Thursday, June 10, 2010

Thoughts on Bhopal

The TV channels have worked themselves into a lather about Warren Anderson, and I don't see why. The then Chairman of Union Carbide need never have stepped on Indian soil after the gas leak. He obviously came with some deal having been struck in advance. Even without such a deal, he'd have been bailed after a few days of custody.
It's always convenient to blame the foreigners. So what if the Bhopal plant was entirely under Indian management, as required by Indian law? So what if we don't yet know what triggered the leak? So what if we've put no measures in place to cope with another such accident?
We've never been too fussed about safety. I remember being part of a crew filming a corporate documentary a few years ago. The person assigned to help us was from the safety department. His primary job during the shoot was ensuring that everyone in the frame had hard hats on. As soon as the camera stopped rolling, the hats would come off.
What sense does it make to press charges of culpable homicide when what happened was clearly negligence? Criminal negligence, no doubt, but nonetheless negligence. Unless, of course, we accept the Union Carbide theory that it was sabotage.
Intention is central to culpability. Absent an intent to kill, it makes no sense to put people away for ten years, even if their negligence resulted in 10,000 deaths. The problem lies not with the sentence but the delay in getting to this point. It has made India an international laughing stock.
The other issue relates to the compensation of 470 million dollars. I don't believe it was such a trivial amount as is being made out. The government should've accepted the initial offer of 350 million dollars and used it to build health care centres, and disbursed it quickly to victims. Instead it demanded over 3 billion and finally had to accept the 350 million plus interest. And after it got the 470 million, it kept most of it in a bank account, like it would do any good there.
It's true Exxon paid more for the Exxon Valdez leak. But that was in the United States. It makes no sense to demand we be treated on par with the US in such matters. People earn more in the US, they will naturally be compensated in accordance with their earning power.
We deal with such disparities all the time. When I write for a foreign publication, I get paid significantly more than when I write for an Indian one. Time Out, London would pay me far more for an article than Time Out, Delhi. That's just the way it is. It would be stupid of me to ask for equity in payments here in India. Union Carbide's multinational status didn't oblige it to pay the same to Indians that it would to Americans. If such conditions were laid down, no foreign companies would come to India in the first place.


Anonymous said...

I think the focus of the issue ( apart from the deaths of course...RIP ) is our courts and the justice system...we truly have become the laughing stock of the world...Srikanth

Ahmer said...


A few activist friends are trying to escalate pressure on the PM, so that he does something about the Bhopal issue.

Clearly we can't settle for what has been doled out in the name of justice. Take action at



Anonymous said...

Please read these stories and then comment; this was deliberate willful negligence, ignorance of safety standards by a company which indicates Indian lives are cheaper; Anderson is a burcher and mass murdered

Girish Shahane said...

Anonymous, I wonder if you've read what you linked to. In no way does it lead to the conclusion that Warren Anderson is a mass murderer. In fact, it doesn't even establish how the water got mixed with gas.
All the Hindu article says is that Carbide used 'unproven technology' to make insecticide. What does that even mean?
The memo that came out during US litigation shows that Carbide was running at a loss and seeking ways to cut costs. Pretty much any company running at a loss seeks ways to cut costs. That's your basis for concluding that a particular individual is a mass murderer? Wow.

VV said...

Hey Girish,
Technically, you dont need intention for culpability, at least not in many common law countries (maybe India is an exception).
Culpability is just blameworthiness and falls along a spectrum, with purposeful or planned on one end and negligent on the other. So manslaughter for example is culpable homicide (even if there was no intention). While self-defence would be non-culpable.
In some countries, culpable homicide is often an umbrella term for ALL manslaughter (non-intentional) type homicides specifically distinguishing it from intentional homicide.

