Games big corporations play

Activists raise slogans during a candlelight vigil to show solidarity with the Bhopal gas tragedy victims, near the American Centre in New Delhi on June 12, 2010.  

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.

Yet, the notion that the main injustice to Bhopal is the failure to extradite then UCC chief Warren Anderson from America is mildly ridiculous. Trying to evade the lessons the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster threw up on the tyranny of giant corporations is completely so. Well over two decades after its MIC gas slaughtered 20,000 (mostly very poor) human beings, Bhopal still pays the price of Carbide's criminality. (Evident from the long-term impact on the health of the gas-affected. And from the poisoned soil and water around the former Carbide plant.) While the Indian government's appalling Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill, if adopted, would give legal cover to such conduct across the country.

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.

The first of these came in 2008. That was in the case of the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 — till then the biggest recorded (or admitted to) oil spill in history. Simply put, BP's blowout is recreating an Exxon Valdez every eight days or so. And has been doing that since late April. In the Exxon case, a jury in 1994 imposed penalties of $5 billion on the company. In 2006, points out Sharon Smith in an incisive piece in, “an appeals court halved the punitive claim to $2.5 billion.” And in June 2008, “the Supreme Court reduced that amount by 80 per cent, to roughly $500 million — an average of $15,000 per plaintiff.” Exxon CEO Lee Raymond who fiercely fought the damages, retired with a $400 million package all for himself. While Exxon Valdez's victims, points out Smith, ended up with roughly the same amount — only, it was shared among 33,000 of them. That is about 10 per cent of the original award and roughly $15,000 per victim.

In September the same year, Wall Street's kleptocrats famously tanked the world economy. Their actions cost millions in America and elsewhere their jobs and livelihoods. Yet, U.S. CEOs took home billions in bonuses that very year. Even The New York Times felt the need to say in a lead editorial at the time: “Just weeks after the Treasury Department gave nine of the nation's top banks $125 billion in taxpayer dollars to save them from unprecedented calamity, bank executives are salting money away in billionaire bonus pools to reward themselves for their performance.” (In that election year, Big Oil also drummed up support for offshore drilling with this cheery slogan: ‘Drill, Baby, Drill.' What'll it be now? ‘Spill, Baby, Spill?')

This year, barely three months before BP turned the Gulf of Mexico into a sludge pond, the U.S. Supreme Court further strengthened corporate power with its ruling in the Citizens United versus Federal Election Commission case. As Ralph Nader put it: “With this decision, corporations can now directly pour vast amounts of corporate money ... into the electoral swamp already flooded with ... [corporate] dollars ... corporations can [now] reward or intimidate people running for office at the local, state, and national levels.” Mason Gaffney makes the point in the Counterpunch Newsletter that “The ideas behind this are that a corporation is a ‘legal person,' with all the rights [if not all the duties] of a human being; that, as such, it has a right of free speech; and that donating money is a form of speech.” So chin up, BP, there's still hope. Remember how many who make it to Congress and Senate get there on Big Oil's big bucks.

While on the BP spill, spare a thought for the victims of such disasters who are not American or white-skinned. As Foreign Policy in Focus columnist Conn Hallinan points out: “Nigerian government figures show there have been more than 9000 spills between 1970 and 2000, and there are currently 2,000 official spill sites.” But then, what are African lives worth?

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.

Barely 10 years later, Enron emerged as the symbol of the new era of liberalisation. Top academics, ‘experts,' and columnists worked hard to tell us what nice guys the Enron mob were. All this, after much initial criticism of the Enron deal. The change of heart was possibly a transplant funded by tens of millions of dollars set up by that company to “educate” Indian opinion-makers, lawmakers, etc. Advertising, too, flowed freely. One famous newspaper started out very critical of Enron, only to switch to being one of its cheerleaders. Many others, too, did the same. I guess that kind of fund buys a lot of education. For Maharashtra and India, it bought disaster. The once profit-making State electricity board piled up millions in losses. The State, in turn, slashed money from welfare projects and services. Enron, fraud that it was, collapsed in the U.S., some of its top guns turning fugitives from the law. The mess remains with us. The one chance of evading disaster vanished when the Supreme Court threw out a petition against the Enron deal brought by the CITU and Abhay Mehta, and that was that.

Meanwhile, Mr. Obama's rhetoric seems to have hurt British sentiments. The truth is that the U.S. has helped, even subsidised, BP in the past. In what Alexander Cockburn calls “the biggest bailout in history,” the CIA staged a now infamous coup in Iran in 1953 to get rid of Mohammed Mossadegh's government. The Iranian Parliament had by unanimous vote nationalised the exploitative Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. Mossadegh was toppled. Installed in his place was “Shah Reza Pahlevi, the creature of the West's oil companies, with full tyrannical powers. The AIOC got back 40 per cent of its old concession and became an internationally owned consortium, renamed — British Petroleum.” The lists of corporate-sponsored coups in the third world would fill volumes.

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.

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