As India prepares to roll out the red carpet to multinational corporations cashing in on the country's nuclear deals with the US and others, a painful reminder has come about what collaborations of this kind can mean: the 25th anniversary of the Bhopal gas-leak tragedy on December 3, 2009.
On this day of 1984, Bhopal, capital of the central Indian State of Madhya Pradesh, turned into a "Hiroshima of the chemical industry," as the worst industrial disaster in the world has come to be known. A pesticide plant of Union Carbide located there leaked a highly toxic cloud of 42 tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC) into the air of a densely populated region. Of the 800,000 people living in the city then, 8,000 to 10,000 died within 72 hours. About 300,000 were injured and as many as 25,000 have died from gas-related diseases since the incident.
Around 100,000 people, according to an Amnesty International estimate, were incapacitated for life. They could hope for no relief ever from respiratory illness, eye disease, neurological and neuro-muscular damage and immune system impairment.
A quarter-century on, does the affected part of Bhopal offer us a far better spectacle? The answers from several studies are all agonizing - and they reinforce the nuclear analogy as well.
A series of investigations has shown that the groundwater remains full of toxic elements to this day. The latest tests have found that groundwater in areas even three kilometers away from the factory contains almost 40 times more pesticides than the national average. According to the New Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment (CSE), this has spelled continuous, slow poisoning of the captive population.
The health impact of the chemicals dumped on the 62-acre grounds of the plant, yet to be effectively decontaminated, includes: cancers, chromosomal deformities and bone defects, besides damage to the brain and nervous system as well as liver and blood cells.
Hiroshima is recalled again by a report quoting local doctors to say that as many as one in 25 babies continue to be born here with defects and developmental problems like a smaller head, webbed feet and low birth weight. According to Nina Lakhani, writing for the Independent, neighborhoods where people depend on water contaminated by chemicals leaking from the abandoned factory, and where mothers were exposed to the toxic gas as children, brain-damaged and malformed babies are 10 times more common than the national average.
All this is happening to people suffering from acute poverty as well. It is happening to people who cannot afford either relocation or adequate medical relief, who cannot find an alternative to the livelihood they have lost. It is happening to people denied their due compensation for a calamity for which corporates - Union Carbide and its successor Dow - are refusing responsibility. It is happening to Indians, whose investor-friendly rulers are not ready to fight too hard for them.
Soon after the tragedy, legal proceedings were initiated against Union Carbide and its executives, including its then-CEO, Warren Anderson. Anderson retired in 1986, however, without paying in any way for the calamity his company had brought to Bhopal. He also refused a summons from an Indian court, after charges were filed against him in 1991.
In 1992, The court ordered the government of India to seek his extradition. The country did have an extradition treaty with the US. But the US State Department took 12 years before turning down the extradition request in 2004.
An out-of-court settlement was announced in 1989 - for a compensation that worked out to 15 percent of the amount claimed. The struggle of surviving victims for justice continued. For them, the situation took a turn for the worse in 2001, when the Dow Chemical Company bought Union Carbide for $10.3 billion.
Dow refused to accept moral responsibility and any accountability for the tragedy. New Delhi did not protest too much. Early on, it decided not to incur Dow's displeasure and thus scare away US and other foreign investors.
The Indian authorities have been lucky that their investor-friendly indifference to the interests of the people has not figured in the Bhopal campaign, understandably focused on the multinationals' role in the chemical massacre. It is never asked how the location of the plant so close to a densely populated area was allowed in the first place in violation of industrial safety laws. This is comparable, again, to the callousness of India's nuclear establishment in choosing sites for its plants - including areas prone to tsunamis and quakes - without any real consultations with the affected people at all.
Strikingly similar have been the responses of the rulers to the pleas of such collaborators in calamity-prone enterprises for freedom from frustrating laws and liabilities. In September 2007, it was reported that the government was considering whether Dow should be allowed to operate in India without any "legal liability" in Bhopal-like cases. In July 2009, it was indicated that New Delhi was ready to pass a law, as required by US companies, to spare them any but a token liability in case of accidents in the nuclear reactors they sell India.
A minister in the Manmohan Singh regime, requesting anonymity, told a reporter: "The draft of the Nuclear Liability Bill is ready. What this will do is indemnify American companies so that they don't have to go through another Union Carbide in Bhopal." The plan is to introduce the Bill in the current winter session of Parliament, due to end on December 21.
Parliament, of course, remembered Bhopal on December 3. As survivors of the disaster staged street demonstrations in the scarred city, the Lok Sabha (the Lower House of Parliament) saluted the memory of the victims of "one of the most harrowing man-made tragedies." There is no official word yet, however, about whether or when anyone will be penalized for the crime. The protesters of Bhopal have not been promised better compensation either.
The government seems keen only to avert another Bhopal-like experience, not for the people, but for nuclear corporates.