United States President Barack Obama says he needs to know whose ass he should kick in the case of the devastating oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. He wants those responsible to pay for the damage — to the people and the environment. The victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy will tell you that they know who is responsible. From Union Carbide (UC), which had better safety standards in the plant in West Virginia than Bhopal, to the judiciary, which first agreed to settle civil and criminal claims for a pittance and then diluted charges against the accused.
They will also hold the Union government responsible for halting epidemiological research, which would have made diagnoses of the terrible inter-generational diseases possible. Then there is the CBI, which made sure the case never really stung and the state government, which made a mockery of relief to the victims. They also know that there are huge quantities of toxic waste lying in the abandoned factory, seeping into their groundwater like slow poison. But Dow Chemicals says that it has only taken over the assets of UC, not its liabilities. The victims of Bhopal hold it responsible as well. But unlike Obama, they do not have the power to kick somebody’s ass.
This is why Bhopal should hit us hard. It is about our collective shame. But it is also about how systems of corporate liability remain grossly inadequate in a world where technology is both high-risk and unknown. Till the Bhopal gas leak happened, little was known about how potent the plume was, or what effect the chemical being made there could have. Worse, it was not known then, or now, what would be the long-term health impacts of this chemical on people’s bodies. In Bhopal, UC argued sabotage. The Indian government could not (or would not) prove negligence or regulatory failure or even lack of responsible adherence to internal safety standards. The liability was established in ignorance, combined with powerlessness.
I say this because a few years later, in 1989, when Exxon Valdex spilled gallons of oil off the coast of Alaska, the compensation for economic loss and punitive damages was fixed at double the Bhopal gas tragedy amount: some $ 1 billion, as against the Bhopal ‘relief’ of $ 470 million. The dead seals of the Atlantic were valued higher than the thousands of humans in Bhopal who suffer to this day. After the huge liability bill of Exxon Valdex, oil interests kicked in. The US passed the Oil Pollution Bill of 1990, which capped liability in such accidents at $ 75 million. To make an oil company pay higher damages, Washington would have to provide proof of deliberate negligence or regulatory misconduct.
But what happens when an accident like the British Petroleum (BP) oil spill occurs, an accident nobody really calculated for, or understood the risks properly? In the Gulf of Mexico, oil is being drilled so deep, divers cannot access the point of the leak. So nobody really knows how to fix it. As a result, Obama is fast losing his shirt and his ratings as he can’t fix the problem. He needs to hold BP responsible. So, even as his government welcomed the terrible judgement on Bhopal as work well done and case closed, it is looking to change the law in the US so that it can hold BP liable for the damage. It wants the cap on liability to be removed. It wants criminal liability to be established.
Forget the rather obvious stink of double standards. The new story is that even the ultra corporate-friendly US government has realised the unknown risks of new and emerging technologies and business. This is what we must remember as our government now desperately pushes through the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damages Bill 2010. The bill, reportedly under pressure from US business and government, caps the liability of the operator in the case of a nuclear accident at a mere Rs 500 crore (even less than what was given in Bhopal) and of the government at some Rs 2,300 crore. It is argued this limited liability is required; without it, insurance companies worried about high payouts in the case of an accident will charge much higher premiums and this would raise the cost of energy, making nuclear unviable.
In other words, we must continue to use high-risk technologies and not take the expensive safeguards, for this would make technology uncompetitive. Clearly, this can’t be an acceptable argument, in the post-Bhopal, post-verdict age. All technologies must pay the real cost of their present and future dangers. Only then will we, as a society, try and understand the risks better. Only then will we, as a society, make better technology choices.
More importantly, the issue of corporate liability is crucial. Only then will powerful companies worry about the implications of the actions they take today on tomorrow’s generations. Today, they think of short term and run-away profits — in chemicals, genetically modified foods, nuclear energy or mining and drilling in a ways where no one (or science) has ever gone. We need very tough corporate liability so that companies think twice before they expose us to dangers. Let them fret; we want to sleep in peace.
This is why Bhopal must never be forgotten, indeed must be fixed. Dow Chemicals, which has bought over UC, must be held liable for the toxic waste still present in the abandoned factory. It must pay for the clean-up this site’s remediation will require. It must do this quickly, before toxins spread more poison, travelling through groundwater, into people’s bodies. Stop adding to people’s suffering. Stop compounding misery. Fix it.
Sunita Narain is Director, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi
The views expressed by the author are personal