For America is BP India's Union Carbide?
Is Union Carbide’s horrific environmental disaster of 1984 America’s ‘BP’? Yesterday’s minimal sentences passed down on eight former Carbide employees, did not include the then Chief Executive Warren Anderson. No one has ever acted upon the arrest warrant that was issued for his arrest. No one until yesterday was ever brought to book. America and her then multi-national, in effect, took little or no action to remedy the disaster.
When I visited Bhopal in 2002 – 15 years after it had happened, the stench still hung over the site. The wreckage stood untouched since the devastating explosion that left 50 tonnes of the toxin – methyl isocyanate – hanging in a cloud over the City’s slums.
At least 3,000 people died immediately, some 15,000 are estimated to have died since as a result of ingesting the fumes. Many birth deformities have occurred and many cancers diagnosed amongst survivors. It is alleged that the ground water remains dangerously polluted.
Beyond the 11 people killed aboard the exploding oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico no one has yet died from the consequent oil spill. Yet an American president is now at war with a British multi-national and all political guns are blazing.
Had President Ronald Reagan expended against Union Carbide a tenth of Mr Obama’s energy and rhetoric today focused on BP, would life and death for the people of Bhopal might have turned out very differently?
Perhaps what Union Carbide and BP tell us is that even in a globalised world, holding great multi nationals to account is technically extremely difficult.
The eight carbide employees sentenced yesterday for their role in the Bhopal disaster have got two years in jail and a little more than £1,000 each in fines. No one expects anyone from BP, Haliburton, or Trans Ocean, to go to prison, let alone to have to pay personal fines.
Perhaps the fact that BP is voluntarily paying for both the battle to contain the oil and to clean it up is real progress.
But if BP’s disaster had happened off Nigeria or Uganda’s Lake Victoria oil field, could we have been so sure?
Is this still a globalising world with one outcome for the rich and another for the poor?