Hollywood Stardust and Poison

A movie reaching U.S. theaters this week marks the 30th anniversary of the world's worst industrial accident, in Bhopal, India. U.S. environmentalists say the film should nudge us to demand tighter safety rules at chemical factories closer to home. Those still seeking justice for Bhopal say multi-nationals shop for countries with lax regulation, where the ruling elite value new corporate friends more than their citizen's lives.

While Bhopal: a cry for rain is based on the true story of the chemical leak in central India, it is not part of the current wave of nostalgia drama, initiated by Mad Men. Thousands of people in Bhopal continue to breathe polluted air and drink contaminated water because no one has removed the poisoned soil. High levels of birth defects, respiratory diseases and cancer plague each new generation. However, Union Carbide, the U.S. chemical maker which ran the plant, denies it is liable for the clean-up.

The disaster also has implications closer to home where one in three Americans live close to chemical factories. Greenpeace says if an accident like Bhopal happened at 89 of the U.S.'s 12,440 chemical plants, a million people would be downwind in each case. They are calling on the U.S. government to require dangerous facilities to switch to safer methods of manufacture, and improved monitoring, in line with President Obama's 2013 executive order.

Meanwhile, the West Wing's President Bartlett has added his authority to Bhopal: a cry for rain. Martin Sheen plays Union Carbide boss Warren Anderson. On December 2, pesticide, methyl isocyanate (MIC), leaked from Union Carbide's Indian subsidiary. As the cloud of gas enveloped the area people died of cardiac and respiratory arrest, their lungs filling with liquid. The casualties quickly rose to 22,000.

Doctors did not know how to treat the crowds who descended on hospitals because they were not told the contents of MIC, as the excellent 2009 documentary Bhopali points out. As many as 150,000 local people were left severely disabled. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that the children of gas-affected parents are being born with defects.

Five years after the accident Union Carbide settled for $470 million, or about $550 per victim (Contrast this with BP's $20 billion settlement for the Gulf of Mexico oil leak). In 1991 Indian Supreme Court upheld the fairness and adequacy of the settlement .

However, local people have spent decades pushing their government to revise upwards the casualty figures on which the settlement was based. They also want Union Carbide executives held criminally liable for cutting corners and ignoring signs a disaster could occur at the Bhopal plant. Anderson promised to return to India to face culpable homicide and grievous assault charges, but the U.S. refused to extradite him and he died on October 31 this year in Florida, age 92.

Victims claim the settlement was too small to allow them adequate health care, but they have another legal concern: who will clean up the mess left by the accident 30 years ago? Union Carbide was sold to Dow, the world's second biggest chemical firm, in 2001, but Dow claims it did not inherit either the liabilities or the cost of clean-up. Union Carbide argues that when the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh took over the site in 1998, it also assumed accountability for removing poisoned soil which directly impacts the area's water source. Locals say this has had devastating consequences for the health of residents.

Indian campaigners question how robustly their own politicians and legal system wish to secure justice for victims or demand a clean-up from Dow. Prashant Bhushan, a lawyer for the victims 1988-1995 says, "In their unholy drive to attract these multi-national corporations the Indian government has developed extremely lax attitudes" toward potentially hazardous activities.

Entrepreneur TV Mohandas Pai told Outlook Business, "The Indian government's attitude to the life of its own citizens is woeful." There are accusations that multi-nations shop around for countries where their liability will be the lowest. "The only way to reduce accidents in industry is to make compensation expensive," charges Pai .

The anniversary of the Bhopal disaster should shame us, and worry us about our own vulnerability to cost-cutting at domestic chemical factories. But it should also provoke despair at how successive Indian governments treat the health of its citizens with such indifference. Satinath Sarangi of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal believes each of the seven Indian leaders since the disaster consider foreign direct investment "to be of far greater priority than the lives and health of ordinary people.... politicians of both the prominent parties, BJP and Congress personally benefitted from Union Carbide and later Dow Chemical for services rendered (author interview with Satinath Sarangi November 1st 2014)."