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.

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