BP and Bhopal

The Bitter Dregs of Unchecked Corporate Profiteering

01 July 2010
President Obama in an area impacted by the Gulf Coast oil spill.
President Obama in an area impacted by the Gulf Coast oil spill.

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.

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    Mira Kamdar is a Contributing Editor at The Caravan. The award-winning author’s essays and opinions appear in publications around the world.

    Keywords: Mira Kamdar bp oil spill Gulf of Mexico Bhopal Gulf Coast oil spill David Cameron Warren Anderson