After 18 Years, Bhopal Still Waits for Justice ; UNION CARBIDE DISASTER Blighted City Continues to Pay the Price for Industrial Tragedy, While Fight Goes on to Bring Chief Executive to Trial
Popham, Peter, The Independent (London, England)
THE LAND on which the factory stood is still fiercely toxic, the victims' families are being compensated at the rate of pounds 5 per month, and the boss of Union Carbide, the American chemical giant which accepted "moral responsibility" for the Bhopal catastrophe of 1984, in which more than 20,000 died, is officially "absconding" from justice.
But yesterday brought the possibility that Warren Anderson, former Chief Executive Officer of Union Carbide, will face trial on homicide charges a fraction closer. Several weeks ago, India's Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) asked the court to reduce the charges against Mr Anderson to negligence. The request originated with India's Ministry of External Affairs, in an apparent attempt to curry favour with the American government.
But yesterday Justice Rameshwar Kothe threw it out. Indian executives facing similar charges had had them reduced, the CBI argued. But Mr Kothe refused to accept the parallel. "There is no sense in reducing the charges," he said in his ruling, "since Warren Anderson, who has been declared an absconder and against whom a permanent arrest warrant has been issued, has not appeared in any court." Mr Kothe also urged prosecutors to get on with the extradition proceedings - proceedings that have not even begun, even though 18 years have elapsed since the catastrophe.
Why should the world cheer at the prospect of a retired American businessman well into his seventies being obliged to travel to India to face a trial that could put him behind bars for 20 years? Because there are few more glaring cases of the developed world abusing the developing world and getting away with murder than Union Carbide's rape of Bhopal.
The Union Carbide plant was set up in 1980 to manufacture Sevin, a potent pesticide for which India's millions of "green revolution" farmers promised to be a vast and ready market. But from the outset the Indian plant was governed by different standards from similar plants in America. At the Union Carbide factory at Institute, West Virginia, which made the same product, the lethal, volatile chemical methyl isocyanate (MIC) which it contains was stored in small concentrations to minimise risk. In Bhopal it was stored in a single huge tank containing 50 tons of the stuff. And the plant itself, despite advice to the contrary, was built close to the heart of Bhopal, the densely populated capital of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.
Business initially was brisk, but when a drought put Sevin beyond the means of many Indian farmers Union Carbide put the plant into "care and maintenance" mode. They slashed staffing, and safety was the first victim. By December 1984, the lethal MIC tank was fatally compromised. It was nearly 90 per cent full, despite a rule that it should never be more than half full. The cooling system, designed to keep the content at 0C (32F), and therefore safe even if it became contaminated, had been disconnected. A spray intended to neutralise escaping gas was defunct; a flare tower meant to burn it off was being repaired. The maintenance crew had been cut from six men to two, and the job of night maintenance supervisor had been abolished. …