The agony of the people of Bhopal began long before Monday, when a court found seven officials associated with the former pesticide plant of Union Carbide India Ltd guilty of causing death by negligence. The seven men appealed their two-year sentence, as is their right, and the appeal was granted. The betrayal the people of Bhopal feel predates the night of 2-3 December 1984, when a poisonous cloud emerged from the plant, emitting methyl isocyanate which killed thousands within days, and perhaps some 10,000 more in the quarter century since.
The betrayal of Bhopalis is older: It began when nobody warned the city’s poor not to live so close to a chemical plant. A large manufacturing plant meant jobs; jobs meant workers; workers meant people with money; and that meant opportunities for those not lucky enough to find work at the plant or elsewhere, as they provided services in the informal economy that inevitably grows around such plants.
The people of Bhopal were betrayed by factory inspectors who were lackadaisical in checking the plant’s maintenance, which permitted a culture where safety was nobody’s priority. They were betrayed by negligent employees and managers, who were probably not fully aware of the precise nature of the hazardous chemicals they were dealing with.
And then, on that night in December 1984, when political parties were busy fighting elections, the gas escaped from the plant, silently killing more than 2,000 people within hours, capping a horrible year for India—the army’s Operation Bluestar in the Golden Temple to end Khalistani insurgency; Indira Gandhi’s assassination; and the killing of thousands of Sikhs in its aftermath. Pablo Bartholomew’s haunting image of the lifeless eyes of the little child being buried in a makeshift graveyard became the metaphor of Bhopal’s innocence and helplessness.
Those who survived were betrayed again by their own government, which argued their case poorly while pursuing it in the US. India looked down on American lawyers who had turned up to represent victims, to launch a class action suit that would have set a precedent in tort law and a benchmark for corporate responsibility and accountability. But Union Carbide had hired perhaps India’s finest lawyer at that time, the late Nani Palkhivala, who said it was gratuitous and slanderous to call the Indian legal system “deficient or inadequate”. The Indian system was capable of dealing with such a complex case, he said. Judge J.F. Keenan was swayed by the company’s arguments, and he sent the case to India on the grounds of forum non conveniens, or an inconvenient forum, saying he was “firmly convinced that the Indian legal system is in a far better position than the American courts to determine the cause of the tragic event and thereby fix liability. Further, the Indian courts have greater access to all the information needed to arrive at the amount of the compensation to be awarded the victims”.
Right—and that compensation turned out to be Rs74,000 per death, and Rs26,500 per case of personal injury. For, back in India, while the government sued for some $3.5 billion in damages, it then settled for $470 million. The Supreme Court approved the deal, quashing all proceedings. Later, the Central Bureau of Investigation reopened the case, but the betrayals multiplied—the charges against the company’s executives were reduced, and serious attempts weren’t made to seek the extradition of Warren Anderson, former chairman of Union Carbide, who lived in the US. Anderson had rightly come to India in December 1984—he was arrested, granted bail, and he left the country, never to return.
India then allowed the plant to be mothballed, which meant, according to activists, that chemicals stored there were no longer supervised, and had begun seeping into the city’s water table, contaminating its supply. Union Carbide sold its Indian subsidiary to McLeod Russel (India) Ltd, a company with a long history in tea plantation. Later, Dow Chemicals took over Union Carbide, complicating the chain of responsibility, making it harder to hold anyone accountable.
And now, this final betrayal: Instead of pursuing executives of the parent company in the US, who had planned the investment, whose engineers had designed the plant, whose officers had prepared the maintenance manuals, and whose targets to cut costs, activists allege, forced the company to cut corners, the court tried seven Indians, including the company’s non-executive chairman. Union Carbide, which has insisted all along that a disgruntled employee sabotaged the plant, says the matter is now over. Dow Chemicals has denied responsibility all along. And the US wants India to cap any disaster liability at any nuclear plant in which US companies invest.
On Monday, Union Carbide was fined: $11,000. Indra Sinha, who has campaigned for Bhopal victims, and whose novel about Bhopal, Animal’s People, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2007, calculates that at 55 cents per death. Sometimes life is that cheap.