After 18 years, Bhopal still waits for justice
Blighted city continues to pay the price for industrial tragedy, while fight goes on to bring chief executive to trial
The land on which the factory stood is still fiercely toxic, the victims’ families are being compensated at the rate of £5 per month, and the boss of Union Carbide, the American chemical giant which accepted “moral responsibility” for the Bhopal catastrophe of 1984, in which more than 20,000 died, is officially “absconding” from justice. But yesterday brought the possibility that Warren Anderson, former Chief Executive Officer of Union Carbide, will face trial on homicide charges a fraction closer.
Several weeks ago, India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) asked the court to reduce the charges against Mr Anderson to negligence. The request originated with India’s Ministry of External Affairs, in an apparent attempt to curry favour with the American government. But yesterday Justice Rameshwar Kothe threw it out. Indian executives facing similar charges had had them reduced, the CBI argued. But Mr Kothe refused to accept the parallel. “There is no sense in reducing the charges,” he said in his ruling, “since Warren Anderson, who has been declared an absconder and against whom a permanent arrest warrant has been issued, has not appeared in any court.” Mr Kothe also urged prosecutors to get on with the extradition proceedings – proceedings that have not even begun, even though 18 years have elapsed since the catastrophe.
Why should the world cheer at the prospect of a retired American businessman well into his seventies being obliged to travel to India to face a trial that could put him behind bars for 20 years? Because there are few more glaring cases of the developed world abusing the developing world and getting away with murder than Union Carbide’s rape of Bhopal.
The Union Carbide plant was set up in 1980 to manufacture Sevin, a potent pesticide for which India’s millions of “green revolution” farmers promised to be a vast and ready market. But from the outset the Indian plant was governed by different standards from similar plants in America. At the Union Carbide factory at Institute, West Virginia, which made the same product, the lethal, volatile chemical methyl isocyanate (MIC) which it contains was stored in small concentrations to minimise risk. In Bhopal it was stored in a single huge tank containing 50 tons of the stuff. And the plant itself, despite advice to the contrary, was built close to the heart of Bhopal, the densely populated capital of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.
Business initially was brisk, but when a drought put Sevin beyond the means of many Indian farmers Union Carbide put the plant into “care and maintenance” mode. They slashed staffing, and safety was the first victim. By December 1984, the lethal MIC tank was fatally compromised. It was nearly 90 per cent full, despite a rule that it should never be more than half full. The cooling system, designed to keep the content at 0C (32F), and therefore safe even if it became contaminated, had been disconnected. A spray intended to neutralise escaping gas was defunct; a flare tower meant to burn it off was being repaired. The maintenance crew had been cut from six men to two, and the job of night maintenance supervisor had been abolished. So there was a horrible inevitability about what transpired.
Just after midnight on 2 December 1984, the control room in the plant reported pressure in the MIC tank rising fast. Rumbling noises were heard from the tank, and the concrete platform on top of it began to crack. Half an hour later, the warning safety whistle let out a piercing shriek, and the tank exploded, sending 50,000lbs (23,000kg) of poisonous gas rolling into the slums downwind. Witnesses on hills overlooking the factory saw huge clouds of gas sparkling in the street lights. One man reported seeing a great ball of gas bouncing down the road until it enveloped his wife and children, killing them outright. At least 4,000 people are believed to have died that night, in terrible agony; according to the Indian government, the total of deaths to date is 14,410, and disease continues to carry victims off prematurely every month. Hundreds of thousands more continue to suffer the symptoms – wheezing, breathlessness, damaged sight, joint pains, memory loss, and other ailments, many confined to the city’s hospitals, many others leading lives of misery at home.
Union Carbide did everything in its power to minimise financial exposure from the disaster. In particular it managed to persuade the American judge hearing the case to send it straight back to India for trial – where levels of compensation are minuscule compared with the United States. The Indian government meekly accepted the ruling. In 1989 the two sides agreed to a final settlement of $470m. The sum was derisory compared to the billions the company would have had to shell out in an American settlement. But if the victims and their families had been promptly compensated, the story of Bhopal might by now be history.
