Wednesday, November 30, 2011

And Justice For None

There are too many social injustices that we find difficult to wrap our heads around. Most recently, here in the United States, the reckless and brazen improprieties of many chief executives who mismanaged and, in some cases, outright pilfered the accounts of their employees and investors is among the most recent. We scratch our heads at the Bernie Madoffs and Kenneth Lays, and how long justice takes and, often, overlooks altogether. Many retirement funds and nest eggs were completely wiped out by these egregious crimes. Then there was this: “We had no idea how derivatives even really worked,” some lenders cried after the U.S. subprime mortgage lending industry crashed in the late 2000s, in essence letting most of the perpetrators off the hook, despite the many home foreclosures and bankruptcies suffered by ordinary Americans as a result.

It’s truly devastating, it is, and I don’t mean to minimize any of it one bit by the story I’m about to tell. But seriously, try wrapping your head around this one. It’s a nearly 30-year-old story that you’ve no doubt heard about, but I’m thinking, like me, maybe you haven’t given it much thought since the mid-80s or followed it down to its climax and recent denouement. But it’s a doozy.

As you may know, on December 2, 1984, the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, in the northern state of Madhya Pradesh, leaked 40 tons of poisonous gas that killed between 10,000 and 30,000 people and permanently injured between 100,000 and 200,000, including causing severe birth defects of 3,000 yet-to-be-born babies. Overall, the government has recorded more than 550,000 injuries. More than a third of those affected were under the age of 15.

If you think about all the horrible, horrible industrial accidents caused by mega-companies all over the world then realize that the Bhopal tragedy was the world’s worst industrial accident in history, it’s truly mind-boggling.

By the morning of December 3, mass funerals and mass cremations were being performed. It was so overwhelming, bodies were just being tossed into the local Narmada river. Some 170,000 people were being treated at local hospitals and clinics. Thousands of farm animals dropped dead. Within days, the leaves on the city’s trees turned yellow and all fell off. Stillbirths went up 300%, and neonatal deaths by 200%. Autopsies showed lungs, brains, kidneys, and liver all affected. Children were hit harder than adults because of their shorter stature and because the gas cloud stayed closer to the ground. Many people were trampled as they tried to flee. Imagine this – those who ran died faster than those who escaped by vehicles. The survivors suffer cardiac failure; immune, respiratory, and neurological disorders; reproductive issues; severe eye damage; and all those many birth defects. In many cases, birth defects affected the children of women who weren’t even pregnant at the time but became pregnant much later than the accident.

It’s awful, but you’ve probably heard about most of this before. Or maybe you read Amulya Malladi’s amazing novel, A Breath of Fresh Air, and were familiar with the kind of personal devastation such an accident could create. Even so, it’s a tragedy almost impossible to wrap your head around, no?

But there’s more. So much more.

At the time of the accident, formal statements were released saying the air, water, vegetation, and food in the city were all safe. (They were not.) The official Union Carbide doctor was asking the Indian government for information on the chemical properties of the gas cloud and how to treat the injuries because he didn’t have this information himself. In fact, none of the area hospitals or clinics had any clue how to treat the thousands upon thousands of patients streaming in but were instructed just to provide cough syrup and eye drops.

From 1976, many (more than a dozen) serious safety violations by the company had been reported. These violations had resulted in at least one death, several hospitalizations, and one burn victim. It was a well-known fact that most of the company’s safety systems weren’t operational, that employees weren’t required to wear even protective masks let alone other safety gear, and that a whopping 70% of Union Carbide’s Indian employees had been fined for refusing to deviate from the proper safety regulations because of pressure from management. The company was in serious cut-back mode, especially when it came to training and maintenance. Most Bhopal workers had no proficiency in English but had to figure out how to perform their work using only English manuals. The local authorities were not informed of what chemicals were being used at the plant. There was no action plan in case of any accident. Most of the alarms and safety systems weren’t working that night, by Union Carbide’s own admission.

And yet….

Union Carbide and the Indian government to this day maintain that the accident had nothing to do with the permanent injuries that have been documented. Despite all the many safety violations, company executives – including CEO Warren Anderson, who fled the country – claim the incident occurred because of sabotage by a disgruntled employee.

Not one person was so much as indicted or convicted for 25 years after the incident occurred.

Union Carbide, during litigation offered $350 million (think about that!) for damages whereas the Indian government asked for $3 billion. They settled at $470 million. By the early 1990s, the average amount that had gone to families of the dead was about $2,200.

And finally, in June 2010, seven former employees were convicted. They were all Indian nationals, and all released on bail shortly after the verdict. Had they not posted bail, they would only have had to serve out a two-year prison term, about the same, commented an official of Amnesty International, as for a traffic violation.

When Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson tried to leave the country a few days after the leak, Bhopal police arrested him at the airport but released him after he posted bail. The now-89-year-old maintains homes in Florida, Connecticut, and New York. The Indian government has tried extraditing him ever since, to no avail. The U.S. government hasn’t been cooperative and has made no move to facilitate an extradition. In 1986, Anderson retired from Union Carbide and has never quite understood all the hullaballoo about extradition and civil suits that followed. After all, he helped his company reach the $470 million settlement, didn’t he? What more could they want from him?

