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For a few dollars less

Isn’t there any value placed on the outrage of the Bhopal victims and their rights? Whatever happened to corporate social responsibility? Barkha Dutt asks.

india Updated: Jun 11, 2010 22:37 IST
Barkha Dutt
Barkha Dutt
Hindustan Times

Sometimes a single sentence captures a magnitude like nothing else can. In 2002, Kathy Hunt, the chief public relations honcho for ‘Dow Chemicals’ declared- with what can only be called twisted, imperial arrogance — that $500 was “plenty good for an Indian.” Yeah, right: not good enough for an American though, we bet.

Hunt was talking about the pittance that the Indian government accepted in its bewilderingly weak-willed settlement with Union Carbide (UC). A few hundred dollars — that is the shockingly dismal value we placed on an Indian life in 1989. Over the years Dow — which acquired UC in 2001 — has told us helpfully that the amount is enough “to cover a full year of medical care in India.” We guess, it’s an irrelevant, little detail that 120,000 people have remained chronically ill and in need of continued medical help since the toxic gas from the Carbide plant infiltrated its way into their destinies 25 years ago. Another 20,000 are dead. But no, that’s all a statistical blur to the American corporate behemoth that by a brazen double-standard has kept aside billions of dollars to deal with potential liabilities arising out of Carbide’s asbestos production in the US.

And yes, the oil spill off the Gulf of Mexico just painfully contrasts the schizophrenia of the American response. As President Obama rolls up his sleeves and gets down to business with British Petroleum (BP) warning it not to “nickel and dime” poor fisher folk out of deserved compensation, we have to wonder whether the Americans believe they occupy some different hierarchical position when it comes to measuring the worth of a human life.

Yet — and this is the bitter pill — as we rave and rant about America and why it won’t extradite Carbide’s former Chairman Warren Anderson, it isn’t American double-standards that resulted in the betrayal of Bhopal; it is the horrific collusion of India’s politicians, bureaucrats and judges and decades of neglect by everyone else, including the media, that has left thousands and thousands of people on the very margins of justice. So, let’s quit moaning and groaning about who failed us, and examine how we failed ourselves.

Now they tell us that bringing back an ageing Anderson to India won’t deliver justice to Bhopal. But who will stand up and take responsibility for the fact that he got away in the first place? The pilot who organised his ‘exit aircraft’ is categorical that the phone call came from the then CM’s office. The now-retired Bhopal Collector says the orders came from “above.” And the ever-controversial Digvijaya Singh has managed to put his own party in the witness stand by declaring that American pressure was a likely factor in Anderson’s escape. Delhi is abuzz with hoary whispers of a phone call from the then US President Ronald Reagan that worked its influence down the power chain. But none of it — not the public outrage, not the nudge from his own party — has moved former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Arjun Singh into standing up and answering the questions that India has for him. Will the Congress — at the very least — make him answer? Or will the closest India gets to Anderson be electronic images of him holidaying at the Hamptons?

We are all wonderstruck at the seeming leniency of the two-year sentence announced after the “guilty” verdict last week. But the fact is that once the Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Ahmadi, reduced the charges against Carbide from culpable homicide to those of criminal negligence, the script for how this was to end became pre-ordained. Should the court then have asked the same judge to head the Bhopal Memorial Trust, created with funds from Union Carbide? The truth is that a murky collusion of self-interests combined with a callousness that we reserve only for our poor, is what has led us to this travesty of justice. Somehow, I wonder, whether the handling of the Bhopal tragedy could have ever been this compromised had the victims been born into a different class.

Even today, big money seems to drive the debate going forward. Without making this some unintelligent, simple-minded rant against the supposed evils of multinationals, isn’t it extraordinary that Dow Chemicals refuses to pay the Rs 100 crore needed to clean up the site of the gas leak? And isn’t it even more extraordinary that while the Madhya Pradesh courts are yet to decide on the moot dispute — is Dow liable for Union Carbide — the government seems to have already decided that it is not.

Consider the letter written by Andrew Liveris, the Chairman of Dow Chemicals to the then Indian Ambassador to America, Ronen Sen, in 2006. Following up on the meeting of an Indo-US CEO Forum, he refers repeatedly to statements made by “government of India representatives in front of all attendees that Dow is not responsible for Bhopal” and goes on to ask for “concrete, sustained actions that are consistent with these sentiments.”

But how was the government authorised to make any such assurance to Dow Chemicals when the legal challenge to Dow’s disavowal of liability has never been resolved? Why is the head of an American multinational able to ask India to ensure that “Government of India leaders ... work with all ministers of the central government to ensure that their stated position is reflected in any and all statements?” Why is one of India’s most respected industrialists, Ratan Tata, willing to — so easily — accept Dow’s assertion, that it is not morally culpable for Union Carbide?

We know that most ministers in the government backed Tata’s proposal to let Indian industry lead the clean-up of the site. While competitive activism should not stop that from happening, isn’t there any value placed on the outrage of the Indian people and the rights of the victims? What happened to good, old fashioned moral responsibility? Or is this what they mean, these days, when they talk of Corporate Social Responsibility? Frankly, if this is what it takes for India to ‘shine’, we’d rather live in the ‘dark’ ages.

First Published: Jun 11, 2010 22:27 IST