BP and Bhopal

The Bitter Dregs of Unchecked Corporate Profiteering

President Obama in an area impacted by the Gulf Coast oil spill. EVAN VUCCI/AP PHOTO
01 July, 2010

THE BP OIL SPILL in the Gulf of Mexico and the Bhopal verdicts handed down on 7 June converged last month to create a perfect storm of public outrage over the devastating consequences of unchecked corporate greed. In both cases, subservient governments made it all too easy for profit-seeking corporations to skimp on safety measures and emergency procedures they well knew should have been in place. In both cases, there were immediate fatalities: the thousands killed in Bhopal dwarfing the 11 workers killed in the initial explosion on the BP deep-water rig in the Gulf of Mexico. In both cases, the leak of toxic material, methyl isocyanate in the case of the Union Carbide pesticide plant and crude oil in the case of BP, have and will continue to cause death, disease, and injury among those exposed. Both were called the “worst environmental disaster in history.”

The shameless collusion of the Indian government and judiciary in protecting the American and Indian managers (one of whom, Kishore Kamdar, is no relation of mine) responsible for the 1984 gas leak is stunning. In the face of mass casualties totalling, according to Amnesty International, 22,000 men, women and children, the immediate response of the government of India was to spirit the American CEO, Warren Anderson, out of Bhopal and then help get him out of India as quickly as possible. In other words, the government’s priority was to rescue the American chief executive responsible for the leak, not to tend to its agonised victims. To date, it has done nothing to clean up the massive contamination of the area’s ground and water that continues to poison the resident population.

Subsequently, India’s judiciary conspired for 26 long years to minimise the financial cost and any criminal penalties against Union Carbide and its successor, the Dow Chemical Company. The Supreme Court accepted a settlement of a mere 470 million dollars from Union Carbide, after the government of India dropped an initial suit for 3.3 billion. It then kicked the criminal proceedings down to a lower court where the maximum penalty allowed would be ‘criminal negligence,’ a penalty more usually applied to traffic accidents. Of the eight Indian managers so charged, the seven still alive walked free on bail shortly after having received the lightest tap on the wrist: fines totaling 2,100 dollars each.

While Bhopal survivors raged after the verdicts were announced, the UPA government maintained a serene silence. Not a peep was heard from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a man whose proclaimed priority for India is hitting double-digit economic growth and who had previously fretted about “sending the wrong signal” to corporate investors on which he depends to hit his target. It also came to light that the UPA government harbours great hopes for fresh investment from the Dow Chemical Company, Union Carbide’s inheritor. While Justice Minister Veerapa Moily opined that the case against Warren Anderson was not closed, there is no indication the UPA government wishes to have another go at extraditing the now 90-year-old Florida retiree, or that the Americans, who refused to do so in 2004, would move to do so now. Indeed, Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Robert Blake expressed his wish that the piddling punishment handed out as a simulacrum of justice on 7 June would “help bring closure” to the Union Carbide debacle.

The hypocrisy of the American diplomat’s remarks is as thick as the crude oil now filling the Gulf of Mexico and threatening to wash up on Warren Anderson’s retirement haven’s shores. The US government is currently beating its chest in fury over the negligence of BP in precipitating the oil spill on American shores. Expressing sentiments no Indian prime minister since 1984 has felt moved to express over Bhopal, President Obama not only said he was “furious,” but that he was figuring out, according to remarks he made in an interview on the Today Show, “which asses to kick.”

The US administration is venting its ire by pushing to get rid of the current 75 million-dollar cap on liability for oil spills in favour of an unlimited cap. It has every interest in doing so: BP’s underwater leak, still pumping between 500,000 to 800,000 gallons of oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico, will destroy the ecology of the Gulf and its shorelines for decades at least.  Hundreds of thousands of people are likely to lose their jobs—many already have—and local economies are beginning to hemorrhage losses anticipated to grow to the billions of dollars. The human health consequences of inhaling the fumes wafting off the polluted Gulf waters are only beginning.

Ah, but here the hypocrisy rubs particularly raw. Incredibly, the Obama administration, at the same time that it is lobbying to remove the cap on liability for oil spills in the US so it can go after BP for maximum compensation, is pressuring the Indian government to push through a Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage bill whose sole purpose is to protect US corporations. This bill was the top US priority at the Strategic Dialogue summit held with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Minister of External Affairs SM Krishna in Washington, DC last month.

Meanwhile, the United States is getting a taste of its own medicine. The new UK government has pushed back on the Obama administration’s threats against BP. With thousands of British pensioners invested in the oil giant, David Cameron and Nick Clegg have averred that BP must remain “financially strong and profitable.” Like the banks to whose rescue previously pliant governments had to rush, BP, it is argued, is simply too big to fail.

What the BP and the Bhopal disasters reveal is the craven attitude of democratic governments toward powerful corporations whose devotion to maximising profits supercedes any human and environmental cost. Apparently, all corporations have to do is wield the temptation of financial investment, the promise of economic growth, and the boon of employment (some cash under the table often helps as well, depending on the country and the politician) to get the elected representatives of the people to wink-wink them past proportionate responsibility for the damages they wreak. Too often, governments see their primary duty as facilitating corporate activity whatever the human or environmental cost. Until governments return their allegiance to ordinary citizens, until they force corporations to respect tough regulations on health, safety and environmental protections and punish them with limitless liability and painful penalties when they fail, there will be more disasters like the BP oil spill and the Union Carbide poisonous gas leak. Only then will we know whether the perfect storm of BP and Bhopal’s tragic convergence will result in a real break from what has, for too long, been business as usual.