Bhopal to You
Disaster is 20 Years Young!
THE BHOPAL DISASTER had its 20th anniversary
last week, and so was duly (and briefly) commemorated in the inside
sections of a few American newspapers.
It is unlikely, however, that any public figures are going to pay
tribute to what happened 20 years ago this week. Which is
too bad, because as far as America is concerned, the week of Dec.
9 to 16 was the more important week of the Bhopal disaster. That's
when we got over Bhopal.
In the first week, in particular the first days after the Dec. 3
accident left thousands dead, the American media response was nervous,
embarrassed, and in some places genuinely contrite. But it didn't
take too long for reporters to start wondering aloud how it might
be possible for us Americans to feel less guilty about all of this.
On Wednesday, Dec. 5, for instance, ABC's Mark Litke expressed hope
that India's population of superstitious savages might soon get
over its rational but unfortunately directed outrage over the matter:
Since India is a superstitious
land, long hardened to deadly natural disasters, there is always
the chance that the Bhopal tragedy will ultimately be dismissed
as bad karma or God's will. But right now no one is forgetting that
this was a manmade disaster...
Within a few days after that, the press moved on to the next phase
of its treatment of the story, which was to begin praising Union
Carbide Corporation (UCC) for its handling of the disaster.
Among other things, there was a great flood of positive press for
UCC CEO Warren Anderson, who was praised for taking the brave step
of actually traveling to Bhopal. It was an unusual sort of trip.
Anderson traveled by private jet the entire way. When he finally
arrived in Bhopal, on Friday, Dec. 7, he was met immediately on
the tarmac of the airport by Indian officials, who "arrested"
him—taking him not to jail but to the Union Carbide guesthouse,
where he was "detained" for six hours. He was then "released"
on roughly $2000 bail, despite the fact that the criminal negligence
charges that had ostensibly been levied were non-bailable under
Anderson was then escorted back to his plane, flown to Delhi, delivered
to the U.S. embassy and ultimately told by the Indian government
to leave the country for his own safety. The compliant Anderson
then flew back to Connecticut, where he promptly held a press conference
in which he somberly denied any personal responsibility for the
accident—and noted, with a straight face, that during the entire
course of the trip, he "didn't see one placard...didn't see
one angry citizen."
At the time, not one reporter bothered to point out that this had
been because Anderson had been either on his private jet, in protective
custody or in the U.S. embassy the entire time he'd been in India.
(An aside: even this past week, in the year 2004, Anderson's effigy
was still being burned in cities across India).
Reporters did, however, point out how brave Anderson had been to
make this trip. The Washington Post called it a "bold
move," UPI called Anderson's trip an "ordeal" and
the New York Times fell over itself in praise of the "embattled"
CEO. Amazingly, Times reporter Thomas Lueck quoted not only
a business school professor, but a consultant from a New York
p.r. agency, as well as one of UCC's own spokesmen, to assess the
moral legacy of Anderson's trip.
Under the sub-headline "An Admirable Thing," Lueck placed
his quote of p.r. exec Martin Burger:
"I don't care how much good the trip did in gathering information,
it was necessary to make a bold statement, he did it, and it was
an admirable thing to do,'' [Burger] added.
Then, using the same ball-sucking technique Times reporters
like Elisabeth Bumiller use in the White House to this day, Lueck
allowed a UCC spokesman—a paid liar of the highest order—to offer
the apocryphal insight that the Bhopal trip had been entirely Anderson's
"Nobody was advising
him on that one,'' said Ed Van Den Ameele, the company's manager
of media relations... "He felt that he needed to be there,
regardless of the risk.''
From there, the floodgates were open. U.S. reporters repeatedly hammered
three themes in the press.
The first was that the Indian anger over the accident was an overemotional
response by an ill-informed peasant population that simply could
not accept that industrial accidents, though regrettable, are the
inevitable price of progress. Times reporter William Broad
put it most succinctly, noting that many of the Bhopal victims would
not even have been alive to be killed had it not been for corporate
citizens like UCC:
So too, experts argue,
the tragedy in India has to be seen in its wider context.
"Of those people
killed, half would not have been alive today if it weren't for that
plant and the modern health standards made possible by wide use
of pesticides,'' said Dr. Melvin Kranzberg...
