Columns, Media International

The Bhopal tragedy: 25 years old and still relevant

It took 25 years after the worst industrial accident in the world where more than 20000 people died and many times that number suffered lifelong ailments because of the gas leakage, to get a verdict against 7 officers of the erstwhile Union Carbide Company and it took them a few hours to get freed on bail. Their sentences, all under 2 years have sparked nationwide outrage about the ease with which Union Carbide has got away. Its CEO Warren Anderson was given safe passage by the government in 1984, and a $470 million settlement reached with the company in 1998, against which it got immunity from further legal action. To put things in perspective, this sum was a fraction of the company’s annual revenues at the time. What makes the outrage more pronounced is the pressure British Petroleum is under to pay for the containment of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

There are many issues that these accidents raise about the extent and nature of corporate responsibility but one thing is clear, companies, particularly multinationals are coming under intense public scrutiny for every action of theirs, and the reaction in India to the Bhopal gas tragedy verdict 25 years on is evidence of this new sense of accountability that the public demands of corporations. In 1984, India has just embarked on its economic reform programme and after decades of an ossified version of state socialism, had just about opened up to the idea of globalisation and free markets. At that time, for the middle class, the private sector was the panacea to all problems. Also, as some commentators have pointed out, India was in the throes of an economic crisis and the Indian state could ill afford antagonising a powerful corporation

That is no longer the case today. The power equation between the Indian market and multinational corporations has changed. The retrospective rage, which might just have come too late is evidence of this new attitude. But at a more fundamental level, the middle class honeymoon with the private sector and multinationals might well have come to an end. We saw this with Coke and Pepsi when they were involved in the pesticides controversy and we are seeing it again today. What was once the preserve of a few activists now seems much closer to being mainstream opinion. The Bhopal gas tragedy may always remain a profound tragedy, but its reverberations will be heard for much longer. And not just in India.

So Bhopal became a fixture on the agenda of enraged activists, but was largely ignored both by the Government and by the media. they run foul of public sentiment.

Media International, Jun 22, 2010