President Barack Obama acted with determination and purpose in holding BP accountable in the ongoing Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster, forcing the petroleum company to commit $20 billion to an escrow account (with no cap) that would contribute toward meeting clean-up costs and providing compensation. His tough tackle against the U.K.-based global oil giant was a contrast to the general attitude of the United States to environment disasters caused by American companies outside the country. In fact, Mr. Obama unwittingly showed up the indifferent attitude of successive U.S. governments to the Bhopal gas calamity of December 2, 1984, which killed 4,000 people immediately and thousands more over the next few months and left many, many more dealing with the ill-effects of the poisonous fumes for the rest of their lives. Warren Anderson, chief executive of Union Carbide at the time of the catastrophe, resides in the U.S. in violation of bail conditions. He refused to face charges in India; and the U.S. baulked at official Indian efforts, however feeble, to get him extradited. Through his actions on the oil spill disaster, Mr. Obama wanted to send a clear message that his government would step in, in the larger public interest, to ensure that profit-seeking multi-national corporations operate with social responsibility. But surely, this intellectually accomplished President could not have missed the double standards involved in U.S. responses to Bhopal and the oil spill crisis.
The Gulf of Mexico “petroleum volcano,” which erupted following an enormous blowout of BP's oil well, is a crisis without precedent. It continues to take an extensive life-sapping toll. But, fortunately, the death toll in this case was just 11. BP, despite its pre-disaster compromises on safety and post-disaster inefficiency in containing the oil slick, accepted full responsibility for the disaster. Union Carbide, on the other hand, tried to shift the entire responsibility in the Bhopal case to its Indian subsidiary. Instead of accepting responsibility for clean-up, relief, and just compensation, the American multinational began protracted negotiations with the Indian government — whose response, in successive stages, was nothing short of a sell-out of the interests of the hundreds of thousands of victims, of the environment, and of the elementary principles of justice. Twenty-six years after the Bhopal gas leak catastrophe, there has been no clean-up, no acceptance of executive accountability, only pathetic amounts of relief and compensation doled out to the families of the victims. A more cynical response to the world's worst industrial catastrophe cannot be imagined. The nation waits for the government to make amends.