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Tears for Bhopal

The name Warren Anderson (1921-2014) would mean little for the reader in the West. He was just another CEO, the head of Union Carbide – now owned by Dow Chemicals. He died a month ago in Florida, but news of his death was not released until now.

In India, “Warren Anderson” means a great deal. He was the CEO of Union Carbide on the night of December 2-3, 1984, when a run-away reaction in Tank E610 in the BhopalUnion Carbide pesticide plant released at least thirty metric tons of Methyl Isocyanate within an hour. The toxic gas hovered over Bhopal, descending into the lungs of the city’s unsuspecting residents. The Jai Prakash Nagar slum across from the plant housed ten thousand people. It would become ground zero for the disaster. Those who lived near the plant recall a choking sensation – many vomited, felt breathless, gasped for air, which only drew in more of the poison. Rashida Bee remembers running from the area: “We could hear voices around us saying, ‘O God, please grant us death.’ That day, death appeared desirable.”

Thousands of people died within hours. Tens of thousands of people remain affected – with the stillbirth rate and neonatal mortality rates at astronomic heights. The final death toll is somewhere in the vicinity of twenty thousand. More than half a million people have been subsequently affected by the toxic leak.

For Indians of my generation, two events in 1984 contributed to a great sense of disavowal from liberal pieties. The Bhopal gas disaster and the Delhi riots, when the ruling Congress Party set loose its minions in an attack on the city’s Sikh population (over three thousand dead in a few days). Neither the “gas affected” of Bhopal nor the survivors of the anti-Sikh riots found justice. It was the evisceration of the institutions that turned people like myself against the systems of power.

In 1985, Warren Anderson traveled to India with a technical term. He was placed under house arrest on a warrant of “culpable homicide not amounting to murder.” Union Carbide’s responsibility seemed obvious. Anderson posted bail ($2,100) and fled India. He would never return to the country or to its courtrooms.

In 1975, the local government had posted a notice asking that the Bhopal plant – built in 1968 – be relocated to a more remote area. Union Carbide and its enablers in the state government refused. That was the first in a series of refusals to ensure the safety of the public. In 1982, a Union Carbide team from the US found many “major” safety problems in the plant, including in the very unit that would malfunction on December 2. No action was taken. Instead, Union Carbide initiated cost-cutting by reducing safety at the plant. This is the second sign of the flagrant lack of concern for the workers and the public. When the gas began to leak before midnight on December 2, Union Carbide neither set off the toxic gas siren nor informed the police and local authorities to evacuate the area. For at least an hour, the plant managers sat on their hands. A worker eventually sounded the alarm to warn other workers of the leak. These and other reasons compound the view that the Bhopal gas disaster was not an “accident,” but was the result of deliberate disregard for safety at a chemical plant located in a densely populated city.

Union Carbide agreed in 1989 to pay compensation of $470 million. It is a pittance. Union Carbide claimed that since the plant was operated by its Indian subsidiary, it did not have legal responsibility for the disaster. John Musser, a spokesperson, said Union Carbide took “moral responsibility” but no more. But Union Carbide owned more than half of the shares of the Bhopal plant, which made it the principle shareholder. And Union Carbide had overseen the safety of the plant – sending its own team to do inspections and oversight. In 1994 Union Carbide broke its ties with its Indian subsidiary; in 2001, Union Carbide became a wholly owned subsidiary of Dow Chemicals.

Dow has a notorious history of dreaming of corporate freedom. In 1972, US President Richard Nixon hosted a gathering of top corporate executives to discuss the future of the world economy. Carl Gerstacker, head of Dow Chemicals, spoke wistfully, “I have long dreamed of buying an island owned by no nation and of putting the World Headquarters of Dow Company on the truly neutral ground of such an island, beholden to no notion of society.” Corporations should have no oversight – neither on how it managed its workers or how it dealt with the environment. They should be allowed to be anti-social. A decade later, after the Bhopal disaster, the attitude of these corporations to the people of the Global South was clarified by a representative of American Cyanamid. He quite casually noted that the number of dead in Bhopal should not be taken too seriously because Indians do not share “the North American philosophy of the importance of human life.” Why should Dow or Union Carbide be responsible when, on the one hand, they should be free from responsibility in general, and on the other hand, the people in India do not respect life in the same way as Americans?

On February 1, 1992, the Chief Judicial Magistrate of Bhopal declared Warren Anderson a fugitive from justice. Anderson refused to return to India to face trial. Greenpeace served Anderson with the warrant in 2002. In 2003, India contacted the US government for the extradition of Anderson. The US refused, saying that the evidence chain was not sufficient to indict Anderson for the 1984 disaster. On July 31, 2009, Prakash Mohan Tiwari, Bhopal’s Chief Judicial Magistrate issued an arrest warrant for Anderson. Anderson remained in the US, given safe harbour from the reach of Indian courts.

Worse, the Indian government had now seemed to have decided that its new found “strategic relationship” with the United States was far more important than justice for the tens of thousands of residents of Bhopal. Indian Ambassador to the United States Ronen Sen said the “evidentiary links” between Anderson and the 1984 disaster needed to be clarified by the Indian Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI). In 2010, retired CBI officer B. R. Lall said that the Indian Ministry of External Affairs had asked the CBI to “go slow” on the Warren Anderson case.

The fix was in at the US-India CEO Forum meetings of 2005 and 2006. After the 2005 meeting, Dow CEO Andrew Liveris wrote to the Ambassador Sen on September 14, saying “to facilitate the Indian-US Strategic Partnership and to help chart a path forward the following proposal is designed to help resolve a specific legacy legal issue – the Bhopal matter.” The next year, the government of India went further at the Forum. In a letter from Liveris to Sen dated November 2006, he wrote, “Given the statements made by Government of India representatives in front of all meeting attendees that Dow is not responsible for Bhopal and will not be pursued by the Government of India, it will be important to follow through to ensure concrete, sustained actions are taken that are consistent with these statements.” Namely, that India would withdraw its complaints against Dow and set aside the extradition claim on Anderson. Liveris’ view was supported by the CEO Forum co-chair, Ratan Tata, in a letter to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Tata offered to create an Indian fund for the clean-up of Bhopal – shielding Dow from even that liability. Tata had reportedly delivered Liveris’ letter to Planning Commission head Montek Singh Ahluwalia, saying that if India accepted Dow’s position it would “break the deadlock.”

The full-story of the Indian government’s complicity with Dow and the US government to deny the people of Bhopal justice is yet to be told. What is known is scandalous. Meanwhile Anderson is dead. In Bhopal, Rampyari Bai, a Bhopal “gas affected” activist said, “We will surely get our rights. I will not give up the struggle until my last breath, until my pulse stops beating. I will not back down from the fight.”

Vijay Prashad is the author of No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (forthcoming from LeftWord Books, New Delhi). He is a contributor to Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence.

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Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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