Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Bhopal Plus 25

I wrote this five years ago.

Tragically very little has changed.

Bhopal: Still Waiting for Justice

Pagans are not on the whole the sort of people who care much for large organisations. Although it’s not an easy thing to say who or what a typical Pagan is, they are rather more likely to be found out on their own repairing dry stone walls or plying their trade as alternative therapists rather than being chained to a desk in a large corporation. When two or three Pagans gather together to discuss the Pagan Federation, its size and omnipotence are not generally considered to be amongst the organisation’s virtues. Indeed one suspects that should ever a McCrystals plc emerge to buy up all the New Age shops in Britain, most Pagans would then choose to look elsewhere for their herbs and incense.

However, like it or not, we live in a corporate world. Multinational corporations account for about a
quarter of world trade and many have a turnover equivalent to a medium sized country. For many environmentalists and social justice campaigners, as well as the ragged assortment of people who the media call ‘anti-Capitalists’, the increasing globalisation of financial markets and world trade is a cause for concern. Demonstrations, peaceful and otherwise, now accompany any large international gathering of ministers from rich nations.

There is a counter argument that Globalisation doesn’t actually exist, and all we have is the old problem of the rich West and an impoverished rest-of-the-world. Working in a Nike factory in Indonesia may be pretty grim, the argument goes, but it’s better than being an Indonesian farmer or working in a local factory. Whilst campaigners get angry when factories and jobs move south in order to pay less and pollute more, the corporations claim they actually help the locals more than they harm them. Whilst working in a call centre in Britain is for unemployed northern ex-steel workers who don’t want to take up stripping, in India it’s a prestige job for graduates.

At the core of many of these arguments is whether or not these big corporations can be held to account for their actions. It’s something of a truism that all governments in power like to suck up to the rich and powerful whilst having a go at the weakest in society. We may not ever see the day when the Prime Minister makes a speech blaming the nation’s ills on rich white men whilst inviting social workers and asylum seekers round for tea at number 10, but is that just politics or are the corporations now more powerful than national governments?

Perhaps the most graphic story of big business getting away literally with murder is the continuing tragedy of Bhopal. If terrorists were ever to release a deadly gas in a built up area in Britain they would be hunted down and brought to justice. If a foreign country were to shelter them then the very least we could probably expect would be a cruise missile or two directed their way.

However nineteen years after a toxic gas release in the central Indian city of Bhopal killed 4,000 people the victims are not just still waiting for justice, but also still drinking contaminated water. Some estimates are that four times as many people have died since the accident as died on the fateful night, and up to 500,000 may have become ill.

The factory responsible was owned and run by the Indian branch of the US multinational chemical company Union Carbide. They may not have deliberately released the gas, but the accident was the result of serious errors by the company. A faulty valve allowed water to enter a chemical storage tank where a corroded stainless steel wall provided the catalyst for a reaction that produced 40 tons of a deadly cyanide compound. The plant lacked the basic safety features that could have contained the gas and so the deadly chemical escaped into the crowded slums of Bhopal. The sleeping residents could not be warned as the alarms had been switched off.

Pretty damning stuff, but Union Carbide’s HQ still claimed it was nothing to do with them. First they said the disaster was the result of sabotage and then they added that the plant was wholly designed and operated by their Indian subsidiary. No evidence of sabotage has ever been produced, and even if it were this would not excuse the lack of safety devices at the site. Their second point has also looked a little weak after a New Scientist investigation last year turned up leaked documents showing how Union Carbide in the USA not only approved all designs for the plant, but knowingly cut costs in building it.

Despite the clear trail of evidence leading to Union Carbide’s US offices, the US legal system refused to hear a case brought by the victims and their families. Instead a settlement was reached in the Indian courts where they received compensation amounting to about $500 per victim. Seeing as how you can get a small fortune for scalding yourself on hot coffee in the US, this seems a little miserly.

The Indian authorities for their part tried a more direct approach, and in 1991 they charged Union Carbide’s boss Warren Anderson with 14,000 cases of murder. But Mr Anderson failed to appear in court to answer the charges, and the Indians were told that the US government didn’t know where he was. That appeared to be that, he’d done a Bin Laden and no-one could find him.

But Mr Anderson, it turned out, was not hiding in a cave on some disputed frontier, and in August last year, right in the middle of the Johannesburg Earth Summit, he was found. Casey Harrell, toxics campaigner for Greenpeace USA, tracked him down to his country club in Hampton, Long Island, New York state. He was shown a copy of the warrant for his arrest, but he decided not to turn himself in. The local police don’t seem too keen on popping round to arrest him, and so far no cruise missiles have been seen heading towards the Hampton Country Club.

So justice has proved frustratingly elusive for the victims of Bhopal. Should we be under any illusions that this is purely an American problem, four years ago a British court threw out a case against Cape plc, a British mining country. They had used children to mine asbestos in apartheid South Africa with scant concern for Health and Safety, but the court decided that there was no case to answer in this country. Multinationals, it seems, are not liable under international law, but local courts do not have the jurisdiction to pursue claims across international borders.

What can be done to about this sorry state of affairs? Well the first thing is for us not to forget those who died, and who continue to die, in Bhopal. The survivors of Bhopal and the families of the victims continue to press for justice. Dow chemicals now own Union Carbide, and they are being told quite clearly that they have inherited Union Carbides liabilities. To drive home the message their website has been the target of a virtual sit-in.

Such actions may not be about to bring Dow to their knees, but it all helps. If you’re well off enough to have a pension plan and a bank account with a positive balance, you can wield some measure of power over the corporations by investing your money ethically, the new growth financial market. If you’re someone who has more time than money you could invest in a single share in a dodgy company, as it allows you to go to their AGM and annoy them in person. I personally can vouch for the hospitality you receive from the road and pipeline builders AMEC and the arctic oil drillers BP. And if we do nothing else we can always remember Dow and Union Carbide in our own rituals. As James Pengelly and others have said, Pagans don’t do nearly as much cursing as they should these days.

But real change will only take place when international justice accompanies international trade. Friends of the Earth are campaigning locally and internationally for governments to pass laws to make companies accountable for their actions. Many other organisations are doing so too. Big business is still accountable to government, and governments are accountable to the people. If enough people make enough of a fuss we might be able to offer the people of Bhopal justice. Better late than never.

The International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal has a website.

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