for your support to help maintain the rigorous, honest reporting and analysis on climate change that you value in a 'post-truth' era.

Support chinadialogue

发表评论 Post a comment

评论通过管理员审核后翻译成中文或英文。 最大字符 1200。

Comments are translated into either Chinese or English after being moderated. Maximum characters 1200.

评论 comments

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous






Pay now, not later

The same will probably happen elsewhere.

Rather than address the cause of anthropogenic climate change (unsustainable consumption) our governments will enable us to continue doing what we know is wrong - so that "our" politicians can have an easy ride from the media (whose profits depend largely on advertising revenues from industries which encouraging us to over-consume).

The time it takes to plan and build a nuclear power station tends to be longer than most politicians are in power.

Consumers of nuclear power should pay upfront for insurance against disaster, not after the disaster. Doing so will encourage us to consume less and build safer.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




Don't pass the blame

Against special interest protectionism! If it's your responsibility, then you should bear it...

from t.sina.com.cn

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





In politics, some people's interests (property/health) will be sacrificed for other people's interests. For any nation, any international issue, it would be the same, when was anything ever fair?

Americans say "everyone is born equal," yet they have not fully been able to do this in their own country. Why would they care whether Indians should or should not be subject to the same respect and treatment.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




What does the shield do?

You are completely right. Mr. Hayward of BP is in the exact same position as Mr. Anderson of Union Carbide. He is not being prosecuted, which allows the corporation to continue its operations under another name, just like Union Carbide, which vanished and reappeared under the name Dow Chemical. What does the shield do? Only the subsidiary company of Union Carbide in Bhopal was condemned and it could be the same for the American branch of BP.