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Bhopal: The making of a disaster

December 10, 2004 | Page 8

LEE SUSTAR looks at the cruel legacy of the poison gas disaster in Bhopal, India--20 years after the worst industrial accident in history.

THE SYMBOL of corporate globalization in India is Bangalore, the booming center of the country's information technology industry--the supposed pacesetter for a free-market transformation that, Indians are told, will finally alleviate the country's enormous poverty.

But there's another face of globalization in India. It belongs to Shakira Ehsan, whose legs are so undeveloped and weak that she has to drag herself forward with her arms.

Then there's 40-year-old Kanchari Lal, who is unable to work because of chronic pain and shortness of breath. And Jyoti, the 36-year-old woman whose reproductive organs are so damaged that she's despaired of marriage and the relative economic security that brings for a poor woman in India.

These are survivors of the industrial disaster in Bhopal on December 2-3, 1984. A release of poison gas at a Union Carbide pesticide plant killed more than 8,000 people immediately, sent another 15,000 to early graves and left an estimated 100,000 more with chronic and debilitating injuries. As many as 500,000 people have been affected.

Twenty years later, Union Carbide is still killing and maiming. Toxic chemicals from the now-abandoned plant continue to seep into the groundwater, which the shantytowns surrounding the factory have no choice but to use. Babies ingest the poison through their mothers' breast milk--all but guaranteeing brain damage, stunted growth and premature deaths.

Survivors are still struggling to make Union Carbide and its current owner, Dow Chemical, pay compensation. But the Indian government long ago agreed to a settlement that excluded the victims themselves, capping damages at $470 million, shielding Union Carbide from further liability and creating a politicized and corrupt bureaucracy to administer a meager compensation.

Vigorous pursuit of a U.S. transnational corporation wasn't considered good business at a time when India was seeking more foreign direct investment. That's why Bhopal isn't some nightmarish aberration from the free-market "new India," but its inevitable accompaniment--the price of India's insertion into the world economy.

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THAT SHIFT began in the 1970s through the transformation of world agriculture known as the "Green Revolution." While ostensibly aimed at boosting farm output in poor and developing countries, the Green Revolution in fact reflected the increasing corporate-dominated, export-oriented agriculture of the wealthiest countries--the U.S. and Western European states.

Thanks to massive government subsidies, prices for U.S. and European grains and other agricultural products undercut those of farmers in the Third World, forcing them to cut production and adding to the problem of hunger. The World Bank then stepped in with loans to finance major technological changes in agriculture, such as investments in mechanized farm implements, genetically modified seeds and--gaining Union Carbide's attention--pesticides.

The promised dramatic reduction in Third World hunger never came. As left-wing economist Nigel Harris noted in the early 1980s, the Green Revolution had the effect of "redistributing agrarian inputs away from the production of the foodstuffs consumed by the mass of the population--millets and pulses in India, for example--towards wheat and other relatively high-priced products, many of them eminently suitable for export. This is part of the explanation for the coincidence of increased output and increased hunger.

Business Week magazine summed up the situation in India in 1994: "Even though the granaries of India are overflowing now, 5,000 children die each day of malnutrition. One-third of India's 900 million people are poverty-stricken." With the poor unable to afford these products, "the government is left trying to store millions of tons of food. Some of it is rotting, and there is concern that rotten grain will find its way to public markets."

Union Carbide's Bhopal plant, built in the 1970s, was a speculative investment in the Green Revolution--and the state-dominated Indian economy's new openness to foreign investment.

Terms of the deal required Union Carbide to establish an Indian-based subsidiary, a fact that the company would later use to deny responsibility for the disaster. In fact, company negotiators were determined that the U.S. firm would retain a controlling interest in the Bhopal plant. "Our specific objective is not to accept any conditions which would reduce our equity below 51 percent," stated a 1973 Union Carbide corporate finance plan. The company eventually settled on a 53.5 percent stake.

The Bhopal factory was designed as a state-of-the-art plant, a twin of another facility in Institute, W. Va. But from the beginning, the plants were operated on two standards, as a recent report by Amnesty International conclusively shows.

The West Virginia operation had computerized monitors of valves and storage tanks; the Bhopal facility had only manual gauges. Operators in West Virginia had to undergo months of safety training; in Bhopal, such training was minimal. A loud siren at the U.S. plant was designed to warn workers and the community of any leaks of toxic chemicals; the Bhopal operation's warning system was dismantled and replaced because frequent spills had triggered alarms so often.

The biggest differences between the two plants was supposed to be the way in which they stored the key ingredient used in the pesticide Sevin--methyl isocyanate (MIC), derived from the phosgene gas used as a chemical weapon in the First World War. Given the inherent dangers of storing MIC, designers of the Bhopal plant had intended to use individual small containers for greater safety. Yet when the Bhopal plant came on line, it used the same huge storage tanks as its West Virginia counterpart.

In the U.S., however, round-the-clock production meant that there was no long-term storage of MIC before it was processed. Bhopal, however, lacked sufficient processing capacity, so MIC was stored for weeks--or months--in massive tanks holding 90 tons of gas, guaranteeing that that the large spill of December 1984 would be catastrophic.

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FOR THE past 20 years, Union Carbide and its current owner, Dow Chemical, have fought to keep claims of Bhopal survivors from reaching U.S. courts.

The reason: "Such abject poverty and the vastly different values, standards and expectations which accompany it are commonplace in India and the Third World," the company's lawyers argued in U.S. District Court. "They are incomprehensible to Americans living in the United States."

In fact, it was Union Carbide's "values, standards and expectations" that led company managers to systematically cut costs at the Bhopal plant, making a calamity inevitable. According to the Amnesty International investigation, since the plant had never showed a profit, the corporate chain of command pressured plant managers to save money any way they could--including cutting staff and reducing maintenance.

A team of Union Carbide safety inspectors from the U.S. noted 10 major hazards in 1982, including the potential for an MIC leak. In the summer of 1984, the head of the plant workers' union wrote to management about the problem of pollution, as did a lawyer representing area residents. Meanwhile, a Bhopal-based journalist wrote an article on the dangers of the plant for a leading newspaper. The headline: "Bhopal: On the brink of a disaster."

Two decades after the disaster, countless articles have recounted its horrors. Yet they've also highlighted the inspiring campaign of Bhopal survivors to push the case into U.S. court--to force Union Carbide/Dow to pay compensation to victims and pay for the cleanup of the plant site.

There's also an effort underway to bring Warren Anderson, then the CEO of Union Carbide, to trial in India for homicide. Activists held protests at Dow board members' houses and offices on the 20th anniversary of the disaster.

In April, two Bhopal survivors, Rashida Bee and Champa Devi Shukla, were awarded the prestigious Goldman prize for environmental activism for their work in fighting for compensation and economic opportunities for survivors. In an interview with Socialist Worker published earlier this year, Bee and Devi Shukla described how their struggle has established links with the movement against corporate globalization.

"We don't think they will be able to put us off forever," Devi Shukla said. "You know, more and more people are becoming aware of what is going on. We are trying to wake people up. And once you have a population that is awake and willing to fight, nothing can stop you."

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