The second theme was that the accident only happened because the
Indians were incompetent. Here's how the house editorial at the
Times put it on Dec. 9:
Part of the explanation
may be a difference in culture. India's scientists are as good as
any, but not all Indian workers have the same familiarity with machinery
It should be noted that UCC later commissioned a study by the firm
Arthur Little that concluded the accident had been caused by a deliberate
act of sabotage by an Indian worker. Though the company did not
name the worker, and never offered any evidence proving that a dog
actually ate its homework, this was the position the company would
ultimately take and stick to. The Indian government's response to
the same study ("We are not impressed") got less ink.
The third theme in the press that week? That the real villains of
the story were the American lawyers who were flying to India to
organize class-action suits against UCC. Papers like the Post
and the Times suddenly became victim advocates once the prospect
of Melvin Belli taking 30 percent of a future settlement became
a real possibility. Post columnist Richard Cohen took the
extraordinary position that the lawyers were the real neo-colonialists
in this tale:
This is ambulance chasing
on a global scale, a new type of colonialism. If only the British
had settled for a third of the profits, the sun might never have
set on their empire.
Bhopal quickly faded from American newspapers. It has not faded so
successfully in the actual city of Bhopal. Without being a melodramatic
environmentalist—we know how that turns off American readers—it
should be noted that 20 years after the disaster, there has still
been no real cleanup of the Bhopal site, and in particular no cleanup
of the city's water supply. Neither UCC nor its new parent company
Dow has coughed up a dime for water-supply cleanup. The Indian government
in 1997 did spend money on a few cans of red paint to mark 250 wells
that were contaminated, but since most of the area's residents have
no place else to get water, the wells are still used. Neither UCC
nor Dow has ever formally accepted responsibility for the accident.
Little of a very small $470 million settlement—arranged between
the court and UCC, without consulting the victims—has actually been
What was so disgusting about the Bhopal story, and what continues
to be disgusting, was not just that it happened, but that the story
played out the way it did here in the States.
At least 7000 people died in the first week at Bhopal. Tens of thousands
more subsequent deaths were directly attributed to the accident.
More than 100,000 were injured. In the States this phrase—"100,000
injured"—was usually confined to just that phrase. Readers
were seldom told that this meant thousands of people left with such
serious respiratory problems that they cannot leave their homes
or work (or, significantly, walk to an uncontaminated well). They
were not told that Bhopal residents who were little girls in 1984
went on to live long, painful lives of blurred vision, chest pains
and constant vaginal discharges. Little boys, for some reason, had
a different reaction than the girls; they frequently failed to grow
and remained miniature people their whole lives.
Fully grown men under five feet tall are not uncommon in Bhopal.
That the safety procedures were different in Bhopal than they were
in the West Virginia plant was often noted in American news articles,
but usually noted offhand. The extent to which this was true has
rarely ever been mentioned in this country—not even last week, after
Amnesty International released a report detailing the differences
between the two UCC plants.
There is not enough space to be comprehensive, but here are a few
• The Bhopal plant had no emergency "scrubbers" to render
harmless any leaking gases. The U.S. plant did.
• There was no computerized monitoring of instruments in Bhopal.
There was in West Virginia.
• The U.S. plant used inert chloroform for its cooling system; in
Bhopal, they used brine, more dangerous and reactive with the liquid
• West Virginia had a refrigeration unit that was always on. Bhopal,
in a cost-cutting move, had turned off its refrigeration unit the
previous June. (They turned off refrigeration units in India!)
• UCC didn't even have an emergency plan with the city of Bhopal,
had no system for informing the public, no emergency liaison. All
of these things, in West Virginia, it had.
And so on; this list could go on for another page.
UCC ignored dozens of warnings—not general warnings about general
safety lapses, but specific warnings about the specific problem
that would ultimately occur. Two years before, a team of its own
American technicians classified 10 major potential hazards at the
plant, including what ultimately happened: a leak of MIC from its
But UCC did nothing, because UCC didn't give a fuck. It didn't have
to. Even the worst-case scenario wasn't so bad. It's not like you'll
have to replace the city's water supply if the plant explodes. It
isn't Connecticut, for Christ's sake. Might as well go cheap,
and hope everything works out. And if not...
Fuck 'em. After all, who's going to care in a year? Ten years? Twenty?
No one. Hell, even after a week, the New York Times figured
out what the real tragedy was. Lueck wrote:
The other day one of
the dozens of reporters who have flocked here asked Warren M. Anderson...whether
he really cared about anything besides profit and loss. Mr. Anderson
sighed a weary sigh.
"During the last
week, I haven't been able to give profits much thought," he
Boy, that must have been one tough week. Happy anniversary, Bhopal.