From the Fellows: Mira Kamdar on BP and Bhopal

Mira Kamdar is an Indian and foreign policy expert, and has been a WPI Senior Fellow since 1993. Currently, she resides in France and is a visiting professor at Science-Po. In 2008 she published a book titled, Planet India: The Turbulent Rise of the Largest Democracy and the Future of Our World. Kamdar received her Masters and Doctorate degrees from the University of California—Berkeley, and her B.A. from Reed College.

This article was originally published on Caravan Magazine’s website.

The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the Bhopal verdicts handed down on 7 June converged last month to create a perfect storm of public outrage over the devastating consequences of unchecked corporate greed. In both cases, subservient governments made it all too easy for profit-seeking corporations to skimp on safety measures and emergency procedures they well knew should have been in place. In both cases, there were immediate fatalities: the thousands killed in Bhopal dwarfing the 11 workers killed in the initial explosion on the BP deep-water rig in the Gulf of Mexico. In both cases, the leak of toxic material, methyl isocyanate in the case of the Union Carbide pesticide plant and crude oil in the case of BP, have and will continue to cause death, disease, and injury among those exposed. Both were called the “worst environmental disaster in history.” 

The shameless collusion of the Indian government and judiciary in protecting the American and Indian managers (one of whom, Kishore Kamdar, is no relation of mine) responsible for the 1984 gas leak is stunning. In the face of mass casualties totalling, according to Amnesty International, 22,000 men, women and children, the immediate response of the government of India was to spirit the American CEO, Warren Anderson, out of Bhopal and then help get him out of India as quickly as possible. In other words, the government’s priority was to rescue the American chief executive responsible for the leak, not to tend to its agonised victims. To date, it has done nothing to clean up the massive contamination of the area’s ground and water that continues to poison the resident population.

Subsequently, India’s judiciary conspired for 26 long years to minimise the financial cost and any criminal penalties against Union Carbide and its successor, the Dow Chemical Company. The Supreme Court accepted a settlement of a mere 470 million dollars from Union Carbide, after the government of India dropped an initial suit for 3.3 billion. It then kicked the criminal proceedings down to a lower court where the maximum penalty allowed would be ‘criminal negligence,’ a penalty more usually applied to traffic accidents. Of the eight Indian managers so charged, the seven still alive walked free on bail shortly after having received the lightest tap on the wrist: fines totaling 2,100 dollars each.

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