By Swapan Dasgupta
The token punishments awarded to the Indian managers and directors of the now defunct Union Carbide for their culpability in the world’s greatest industrial disaster in Bhopal 26 years ago would have, in the normal course, attracted enormous global attention. At best, the court judgement may only have established that underneath the amazing success story India is still an iniquitous Third World state that devalues human life. But at least it would have driven home the necessity of establishing global norms of punitive liability — a sort of Nuclear Liability legislation for all occasions.
A reason why interest in the callousness of Bhopal proved remarkably ephemeral lay in the West’s single-minded attention on the environmental disaster that has affected the US. The oil-spill in the Gulf of Mexico that began on April 20 following an explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig has shaken the West.
Just as the iconic photograph of an open-eyed child being laid to rest came to epitomise Bhopal, the image of a bird covered in the reddish-brown muck slick in Louisiana has stirred the conscience of capitalism. Many deep existential questions have been raised on the nature of modernity and its consequences for the planet. People are speculating whether future explorations in the unspoilt Arctic Circle will lead to a similar calamity, and how long the world can afford to be driven on the back of an unclean energy source.
These are questions that modern civilisation will have to confront honestly. For the moment, however, what is intriguing is how quickly the political script of the Bhopal farce being enacted in India is being mirrored on both sides of the Atlantic. There is a marked similarity between the political accusations and counter-accusations in India — who allowed Walter Anderson to jump bail in December 1984, whether UPA Ministers sought to detach Dow Chemicals from the liabilities of Union Carbide, and whether the action of retired Chief Justice AH Ahmadi constituted a conflict of interests — and the shenanigans in Washington DC and London.
At the heart of the problem is the fanatical desire of the political class to identify a fall guy. Just as the Congress party is facing flak for its kid glove treatment of a multinational, allegedly under US Government pressure, President Barack Obama came under attack for his initial indifference to the desecration of the Louisiana coastline. It was even suggested that the oil spill would be Obama’s Katrina moment.
But that’s where the similarities taper off. Unable to defend its prolonged prevarication — a process that continues with the appointment of yet another GoM — or what commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta has described as the Supreme Court’s “lack of serious intellectual leadership”, the Government of India and the Congress party has chosen to muddy the waters with some delicious but irrelevant tittle-tattle.
In India, xenophobia has become the stick with which to beat a beleaguered Congress. And the Congress is certainly gasping for answers which explain its generosity towards American interests. In the US, an embattled Obama has craftily used xenophobia to “kick ass”, his euphemism for targeting perfidious Albion. In his initial interventions, the President, for example, insisted on referring to BP by its earlier name, British Petroleum. This was no unintended mistake. It was about as loaded as referring to, say ITC, as Imperial Tobacco Company.
It was a theme that has been readily echoed by others. The feisty Sarah Palin, whose husband was employed by BP for 18 years, railed against “foreign companies” in the energy sector. Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner went a step further. “Whenever you hear someone with a British accent talking about this on behalf of British Petroleum”, he said, “(he is) not telling you the truth.”
Substitute British for American and you may discover astonishing similarities with the rhetoric of angry Indian populists.
No wonder there has been a strong reaction in Britain. London Mayor Boris Johnson was the first to protest against the “anti-British rhetoric” emanating from across the pond. He was followed by Lord Tebbit who blamed the vagaries of domestic politics in the US for “a crude, bigoted, xenophobic display of petulance against a MNC”.
Other Conservative politicians have now jumped in to try and pressure Prime Minister David Cameron to use his good offices and inject sobriety into an emotive debate.
The reason for asking Downing Street to intervene isn’t one of national honour. Like most things, it’s really all about money. Most British pension funds are heavily invested in BP which has a fantastic track record of dividend payments. It is estimated that over 12 per cent of all British pension fund income comes from BP dividends. Over the past month, nearly £50 billion of BP’s market value has shrunk and Obama has publicly berated the company for being more concerned about its annual dividend than paying for the damage to the ecosystem. In fact, there are fears that the environmental damage its Chief Executive Tony Hayward imagined was “very, very modest” could even bankrupt BP.
Cut to the situation prevailing in the US in 1984, in the aftermath of the Bhopal disaster, and it is possible to gauge the pressure Washington must have brought to bear on New Delhi to be ‘reasonable’. In moments of intense crisis, companies, even MNCs, tend to fall back on a national government to bail them out of sticky situations. BP may not succeed because the victim is the mighty US of A and because there is too much ‘green’ consciousness in the world to permit covert deals.
Unfortunately, this was not the case in 1984 when human beings and not birds died. In today’s world, no company could have got away paying chicken-feed for a crime of this magnitude. As victims of this latest industrial disaster, the US knows it.