2 December 2009 will mark the 25th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster. It was the night of 2nd December 1984 when over 35 tons of toxic gases leaked from a pesticide plant in Bhopal, owned by the US based multinational Union Carbide Corporation (UCC)’s Indian affiliate Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL). In the next 2-3 days more than 7,000 people died and many more were injured. Over the last 25 years at least 15,000 more people have died from illnesses related to the gas exposure. Today, more than 100,000 people continue to suffer from chronic and debilitating illnesses, for which treatment is largely ineffective. The disaster shocked the world and raised fundamental questions about government and corporate responsibility for industrial accidents that devastate human life and local environments. Yet 25 years later, the survivors and various organisations are still fighting for justice. Issues of plant site, toxic wastes and contaminated water have not been resolved. And strikingly, no one has been held to account for the leak and its appalling consequences. Bhopal is not just an incident of industrial disaster and human suffering from the last century. It is very much an issue of the present century of corporate accountability, peoples’ rights and government responsibility. The lack of mandatory laws and norms governing multinationals, legal complexities, and government failures are serious obstacles in ensuring justice for the people of Bhopal, and for the victims of corporate complicity in crimes against environment, peoples’ lives and safety.
The Role of Companies
UCC owned 50.9% of the equity of UCIL, and maintained extensive corporate, managerial, technical and operational controls over UCIL. Despite that, since the leak, UCC has argued that the Bhopal plant was not under its control or management, and that UCIL is an entirely separate corporate entity. However, UCC’s 1984 annual report stated: ‘Union Carbide Corporation’s business worldwide is conducted principally through the divisions, subsidiaries and affiliates listed below.’ One of those listed was UCIL, which was also included in UCC’s consolidated balance sheet for the same year.
Urging that the case be thrown out of the USA, UCC argued before the US District Court: ‘Indeed, the practical impossibility for American courts and juries, imbued with US cultural values, living standards and expectations, to determine living standards for people living in the slums or “hutments” surrounding the UCIL, Bhopal, India, by itself confirms that the Indian forum is overwhelmingly the most appropriate. Such abject poverty and the vastly different values, standards and expectations which accompany it are commonplace in India and the third world. They are incomprehensible to Americans living in the United States.’ UCC has subsequently refused to submit itself to Indian jurisdiction.
In 1994 Union Carbide sold its 50.9 per cent share of UCIL to MacLeod Russell (India) Limited of Calcutta, and UCIL was renamed Eveready Industries India Limited. Union Carbide stated: ‘As a result of the sale of its shares in UCIL, Union Carbide retained no interest in – or liability for – the Bhopal site, and Eveready Industries continued to retain exclusive possession of the land under lease from the state government of Madhya Pradesh.’ In February 2001 UCC became a wholly owned subsidiary of The Dow Chemical Company. Even though Union Carbide continued to be a separate legal entity, its corporate identity and all its business was now fully integrated with that of Dow. Dow Chemical has publicly stated that it has no responsibility for the leak and its consequences or for the pollution from the plant.
A pending criminal case, failure to extradite Warren Anderson (the then Chief Executive Officer of UCC), a public interest litigation in Madhya Pradesh High Court, an out-of-court compensation settlement between Union Carbide and the Government of India, denial to get any redress through the US court system: this is all we have in the realm of fixing the company’s role. No international norms or national laws to govern the multinational companies existed at the time of the Bhopal disaster. However, UN Norms on the Responsibility of Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights came into existence in 2003. But the Indian government has failed in applying its provisions, not only in the case of Bhopal, but also in other ones of human rights violations by the global companies. According to Article 14 of UN Norms, transnational corporations and other business enterprises are responsible for the environmental and human health impact of their activities. The commentary of the article states in detail the concrete measures to be taken in this regard. Article 18 asks on transnational corporations and other business enterprises to make reparations for damages done through their failure to meet the standards spelled out in the Norms. Article 17 asks on states to have in place the necessary legal and administrative framework to give effect to the Norms: ‘States should establish and reinforce the necessary legal and administrative framework for ensuring that the Norms and other relevant national and international laws are implemented by transnational corporations and other business enterprises.’
Right to Information
The Company decided to store huge quantities of the ‘ultra-hazardous’ Mythyl Isocyanate (MIC) in the Bhopal plant in bulk, but did not equip the plant with the corresponding processing or safety capacity. On the night of the gas leak, crucial safety systems were not functional. After the leak, UCC maintained that MIC was nothing more than tear gas, even though the company’s own manuals clearly said that MIC was a fatal poison. Till date UCC has refused to identify the reaction products released, and related toxicological information of the products that leaked. This has prevented doctors from developing an appropriate treatment protocol for victims. Later UCC also claimed that the leak was an act of sabotage caused by a disgruntled employee, whom it has since refused to name. In 1994, the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) stopped all further research on the medical effects of the Bhopal disaster without any explanation. The full results of the research carried out and the data with the ICMR have yet to be published.
The single biggest factor in the Bhopal disaster – beyond the dangerous process in use – was the failure of Union Carbide to adequately inform the Indian government, its workers, and the surrounding community of the dangers. Equally disturbing is the fact that what happened in Bhopal is not unique. Many other cases around the country demonstrate the urgency of providing critical information about a company’s operations, in order to protect the environment and the lives and human rights of local communities and workers. We now have the Right to Information Act in the government sphere, but this law does not apply to the private sector. The present conditions call for more public disclosure, more transparency, and more accountability on the part of the companies. Without information, local communities live in the dark, employees unknowingly work in hazardous ways, and shareholders make uninformed investments. There is thus a strong case for the application of the Right to Information in the private sector. Information disclosure standards on environmental impacts (data on toxic releases and health risks to the local community), labour standards (information on workers’ exposure to dangerous chemicals, and basic labour practices including child labour), business practices (terms of agreements between the company and the government) and community relocation (information on displacement, compensation and rehabilitation) should constitute the core of it.
Bhopal survivors have a legacy of suffering and struggling. Ordinary people have shown immense strength in organising and raising vital issues of human well being and rights. Their diverse organisations and support groups — Zehreeli Gas Kand Sangharsh Morcha, Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan, Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationary Karmchari Sangh/Morcha, International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, The Bhopal Survivors’ Movement Study, Students for Bhopal — have kept lives and hopes alive. Our governments have a prime responsibility to address outstanding problems of health care, safe water, cleaning up the site, compensation and rehabilitation. However, there is no substitute for taking steps to regulate the activities of corporations. Laws must be developed and enforced to allow governments and local communities to control the activities of companies operating in their territory. Ensuring public participation and transparency in decisions relating to the location, operational safety and waste disposal of industries using hazardous materials and technology is an essential step to heighten risk awareness and responsible behaviour, as well as to ensure better preparedness to prevent and deal with the consequences of disasters like Bhopal.