Sharon Hartles has recently completed her MA in Crime and Justice with the Open University. She has an interest in crimes of the powerful, including state and state-corporate crime. In an explicit attempt to move beyond criminology, she draws upon a zemiological approach to evidence the social, political and economic context in which harm (including crime) is produced and interwoven into society via socio-economic inequalities.
On the 3rd December 1984, part of the Union Carbide Corporation (hereafter UCC) chemical plant in Bhopal, a city of Madhya Pradesh, India, exploded. Within three days of the gas leak up to 10,000 people (men, women and children) died and hundreds of thousands more were poisoned. The UCC plant in Bhopal was built and run by Union Carbide India Ltd (hereafter UCIL) an Indian public company in which Union Carbide, an American company, had a majority shareholding. An Operations safety survey was conducted by UCC technicians for the UCIL in May 1982 (thirty-one months prior to the gas leak), which noted various lapses in safety regulations. Three months before the gas leak, (September 1984) an operational safety/health survey raised concerns about a possible runaway reaction; pointing out that water from an identified leak would hasten this reaction resulting in catastrophic failure.
This state-corporate crime (the spillage of large quantities of methyl isocyanate (MIC), a very toxic substance, into the atmosphere from the pesticide plant) was preventable, insofar as it was a consequence of foreseeable and alterable social conditions. UCC ‘was aware of the possibility of a potential runaway reaction that triggered the MIC leak in Bhopal‘ and ‘was aware right from 1982 that the Bhopal plant suffered from serious safety problems‘. In addition, recommended follow-up action was overlooked. Therefore these capitalist harms were not inevitable, but were determined by the (in)actions of powerful states and corporations or crimes of the powerful. This evidences how the Bhopal ‘disaster’ was not an accident, because an accident by definition is an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally. Instead, “it was caused by law-breaking, and involved the complicity of a multinational company and Governments”.
Contemporary criminal justice systems (the Indian Penal Code, the official criminal code of India) recognised parts of this ‘disaster’ (Union Carbide’s gassing of Bhopal) as ‘criminal offences’ under the law of culpable homicide (not murder and not negligent manslaughter). However, in June 2010, seven executives of UCIL were found guilty of criminal negligence (not culpable homicide). What is interesting, but not surprising, is that all seven of those (junior officers and senior officials of UCIL) successfully convicted individuals were Indian. This makes visible the stark inequalities in the application of justice administered by the criminal justice systems. Different social groups, for example the relatively poorer, Indian people prosecuted experienced the Indian criminal justice system differently to the American businessman Warren Anderson. Warren Anderson the Chairman and CEO of the UCC at the time of the Bhopal disaster in 1984, on arriving in Bhopal was arrested and formally charged with culpable homicide, punishable by 10 years to life imprisonment and a fine. Although this is a strictly non-bailable offence, meaning the granting of bail would be unlawful, Warren Anderson posted bail, left the country and absconded from justice (he died in September 2014 and never faced trial).
Lawyers representing UCC and Warren Anderson, argued that neither American nor Indian laws applied due to the globalised nature of the state-corporate nexus. UCIL reported to Union Carbide Eastern Inc (UCE), a wholly owned subsidiary of UCC incorporated in the USA (however, this operated in Hong Kong). Moreover, the intricate globalized network continued because the Bhopal plant reported through another wholly owned USA subsidiary of UCIL, the Union Carbide Agricultural Products Company.
As a consequence of these global economic processes, representatives were able to take advantage of the globalised space in-between the laws, rendering the crimes of the powerful (state and corporations) beyond the reach of the law. In effect, they used the letter of the law to defeat it’s spirit. With this in mind, it is clear to see how contemporary crime and justice systems focus their wrath on the ‘players’ with less power, (junior officers and senior officials of UCIL) as tokenistic involuntary lambs sacrificed for the slaughter. Whilst those ‘players’ with elite power (Warren Anderson and UCC) elude punishment and exist to commit further state-corporate transgressions.
Multinational corporations are well versed in ‘creative compliance’: using professional advisers with knowledge of the law to take advantage of legal loopholes and UCC is no exception. In 1994, UCC conveniently sold its stake in UCIL and so no longer has assets in India. Practices such as this promote the evasion of accountability and allows UCC to hide-in-plain-sight, but always just out of the reach of justice. In this regard UCC has concealed its actions to be ‘perfectly legal or at least not expressly illegal’.
