Wednesday, June 16, 2010

"To mourn Bhopal and ready the nuclear liability bill is hypocrisy": P. Sainath

Over 20,000 killed. Over half a million victims maimed, disabled or otherwise affected. Compensation of around Rs.12,414 per victim on average on the 1989 value of the rupee. ($470 million or Rs.713 crore. And that divided among 574,367 victims.) Over a quarter-of-a-century's wait. To see seven former officials of Union Carbide Corporation's Indian subsidiary sentenced to two years in prison and fined Rs.1 lakh each. Not a single person from the far more responsible parent U.S. company punished.

Bhopal marked the horrific beginning of a new era. One that signalled the collapse of restraint on corporate power. The ongoing BP spill in the Mexican Gulf — with estimates ranging from 30,000-80,000 barrels a day — tops off a quarter-of-a-century where corporations could (and have) done anything in the pursuit of profit, at any human cost. Barack Obama's ‘hard words' on BP are mostly pre-November poll-rants. The BP can take a lot of comfort from two U.S. Supreme Court judgments in the past two years.

Seven years after Bhopal, Larry Summers, then chief economist at the World Bank, wrote his infamous memo. This said, among other things: “Just between you and me, shouldn't the World Bank be encouraging MORE migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs [Less Developed Countries]?” Summers suggested that “the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.”

Summers was to later say that he was joking, being sarcastic, and so on. Few buy that pathetic plea. Still, he went on to become President of Harvard and is now President Obama's chief economic adviser. And his memo's logic holds in the real world. It is exactly what has happened since Bhopal.

The UPA's response to the Bhopal sentences shows the government's ethics to be as despicable as they were in 1984. To mourn Bhopal and ready the nuclear liability bill is a hypocrisy hard to match. Bhopal was a post-facto sell-out. With the nuclear liability bill, the government sells out in advance. Is it only governments that have something to hide from Bhopal 1984? Even at the time, newspapers gladly carried planted stories suggesting “sabotage by Carbide's workers” had caused the disaster. Four years later, a UCC-funded ‘study' claimed to prove that the disaster was caused by a disgruntled worker at the plant. Carbide also ensured it could not be sued in U.S. courts. In December 1985, some of India's great legal luminaries, including Nani Palkhivala, helped persuade U.S. courts that Indian courts were the appropriate forum to deal with the case. (With results that we now live with.) That spared Carbide the relatively much higher damages the U.S. courts might have imposed.

All that the Union Carbide did and got away with in Bhopal is shocking. But not, alas, surprising. In the quarter-of-a-century since then, corporate power has only grown. Bhopals happen when societies privilege corporates over communities, and private profit over public interest. Curb corporate power, Indian or American, or it will rip you apart.

Remember too, that important thing Bhopal victims say over and over again: “we should see that this can never happen again.” However, we seem to be ensuring quite the opposite. The Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill in its present form ensures that U.S. corporations causing any nuclear accidents on Indian soil will get away with minimal damages. A compensation now seen as a crime in Bhopal could be a legal norm in the future. Welcome back, Larry Summers.

From P. Sainath's article in The Hindu. More Here.

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