Feature

India: No justice for Union Carbide victims

The Indian government, which has taken more than two decades to bring Union Carbide executives to trial for the Bhopal disaster, finally convicted seven executives of negligence. Each was sentenced each to two years in prison.

While the rest of the world is transfixed by the BP oil spill, India is recalling a far worse industrial disaster, said the Assam Sentinel in an editorial. In the early hours of Dec. 3, 1984, lethal gas leaked out of a Union Carbide pesticide factory and spread over the sleeping town of Bhopal. What happened next was “one of the worst human tragedies in the world.” At least 20,000 people were killed, nearly one-third of them instantly. Some were trampled to death in the panic of the fleeing crowds. Nearly half a million people were blinded, maimed, or neurologically disabled. “These were the people who did not die, but many of them wished they had, because what the massive leakage of poisonous gas did to them made them live as shadows of themselves and as burdens to their families for the rest of their lives.” Yet it took more than two decades before the Indian government brought Union Carbide executives to trial. Finally, last week, seven of them—all Indians working for the Indian subsidiary of the American company—were convicted of negligence. But “no one will call it justice of any kind.” The seven were each sentenced to a mere two years in prison. And the man most responsible, Warren Anderson, the American CEO of the company, was never even brought to trial.

It’s a clear “mockery of justice,” said Sudha Ramachandran in the Asia Times. Right after the spill, Delhi “protected American interests more than those of its own citizens.” Anderson, who flew to India to survey the damage and was promptly arrested, was allowed to post bail—“which he jumped, and he fled, never to return to face trial.” Now he lives in seclusion at his Long Island, N.Y., estate. Activists say both the U.S. and Indian governments helped him abscond, even though he was clearly responsible for failing to hold the Indian plant to the same safety standards he required of his American factories. Then, India cut a deal with Union Carbide, allowing it to pay just $500 for each victim, “many of whom faced a lifetime of visits to hospitals.”

The Union Carbide spill keeps on killing, said Antara Dev Sen in the Deccan Chronicle. The company never cleaned up the toxic dump it left in the middle of Bhopal. More than two decades later, thousands of people “continue to be killed silently as toxins contaminate drinking water, creep into vegetation and food, into the baby in the womb, and into mother’s milk.” Dow Chemical, which bought Union Carbide, has also refused to clean up the site or compensate the victims. Dow did, however, pay millions of dollars to settle Union Carbide’s outstanding asbestos claims. But then, the victims in those lawsuits were Americans.

And there’s the crux of the matter, said M.J. Akbar in the Delhi Times of India. The Bhopal victims were poor Indians. The U.S. company didn’t value their lives, before or after the disaster. But neither did the Indian government. “If thousands of politicians, or their cousins, the nouveau riche, had died on that apocalyptic night in Bhopal,” a trial would have been held right away, and Anderson would be sitting in an Indian prison. But only the poor were killed. And India treats its poor as “dispensable chattel, whose death is meaningless in the economic calculus.”

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