Judging by the way in which the government is now scrambling to assuage the public anger following the Bhopal judgement, it is clear that the scale of the indignation has taken the political class by surprise. Nobody in government expected the verdict to evoke so much outrage.
After all, the Bhopal tragedy took place more than 25 years ago. The cases have dragged on through the decades. The compensation for the victims has already been the subject of endless wrangling. Governments have come and gone. Union Carbide itself has been bought over by Dow Chemicals. So who believed that a judgement that few lay people even knew was expected would trigger such an uproar?
And indeed, seen in that perspective, the anger seems mystifying. India is — sadly and tragically — a country where the population is so brutalised by death and disaster that public memory can be callously short.
So why does Bhopal trigger such strong emotions? Many of those protesting the loudest about the failure of the system to adequately punish the guilty were small children or were not even born when the disaster occurred.
Part of the answer lies in the role of the media. In the quarter century since the disaster occurred, there has been an explosion of newer media. Moreover, today’s media (and television in particular) are more aggressive than ever before, more willing to remind people of injustices (whether in the Ruchika case or the Jessica Lal murder) and more liable to demand accountability.
But that can’t be the full answer. My guess is that the outrage is best
explained by a combination of two factors. The first is a growing assertion of Indian pride. And the second is
a deepening suspicion of big business, especially the giant global corporations.
The Bhopal tragedy occurred at a time when India was not a major player on the world stage. In fact, as the killings in the Punjab increased and Indira Gandhi’s assassination set off communal riots, there were global fears that India would not survive as a nation.
In the circumstances, our leverage was limited. Early in his term as prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi was asked at the National Press Club in Washington whether he believed that multinationals adopted lower safety standards for Third World countries. Rather than obfuscate to please his American hosts, the prime minister was categorical. He answered with just one word: “Yes.” In answer to further questions, he laid out India’s case that Bhopal occurred because Carbide could not be bothered about Indian lives.
But this position was quietly diluted in the years that followed. Officials say that they were asked to go easy on the case by Narasimha Rao’s 90s government and subsequent governments were as wary of going after Carbide or its officials.
The reluctance was prompted by pressure from Washington. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, India wanted to be seen as a friend of the US. Liberalisation would only work if American companies invested in India. But no investments would be forthcoming if US corporate executives felt unsafe in India. So, if we proceeded against Carbide’s Warren Anderson, this could be counterproductive and could harm our own interests in the long run.
It is easy to scoff now but I have no doubt that in the 90s as India struggled to find its place in the new world order, the threat of American displeasure seemed more terrifying than it does today. It is easy to imagine an Indian politician calculating: “Look, nothing we do will bring the Carbide victims back to life. But if we antagonise American business then we may lose investments, earn Washington’s ire and damage ourselves.”
Fortunately, those days have passed. India is just too big — as a regional player and an emerging economy — for Washington or anybody else to ignore. An older generation that was used to negotiating from a position of weakness when India was regarded as a supplicant may still be in charge. But a newer generation which believes that India must be treated as an equal by the great powers and rich nations has now come of age.
So, while the older generation still looks for global favour and is reluctant to demand accountability for Bhopal, the younger generation wants revenge for decades of being treated badly — and Bhopal is a symbol of those years when Indian lives were regarded as worthless.
My suspicion is that the political class does not recognise quite how strong the assertion of national identity and pride is in the new generations. That probably explains why the politicians were so surprised by the uproar.
But there is a second factor as well. All too often, the votaries of globalisation act as though it is the same thing as liberalisation which, of course, it is not.
Most educated Indians are relieved that the old socialistic days are over. They recognise that decades of political and bureaucratic interference damaged our economy. But it does not follow from this that we have now fallen in love with multinational corporations or even, that we trust them.
In any case, global capitalism has fallen into disrepute after Wall Street’s excesses sent the world into a massive recession. The lesson of the last two years is that multinational corporations are driven by nothing more than greed.
In the US, a shrewd politician like Barack Obama has played on this sentiment by first making the attack on Wall Street a major feature of his campaign and now by going for BP over the oil spill with unprecedented viciousness.
Mainstream Indian politicians are reluctant to follow Obama’s example for fear of scaring away foreign investors. But educated Indians echo Obama’s sentiments. We recognise that global corporations do not always care about the environment or about deaths caused by industrial negligence.
Bhopal is also a symptom of that sentiment. An American corporation was responsible for the world’s worst industrial accident because it could not be bothered to run a safer plant. And yet, 25 years later, very little real accountability has been fixed.
So, some of the public anger emanates from a global determination to make corporations pay for the deaths and destruction that they cause.
The government says it will now move to seek justice for the Bhopal victims. This move is welcome. But the government should also pay heed to the sentiments that have provoked this outcry because similar uproars could easily result again over such issues as the nuclear regulatory bill or the dilution of India’s position in the climate change negotiations.
Indians do not trust global corporations with our lives or our environment. No longer will we allow ourselves to be treated as a second-class nation by the West, as a people whose lives have a much lower intrinsic value than Western lives.
That may have been something we tolerated 25 years ago. But not now. And never ever again.
The views expressed by the author are personal