In an interesting story, a CBS reporter knocked on Anderson’s front door in 2009, right after the Indian government had released a recent warrant for his arrest. Lillian Anderson, the former CEO’s wife, answered the door and said her husband wasn’t home. When she learns about the warrant, she assumes it’s “some political thing.” She adds that, “When you get to be 87 or 85 years old, you just don't remember anything. You try to put bad things out of your mind."

Her husband is “haunted” by the events that took place in Bhopal, she admits, but she doesn’t approve of the witch hunt to try to punish him. “Every time somebody wanted to sue the company, there would be some kind of a thing that happened, and they would be chasing after Warren, following him to the dump with our trash," she said.

"This is 25 years of unfair treatment, before CEOs were paid what they're paid today."

She’s referring to the unfair treatment of her husband, of course, not the real victims who grow older, their injuries and pain over lost loved ones irreversible. These victims say they’ll keep on fighting, but with this week marking the 27th anniversary of the tragedy, justice seems farther out of reach than ever.


  1. Supriya, this is a disturbing post. The images you have selected are haunting, except for the photo of Warren Anderson. And even that's haunting in it's own way when coupled with your commentary.

  2. Patricia, it's interesting that you think these photos are haunting. These are the ones that upset me the LEAST. If you google Bhopal images, you'll find they're mostly of the victims, both dead and alive, and they aren't easy to look at. I had assumed all these years that justice was met, that the culprits were behind bars. Why else do we complain that the current rogue CEOs are getting away with murder? Anderson is responsible for what amounts to a veritable holocaust and yet he's enjoying his senior years in a comfortable home in the Hamptons with few worries other than whatever it is that his wife says haunts him. It haunts a lot of folks, and far worse than anything he's had to encounter.

  3. Definitely something that shouldn't be forgotten. And isn't there still controversy over whether the area is still polluted? Whether the factory is still leaking toxic chemicals? Or has the area finally been cleaned?

  4. I should have included info on that, I know, Edith. But yes, fact is Union Carbide abandoned the site after the leak in 1984 and so the locals still live in a contaminated site and continue to drink contaminated water etc. Dow Chemical Co., which bought the old pesticide plant in the early '90s, not only isn't cleaning the site up but it regularly asks the Indian government to drop the environmental cleanup requirement against it (the gall!) and even goes so far as to request re-entry into the Indian market! (Seriously, check this out:

    India recently announced that it's prepared to boycott the 2012 Olympics, to be held in London, unless Dow drops out as an official sponsor of the event.

    It'll be interesting to see how this pans out (though the cynic in me has some clue) because so far, there has been little political muscle from the international community to pressure Dow to do the right thing. And frankly, from the Indian government as well.

    Despite how outrageous and tragic the whole thing is, short of any major political will, it seems as though we've come to the end of the road. Hope I'm wrong.

  5. Its sad how disconnected we humans can get from the truth. We build all kinds of stories and scenarios to defend ourselves and cast a shadow over the truth. In our hearts, however, we always know where we stand and what we have done. The Universe has its own way of setting the record straight.
    I really believe that.....We all get what we dish out at some point or the other.

  6. In the months leading up to the leak, Union Carbide was in the process of building and moving into a new corporate headquarters in Danbury, CT. The building was, at the time, the most expensive corporate headquarters in the US. It turned out to be a boondoggle. Cost overruns were rampant. Budgets throughout the company were cut. I wish I remembered the exact figures, but 1Billion for the building comes to mind. After the accident at Bhopal, there was a story going around that one of those cuts was the in the job level of the managers at Bhopal: lowered from a post requiring a PhD to one requiring a Masters degree in Chemistry. Whatever was the case, the connection between many "small" corporate decisions and the corporate culture's idea of what's important are lost in the veils of time. But the devil is in those distant details.Someone made those decisions, but alas that someone will never pay the consequences.

  7. VanJan, you're right, and I typically share that outlook, but in this case, doesn't it seem virtually impossible for that to happen. The thing about makes me wonder if some of these individuals get it was the comment from Mrs. Anderson about CEO pays being lower back then. What's her point? Is she echoing his sentiments too or just her own as a sort of bystander? Still, I hope you're right.

    Annamaria, thank you for pointing those details out. I had not known about UCC building its new HQ or the reason for all those budget cuts, only that HQ here in the U.S. considered itself very hands off when it came to the India plant. But interesting lessons learned, right?

    Reminds me of a whole other problem. There was an interesting documentary, Race to Nowhere, that came out earlier this year about the U.S. education system. Not everyone agrees with the views expressed in the documentary, but there was one person interviewed in the film who said the whole system is set up to teach students how to cut corners and do only what they have to get to the top without really learning much substance. The interviewee questioned that with this kind of system to prepare our students, is it any wonder that we have the kinds of industry havoc and mismanagement we have, esp if we're just cutting corners and doing our best to stay ahead but not really do our best or even the right thing? Perhaps Anderson and others like him feel they did the best they could and were acting in the best interest of the company, whatever the outcome. (Again reminding me of his wife's comment about salaries.)

    You're right -- the devil is in those distant details. Well put.