Those of my age and above will remember with horror the news of the 1984 Bhopal disaster.
It seems astonishing that it has taken all of twenty-six years for just seven of those responsible for the industrial disaster in Bhopal to be taken to trial, convicted and sentenced. And what a sentence. For those of you unfamiliar with what is still the world’s largest industrial accident, around 3000 people were killed when a cloud of methyl iocyanate gas leaked out of a Union Carbide pesticide plant in central India, and up to another 20,000 died in later years, for which these seven executives have belatedly received just two years in jail, with every expectation they will appeal--“a process that can take years.”
As a family member of of those killed has said, it’s like these executives “have essentially been set free.”
Worse, after years of trying, Union Carbide chairman and CEO at the time Warren Anderson remains free and unencumbered by any hint of justice for his part in his company’s manslaughter—remaining at large with the help, it has to be said, of politicians in both the US and the Indian Governments.
The disaster at Bhopal is still the world’s worst industrial accident, worse even than the mercury poisoning of Minamata, the asbestos poisoning by James Hardie, the ammonium nitrate explosion in Texas City ,the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, and the Piper Alpha disaster in the North Sea.
Between them they rather put into perspective the Deepwater Horizon disaster still bubbling up into the Gulf of Mexico, don’t they. And sad though every death is, the greatest tragedies are when people are killed, not wetlands, dolphins and sea turtles.
Nonetheless, the disasters of Bhopal and BP (and James Hardie) show that the cosy relationship of big government and big business does not lead to big justice, or provide any guarantee against environmental or human disaster. BP is one of the most politically active in its industry. The close links of BP to both government and environmental organisations should lead one to wonder whether “BP [has] been too busy spending money to [buy politicians, and to] impress the government and the public with how ‘green’ it is to look after safety adequately.” And Union Carbide and Dow Chemical, its new owners, seem to think its easier to buy regulators and politicians—to hold its operations together “by duct tapes and bribes”—than it is to face justice, or to act justly.
And it’s not like the governments they buy deliver any of that “bought-and-paid for” justice to their constituents either. The Indian Government’s fascistic “Think Big” policy saw them forgo their role as referee and act instead as a player, and a bad one. (“The Indian government had its heavy hand on every aspect of the Bhopal plant, from its design and construction to its eventual operation.”) So, desperate to protect themselves and under pressure from the US Government not to charge Union Carbide’s executives, Rajiv Gandhi’s government instead accepted millions of dollars in out-of-court settlements from Union Carbide as "compensation for the victims.” But while all that money was received by the politicians, very little of that 1989 settlement ever actually reached the survivors. The loop of political corruption closed out those who most needed justice from the disaster, just as that corruption and the politics that caused it helped make the disaster itself happen.
Anti-capitalists will often suggest that we need big government as a “counterweight” to big corporates. But is that really true? The fact is that stiff regulation protects no-one except those it shouldn’t, and simply invites big corporations to buy their even-bigger regulators. There really is no greater force for corruption than an equation that puts together a big corporate desperate to escape justice, and a politician in pursuit of power and campaign funds. As PJ O’Rourke once observed, “when buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first thing to be bought and sold are legislators”—some of whom, like Al Gore, take that relationship with them even when they retire from the legislature.
Just one reason that a complete separation of state and economics is called for, lest the poisoners and the parasites make common cause. As they have done all too frequently.