The hypocrisy of the Bhopal tragedy

The Bhopal gas disaster is undoubtedly the worst manmade calamity suffered by Independent India and one of the worst in the world. The deaths as a result of methyl-isocyanate poisoning on the night of December 3-4, 1984 could be as many as 25,000, while the injured and disabled count runs into hundreds of thousands. Words cannot describe either the extent of the damage and suffering or indeed the neglect. It's been 27 years and the scars left by the Union Carbide factory still remain raw. 

The problems left behind however are complicated. Activists today feel that Dow Chemicals -- which took over Union Carbide in 2001 -- should not be allowed to sponsor the London Olympics. The chief minister of Madhya Pradesh and the Union sports minister apparently also agree -- Dow's presence at the Olympics would be a great insult to the victims of Union Carbide in Bhopal.

Enraged: Protesters burn a car during a protest in Bhopal to agitate 
against the country's decision to compete in the London Olympics, 
which has Dow Chemicals as its sponsor

There are some odd thought processes at work here. The pain of the activists is understandable -- their fights have been largely in vain. But the blame for the inadequate amount -- $470 million as full and final compensation -- paid in 1989 to the victims can be placed very squarely on the Government of India and our judicial system.
Warren Anderson, global head of Union Carbide at the time, was allowed to leave the country safely. The Supreme Court agreed to the shockingly paltry payouts to the victims and earlier this year dismissed petitions by victims asking for a five-fold increase in the compensation. And since then, what have the state and Central governments -- both now bristling with moral outrage -- done for the people of Bhopal? And additional compensation package of $370 million was worked out between the Supreme Court and state welfare commission in 2004 -- has that been disbursed?

This seems to be one more instance in our long history of public hypocrisy. Why is the presence of Dow Chemicals at the Olympics so unbearable when the presence of Dow Chemicals in India is not? Dow has according to its website four manufacturing sites in India and also -- as part of its community service -- contributes to the Jaipur foot and Habitat for Humanity. If all this is all right, then why is Dow's involvement in the Olympics so outrageous and insulting? 

One can understand the activists' thinking here -- shame Dow into paying more by creating a public relations disaster. Perhaps Dow should make a contribution towards the Bhopal victims -- even if the liability of Union Carbide ended in 1989 -- as a gesture of goodwill. But Dow, it has to be remembered, was not responsible for what happened in Bhopal, no matter how hard that is to swallow. It came into the picture much later.

The anger, as usual, needs to be focused on the government. Can it be surprising to anyone that a giant corporate -- Union Carbide -- got away with paying as little as possible and even that money did not reach the victims? Or that since then, government after government in Madhya Pradesh has done barely enough? These issues sadly do not make for electoral issues in this country as we get stuck in caste and religion and community instead. 

The politicians involved in the protests against Dow may sound well-meaning but are surely unconvincing. Why has all the money not reached the victims? Who is responsible for that? Why not look for other ways to compensate them. Why not pledge all the returning black money to the Bhopal victims? All the bribes saved after the Lokpal Bill is passed? Or ask India's giant business houses for donations to salve their consciences for other sins to help the victims of Union Carbide?

Getting Dow out of the Olympics looks like one more way to create a lot of hot air amounting to precisely nothing substantial for the people of Bhopal.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist

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