piecing together bits of truth about gov't and corporate influence

Sunday, June 13, 2010

As oil washes ashore, Bhopal's lesson is clear Read more: http://www.montrealgazette.com/news/washes+ashore+Bhopal+lesson+clear/3148425/story.html#ix

Twenty-five years ago, the world watched in horror as the death toll mounted and mounted in the aftermath of the release of toxic gas from a Union Carbide chemical plant at Bhopal, in north-central India.

Death-toll numbers in the disaster will never be better than approximate, but about 3,000 people are believed to have died at once, and another 15,000 since. Others were sickened with permanent consequences. The victim total is believed to be around 25,000 in what is still the world's worst industrial accident.

Back then, the legal issues looked pretty straightforward: How could such careless handling of dangerous chemicals not involve criminal liability? What level of compensation would be reasonable for those affected?

Incredibly, it has taken until this month for the wheels of the Indian justice system to grind to a verdict -and it is not one anybody could call fine.

Eight Indian nationals, former plant managers, were found guilty of causing death by negligence, one posthumously. The district court in Bhopal sentenced the remaining seven to two years in jail, but all are out on bail, pending an appeal. The 4.5-hectare site, deeded to India by the now-defunct Union Carbide, remains strewn with contaminated debris; winds still occasionally send poisonous gases out over nearby neighbourhoods.

Five years after the accident, U.S.-based Union Carbide paid India $450 million in "full and final compensation." Victims received about $550 each. Warren Anderson, the U.S. head of Union Carbide, refused to return to India to face charges; the U.S. has ignored extradition requests.

The lessons from this debacle are painfully obvious, starting with the inexcusable slowness of India's judicial system. According to the Economist, India's courts have a backlog of more than 20 million cases, which by one judge's estimate would take 320 years to clear.

The Bhopal case was unusually slow because of India's insistence on dealing with compensation first. The criminal case did not start until a full three years after the accident, on charges of "culpable homicide not amounting to murder."

Allegedly under political pressure from the Indian government, in 1996 India's Supreme Court reduced the charges and a new trial started.

Indian commentators gave full vent to their outrage last week, accusing their government of putting the interests of foreign investors ahead of the safety and well-being of Indians, especially poor ones. "It's terrible," Rachna Dhingra, of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, told the Irish Independent. "This is what comes after 25,000 deaths. This is an open invitation to multinational corporations to come and pollute and then leave without (responsibility)."

This is, of course, what people living on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico fear today, as BP and its subcontractors try to push responsibility for the oil spill onto one another's shoulders, as well as onto U.S. regulatory agencies. As the Gulf braces itself for a long cleanup, it should remember the lessons from Bhopal.

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