Instead the compensation process fell victim to corruption within the government bureaucracy, with victims bribing officials to get their cases heard, and the most needy falling by the wayside. The Union Carbide money, received in full years ago, has yet to be disbursed, while the government keeps recognised victims ticking over with a stipend of less than £5 per month. When the compensation is eventually distributed it is expected to amount to less than £400 per person – from which the monthly sums will be deducted.
Union Carbide’s Bhopal factory is in ruins now, but the slum opposite the gate, Jai Prakash Nagar, remains full of men and women with wheezes and hacking coughs, women unable to bear children, children with mysterious problems. The site itself is still, according to a Greenpeace report of 1999, a “global toxic hotspot”, with mercury levels between 20,000 and six million times the background level and disastrously polluted ground water. Union Carbide did nothing to rehabilitate the site; now the government plans to begin the job – but using part of the money intended for the victims. The abuse and the pain go on and on. But the message from a brave Bhopal judge yesterday is that not everyone in India has given up hope of seeing justice done.
Retired company chief plays golf in Florida and refuses to be judged by Indian court
By Saeed Shah
Warren Anderson, the former chairman of Union Carbide, has never appeared before the criminal court in Bhopal to answer charges of “culpable homicide” in the 10 years that the case has rumbled on. Nor has any American employee of the company.
The Indian authorities have declared Mr Anderson a fugitive and long ago issued a warrant for his arrest. Interpol and others have tried unsuccessfully to serve him with a summons to appear in India but he has proved elusive â€“ apparently it has not been possible to find him, though he is certainly in the US.
India has sought to have Mr Anderson extradited. There is an extradition treaty between India and the US but this attempt to force him to India has made no progress. The Bhopal court yesterday instructed prosecutors to step up efforts to extradite him.
In 1984, within days of the tragedy, Mr Anderson flew to India and declared that he took personal “moral” responsibility, on behalf of Union Carbide, for the disaster. He was detained by the local police in Bhopal, who filed criminal charges against him. In order to get himself released, Mr Anderson signed a piece of paper that committed him to appear before the Indian courts. Then he flew out of India, never to return. Mr Anderson says that he didn’t know what he was signing, as the document was in Hindi and it was not translated for him.
The current criminal case in Bhopal began hearing evidence in 1992.
William Krohley, the New York lawyer who accompanied Mr Anderson on that trip to Bhopal in 1984 and continues to represent him, insists that Mr Anderson is not running away from justice.
“We never agreed to submit to the criminal jurisdiction of the Indian courts. The civil case was settled long ago. You can’t undo injury. The best that could be done was done,” Mr Krohley told The Independent.
Victims of the gas leak at his company’s Bhopal plant, and the Indian courts, believe Mr Anderson has been hiding from his moral responsibilities ever since that visit to the site of the disaster. They claim that the top management at Union Carbide closely supervised safety at all its plants, meaning that Mr Anderson would have been aware of breaches of safety and a series of incidents that had occurred at the Bhopal facility long before the fatal gas leak. Furthermore, Mr Anderson is said to have been behind the company-wide cost-cutting drive that led to a reduction in the maintenance regime at the Bhopal plant and vital safety equipment not working, allowing the poisonous gas to leak out.
Mr Anderson retired in 1986 and he has led a comfortable life, with homes in Florida and New York. He has not personally appeared before a New York district court over a recent civil case filed there by Bhopal victims, though his lawyers have defended him.
Union Carbide and Mr Anderson, now in his eighties, do not recognise the right of the Bhopal court to hear criminal charges against them and neither has any intention of appearing before it.
“Warren Anderson is not dodging due process. He’s not hiding from anybody. He leads a normal retired life. He has places in Florida and New York where he resides. He plays golf every day, he socialises with people,” said Mr Krohley.