30 Years After Bhopal Gas Tragedy: Need for Corporate Liability

It is 30 years since the night of December 2-3 when methyl isocynate (MIC) gas leaked from the factory of Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) in the city of Bhopal. That night Bhopal died a million deaths as the city into a vast gas chamber. People ran on the streets, vomiting and dying; city ran out of cremation grounds and woods to burn the dead. Everywhere there was death. It was India's first (and thankfully last) big industrial disaster. Till then, government's had handled floods, cyclones and even earthquakes. They had no clue how to respond in this case. It did not help matters that the multi-national company Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), who owned the plant through its subsidiary, did little to help in dealing with the human tragedy.

Now after 30 years the government of India is still struggling to establish the liability of UCIL, its parent company UCC and its buyer, Dow Chemicals.

Just consider the difference. In 2009, when petroleum giant BP's oil drilling led to a devastating spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the US President Barack Obama did not need to ask, whose "ass he should kick". His government held those responsible to pay for the damage and reversed the earlier decision to cap liability in such cases. It established criminal liability - to people and the environment.

Just consider the difference again. In 1989, when Exxon Valdex spilled gallons of oil off the coast of Alaska in the US, the compensation for economic loss and punitive damages was fixed at double the Bhopal gas tragedy amount - some US$ 1 billion, as against the Bhopal 'relief' of US$ 470 million. The dead seals of the Atlantic were valued higher than the thousands of humans who lost their lives in Bhopal and continue to suffer even today.

But after the huge liability bill of Exxon Valdex, oil interests kicked in. The US passed the Oil Pollution Bill of 1990, which capped liability in the case of such accidents at US$ 75 million. To make an oil company pay higher damages, the US government would have to provide proof of deliberate negligence or regulatory misconduct. After the next accident - BP's - this was again changed. Not in India though.

Till the Bhopal gas leak happened, little was known about how potent the plume was, or what effect the chemical being made there could have. Worse, it was not known then, or now, what would be the long-term health impacts of this chemical on people's bodies and on a mother's womb. In Bhopal, the US multinational company argued sabotage. The Indian government could not (or would not) prove negligence or regulatory failure or even lack of responsible adherence to internal safety standards. The liability was never established, partly because of ignorance, combined with powerlessness.

Bhopal 2.0
This disaster has been compounded by the fact that the tragedy did not end on the night of December 2, 1984. What is known now is that Union Carbide India Limited's (UCIL's) Bhopal plant, which operated for barely 15 years (1969-1984) dumped toxic wastes within and outside the plant Laboratory analysis by the Centre for Science and Environment has shown that the same chemicals used during operations -- process wastes, by-products, solvents, sub-standard products, wastes from machinery --are found at several dump sites inside the plant and in solar evaporation pond (SEP), which is outside the plant. Many of these chemicals degrade slowly and are likely remain in the environment for hundred of years. Worse, the same chemicals have been found in drinking water wells of people living around the abandoned factory. These wastes are still lying at the site, polluting soil and groundwater and affecting the health of the local community.

Today, when the government is faced with the cost of remediation of toxic waste - left behind by the company - it is still not able to establish the liability of the company. In 2004, a resident of Bhopal Alok Pratap Singh had filed a case in the MP high court asking for Dow to be held responsible for the pollution at the site and its liability established. In 2004, the Union government supported this position - filing an application in this case, asking Dow Chemicals to deposit Rs 100 crore for environmental remediation. The government also accepted that Dow Chemicals had taken on the liability of UCC and Eveready Industries (which was a subsidiary of the original company and had taken over the factory land).

This is not convenient or acceptable to Dow. It has continued frantic lobbying to get the Indian government to withdraw its application. But as of now, the high court has not deleted Dow Chemical Company from the list of respondents - so maybe in this case, finally after 30 years, the liability of the company at least in terms of the hazardous waste it has left behind will be established. The company will be required to pay for remediation or restoration at the very least. Then maybe, just maybe, the victims of Bhopal will get some closure. After 30 years.

Technology risks require corporate liability
Bhopal therefore is about how systems of corporate liability remain grossly inadequate in a world where technology is both high-risk and unknown. Why should we not demand that if we must continue to use high-risk technologies then we must take on expensive safeguards, even it makes technology uncompetitive. In the post-Bhopal age, all technologies must pay the real cost of their present and future dangers. Only then will we, as a society, try and understand the risks better. Only then will we, as a society, make better technology choices.

More importantly, the issue of corporate liability is crucial for only then will powerful companies worry about the implications of their actions they take, today, on tomorrow's generations. Today, they think of short term and run-away profits - in chemicals, GM foods, nuclear energy or mining and drilling in a ways where no one (or science) has ever gone. We need very tough corporate liability so that companies think twice before they expose us to dangers. Let them fret; we want to sleep in peace.

This is why Bhopal must never be forgotten, indeed must be fixed. Dow Chemicals, which has bought over Union Carbide, must be held liable for the toxic waste still present in the abandoned factory. It must pay for the clean-up this site's remediation will require. It must do this quickly, before toxins spread more poison, traveling through groundwater, into people's bodies.

This is also why Bhopal is not just about Bhopal. It is about our collective shame; our collective consciousness. And so it is about our collective action to bring about justice for the people and do right to the environment across the world.