Seven years later (2001), UCC merged with Dow Chemical Company, and as such it is completely owned by Dow which means Dow (as the parent company) holds all of UCC’s ‘common stock’. In 2002, Greenpeace stated that under US legislation, as ‘parent’ company of UCC, Dow should incur liability to clean up Bhopal. In a series of statements addressing the disaster, Dow (which in September 2017 merged with DuPont) noted its purchase of UCC excluded clean up liabilities from Bhopal. ‘The chemical industry learned and grew as a result of Bhopal – creating the Responsible Care program with its strengthened focus on process safety standards, emergency preparedness, and community awareness.’ A critical response might question why a morally Responsible Care programme has not been implemented for Bhopal?
Dow celebrated its success of developing ‘ECOFAST’ technology (November 2018) which it claims will reduce environmental harms. A statement which is ironic given the human, non-human and environmental devastation still taking place in Bhopal. Approximately 25,000 people have died, to date, from the gas leak/gas-related illnesses. Thousands of others suffer from chronic debilitating illnesses, and a staggering 570,000 people were exposed to damaging levels of toxic gas. In addition, year-on-year, children are born with congenital malformations evidencing inter-generational trauma.
In 2018, in stark contrast to Dow whose primary focus was to promote its ECOFAST pure technology, a world away in Bhopal, reality and priorities differ vastly. The abandoned UCC plant remains full of toxic waste, the soil is 100 per cent toxic and pools of mercury are visible on the ground. Ground water at the site, which provides a drinking water supply for approximately fifteen communities is contaminated because untreated chemicals continue to leach through the soil into the aquifer.
In 1989, thirty years ago, UCC paid out a sum of $470 million in full settlement and never looked back; leaving the residents of Bhopal exposed to ongoing contamination from their abandoned factory site. This worked out to each gas-exposed victim receiving an amount of $500 for life-long debilitating injuries and to pay for decades of medical bills. The next generation of children (afflicted by Union Carbide’s poison) of gas-affected parents received no financial aid. Activists have been fighting ever since to get more compensation for those affected, to get the site cleaned up and to prevent the devastation from spreading. The state of Madhya Pradesh has declared itself unequipped to deal with the Bhopal clean up and for these reasons claim that the 1989 settlement was inadequate. In a curative petition Dow have been requested by the federal government to pay an amount of $1.2 billion.
Bhopal, has demonstrated how it is the most vulnerable members of society who continue to ‘pay the price’ for the crimes of the powerful or state-corporate crime-waves. Thirty five years after the preventable gas leak at Bhopal, its harms are still manifesting. All of this as a direct result of cost-cutting measures and failure to enforce health and safety regulations. The 3rd December 2019 is the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Bhopal state and corporate crime. It also marks thirty-five years of continuing trauma inflicted upon the Bhopali people and thirty-five years in which the Bhopalis continue to fight for justice and accountability.
As part of this continued fight for justice against the state-corporate massacre which took place in Bhopal the Indian courts yet again summoned Dow chemical to attend a court date, on 13th November 2019, to face criminal charges for the part Union Carbide played in the Bhopal state-corporate crime. However, as the Department of Justice (DOJ) (USA) did not serve the summons to Dow Chemical Company, the likelihood of them appearing was negligible, and Dow Chemical did not appear in court demonstrating disdain for previous negligence. Such incontrovertible evidence illustrates why the unending aftermath of the world’s worst industrial disaster resulting from state-corporate crime has continued to unfold across decades and generations, incurring new victims’ year on year, as the battle for justice for Bhopal endures.
Justice for Bhopal is an international campaign: a global coalition of environmental and social justice groups led by survivors of the ongoing disaster in Bhopal. There are many ways to support Bhopal, the three listed are just a few of those suggested by the Justice for Bhopal group:
- Send a letter to your elected representative, asking them to contact the DOJ on behalf of Bhopal survivors! (Applies to US citizens only)
- Demand that the Government of India and Madhya Pradesh revise the numbers of death and injury
- Start a Local ICJB chapter or Campus Group
Further campaign resources can be found here:
Alternatively, The Bhopal Medical Appeal is a health fund which provides appropriate response for the Bhopal survivors – because Bhopal matters.
Originally posted on: sharonhartles.weebly.com
Contact: Sharon Hartles
Images: courtesy of the author and Wikimedia Commons CC-BY- 3.0