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Recently, Americans have been focused on corporate crimes that cheated stockholders and taxpayers out of money to benefit executives and politicians. This week we must focus on a crime that cost thousands their lives, as executives and politicians try to cut a deal to escape what little accountability remains. To persuade us of its importance, […]

Justice for Bhopal

by Rahul Mahajan

Recently, Americans have been focused on corporate crimes that cheated stockholders and taxpayers out of money to benefit executives and politicians.

This week we must focus on a crime that cost thousands their lives, as executives and politicians try to cut a deal to escape what little accountability remains.

To persuade us of its importance, Rashida Bi — one victim of that corporate crime — is risking her life on hunger strike (click here for constant updates on the hunger strike, as well as details about the strikers’ demands.)

The story began goes back to the 1984 Union Carbide accident in Bhopal, India, which released a cloud of methyl isocyanate (MIC), hydrogen cyanide, and other toxins. Somewhere between 4000 and 8000 people died at the time, and victims’ advocates estimate that in total over 20,000 have died as a result of this largest industrial accident ever, with 150,000 suffering continuing injuries and medical problems.

The cause was extreme corporate malfeasance. The plant was not up to minimal Union Carbide safety standards — large quantities of MIC were unwisely stored in a heavily populated area, the refrigeration unit for the MIC (which is supposed to kept at temperatures below 32 F) was deliberately kept turned off to save $40 per day in Freon costs, the safety systems were dismantled, and the alarm system was turned off. This even though the same plant had earlier suffered potentially lethal accidental releases of gases like the deadly nerve agent phosgene. Both civil and criminal charges were filed, including a charge of culpable homicide against Warren Anderson, then Carbide’s CEO.

The civil case was settled, after extreme obstructionism on the part of Carbide, for a paltry $470 million — a few hundred dollars each for victims still suffering a nightmarish array of cancer, tuberculosis, severe birth defects, reproductive and menstrual abnormalities, eye problems, and more. The settlement, reached without consulting the victims, was so favorable that when it transpired Carbide’s stock jumped two points.

Carbide’s callousness is so extreme that it has disclosed neither the exact chemical composition of the gas cloud, calling it a "trade secret," nor the results of its own medical studies on the effects of MIC. As a result, the few doctors available to help the victims have great difficult working out the best methods of treatment.

The U.S. government has consistently refused to honor its own extradition treaty with India, which requires it to send Anderson to be tried in India for his reckless indifference to human life.

Dow Chemical, which acquired Union Carbide in 2001, refuses to admit any liability for Carbide’s actions. Dow also plans to mass-market Dursban, a product banned by the EPA in 2000 because it can cause severe neurological damage (especially to children), to Indians as a household insecticide.

This happy state of affairs, however, is not enough for Dow. It has also pressured the Vajpayee government in India to reduce the charges on Anderson and others from "culpable homicide" to "hurt by negligence," a non-extraditable offense — and also to use part of the pathetically low compensation to victims for cleanup of the area, shifting liability from the polluter to the victims of the pollution. The final decision on some charges will be made on July 17.

Rashida, another victim named Tara Bai, and activist Satinath Sarangi of the Bhopal Group for Action and Information are ready to fast to the death to prevent these moves. Although the fast is just into its third week, because of the extreme heat in Delhi and the crippling effects of gas injuries, Rashida and Tara are failing fast.

The fast is also intended to draw world attention to the continuing exigent circumstances of Carbide’s victims. For years, none of the victims had access to any sustained affordable medical care. More recently, the Sambhavna trust, a nonprofit NGO, provides some care to about 10,000, barely 6% of the total number of surviving victims. At least 5000 families must still regularly drink water contaminated by mercury and roughly a dozen volatile organic compounds as a result of the accident.

It is easy to focus on the shameful complicity of the Indian government, which has consistently shown more interest in courting foreign investors than in the health of its citizens — and activists are calling for Americans to complain to the Indian ambassador. It’s also clear that Dow must be held accountable.

But let’s not forget the actions of our own government, which consistently goes to bat for U.S. corporations, no matter how disgusting their actions. Enron was a major beneficiary, with both Clinton and Bush officials on numerous occasions pressuring India, Mozambique, Argentina, and countless other countries into signing sweetheart deals that benefited Enron stockholders and not their own people.

Enron was hardly unusual, however; U.S. corporations count on this kind of coercion in their international dealings. Although this latest initiative is still new, and there is as yet no direct evidence in the news that U.S. government officials are running interference for Dow, whatever we find out later — presumably after the hunger strikers are dead — will hardly come as a surprise, with the most pro-corporate administration in U.S. history currently in power.

Recent scandals make it very clear that we are governed by politicians who are little more than corporate shills, enriching themselves as they defraud the public. This is no mere matter of individuals, but a cancer at the heart of our political system. Rashida and her associates remind us that these scandals are not just about ill-gotten gains for a few folks like George W. Bush. They have a body count.

Rahul Mahajan is the Green Party candidate for Governor of Texas. He is a member of the Nowar Collective and serves on the National Board of Peace Action. He is the author of "The New Crusade: America’s War on Terrorism. His other work can be seen at http://www.rahulmahajan.com He can be reached at rahul@tao.ca