India is unique that way- but even there, if I am not mistaken, you dont need intention as such for culpable homicide (there are categories of CH?). Knowledge that something can most probably cause homicide is enough [sort of like wilful blindness or knowledge as to the likelihood].
So while it is extremely difficult to prove that the execs had the knowledge that the Bhopal tragedy was a likelihood, it is not a completely crazy idea. It depends on what those safety reports (that they ignored) said and what corners they cut and what knowledge they had about the consequences of cutting the corners.
I dont know the details to judge if there is some basis at all.
Also, I have no issue with blaming the foreigners :)- not because they are foreigners, but just because of the notion of corporate responsibility and laws around where the buck stops. i.e. if Anderson and gang put some pressure on their Indian subsidiary to cut corners, cuplability (i mean blameworthiness not degree of intention) would transfer, no? At least, it does legally today. I dont know about the 80s. And also "deep pockets" principles and other nice litigation stuff, which is quite independent of moral "culpability" (again, I mean blameworthiness) :).
-- VV

Jabeen said...

I had a thought today on my way to work. Okay, so the Carbide officials are only guilty of causing death due to negligence. The maximum sentence for that in India is 2 years. But that sentence would apply if one person died. In Bhopal, many hundreds were killed. Couldn't the sentence have somehow been multiplied by treating each death as a separate case?

Vishnu Gupta said...

This is an interesting case. According to the generally understood definition, culpable homicide is "the unlawful killing of another with an absence of an intention to kill." Culpable homicide is also called *negligent homicide*. So, the term culpable homicide could be applied to Warren Anderson. But herein lies the twist. The definition in India is different.
According to section 299 of the IPC, a culpable homicide is someone who "causes death by doing an act with the intention of causing death, or with the intention of causing such bodily injury as is likely to cause death, or with the knowledge that he is likely by such act to cause death, commits the offence of culpable homicide." When this definition is used, the issue becomes debatable.

Girish Shahane said...

Jabeen, India doesn't have consecutive sentencing the way the US does, so as far as I know the judge couldn't have pronounced hundreds of consecutive 2 year sentences.
VV, aside from the issue of how much exactly Warren Anderson knew, the problem is how little we know despite the reams that have been written on the issue.
I don't know if you've seen the film Bhopal Express: it sort of encapsulates the Indian attitude, with scowling, evil white guys in a boardroom at one end and hapless Indian victims at the other, with no intermediaries. I just don't believe that's a helpful way of looking at the issue. And I reiterate, if all the people in the Carbide hierarchy, including Warren Anderson, had quickly been sentenced to two years in prison, and had to serve that sentence, it would've been reasonable punishment in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Anderson was fully aware that the technology used in the Bhopal factory was dangerous; in fact USA, Brazil, would not have allowed such a plant to be developed there; he was aware of the high industrial risks; more than anderson it is the failure of the Indian system, India government that you have allowed such gross insensitive negligence to get away cheaply

VV said...

Girish, I agree. It is quite ridiculous all these years and not one big-wig (especially the Indian accused) had been sentenced even for a day.
Re: evil goras, bechara desis syndrome- Jabeen's fb status says it all- all this yelling for Anderson's head and Narendra Modi is a national hero and chief minister and Keshub Mahindra, the Indian equivalent of Anderson, is a Padma Bhushan nominee. It totally smacks of hypocrisy.
-- VV

Sanjay said...

Its always convenient to attack the TV channels is'nt? They begin the match with an own goal. If the Indian government did put compensation money in a bank, then they join the TV channels in the very convenient foes category.
A few days of Anderson spending time in an Indian detention facility (for his own safety!) while the matter was being investigated would have had a multiplicative effect on the compensation awarded or settlement agreed. Measures to avoid accident repeat would also be put in if the cost of doing so made sense - as in were much smaller than the costs of not doing so ~ higher compensation. And we must demand to be treated on par with human beings all over the world. You do get paid more when writing for London mags don't you? How would you feel if they paid you less for being an Indian? Foreign companies will come if the costs outweigh profits. If nobody comes then Indian business will occupy that space, who must be governed by the same laws.

Girish Shahane said...

It can be convenient to attack anyone, Sanjay, and it could be convenient to say any attack is a matter of mere convenience.
What nobody who has responded to my post has done is to show why Warren Anderson should personally be held guilty, above all the Indians involved, for the Bhopal disaster. And the reason nobody can do that is in my post: the cause of the gas leak has remained a mystery all these years. Unless we know what caused the leak, how can we assign blame? Take the case of the current environmental disaster courtesy BP. There's mounting evidence that BP cut corners to save costs, much as Union Carbide did. Does this mean, though, that the chairman of BP is criminally culpable?