By Raffique Shah
June 27, 2010
TWO weeks ago in India, seven local managers who worked with Union Carbide at its Bhopal plant in 1984 were sentenced to two years imprisonment and each fined US$2,100. There was outrage outside the Delhi court, and understandably so. Those of us who recall that night of horror that was followed by years of additional pain, deaths, disfiguration and death-dealing afflictions, will never forget it. The Bhopal disaster proved that all men (and women) are not created equal. In death, they are even more unequal.
For those too young to remember what happened on the night of December 2-3, 1984, let me briefly explain. Union Carbide (UC), a US chemicals company that was later acquired by Dow Chemicals, operated a plant located on the outskirts of India’s highly industrial city of Bhopal. Around midnight on December 2-3, there was a leak of methyl isocyanate gas and other toxins from the plant that produced the insecticide Sevin.
As nearby residents slept, the toxic fumes permeated their humble homes, wafting across a wide swath of the city. An estimated 6,000 people never awoke from sleep: they died of isocyanate inhalation. The rest of the world, and other residents of Bhopal, learned of the world’s worst industrial slaughter on the following day. Within months, the death toll rose to over 10,000. In the ensuing years, well over 560,000 residents who survived the seeping gas would become partially or fully disabled. Thousands became victims of cancer, renal failure, blindness and other debilitating diseases.
An investigation showed UC had ignored safety measures and even shut down a critical refrigeration unit to save $40 a day! The Indian government demanded more than US$3 billion by way of compensation.
It also sought the extradition from the US of the company’s CEO, Warren Anderson, and other top officials of the death-dealing company. The charge? Negligent homicide-which should have read, instead, ‘mass homicide’.
In 1989, UC reluctantly agreed to pay US$470 million-estimated by rights-action groups at $350 per person killed and those destined to suffer for life. The matter went from the proverbial pillar to post until the handful of locals, mid-managers at the time, were tried, convicted and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. Anderson lives high on the hog in the US, never to be extradited to India to face trial.
Over the past few weeks, we have all looked at the horrible oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, occasioned by a ‘blown top’ of a BP underwater well. It has spread to the coastlines of several states, taken the lives of sea-birds, and adversely affected the fishing industry in the Gulf. BP has already spent upwards of US$2 billion in its clean-up exercise. It was made to set aside US$20 billion for further compensation to affected Americans. Its CEO, Tony Hayward, a Briton, was hauled before an angry US Senate Committee. And to top it off, the oil giant has lost over $40 billion in share-prices.
Not an American died from the spill, although 11 workers perished in the original blast. But already the US has put million-dollar price-tags on its citizens’ heads-for possible fallout from the big spill. This clearly shows that, much the way currency exchange stands, one American life is equivalent to 10,000 Indian lives.
But Bhopal vs the Gulf spill shows only one small example of man’s inequality on Earth. It’s the American Constitution that says: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…’ Realistically, Thomas Jefferson should have written: ‘All White Americans are created equal.’ Because when the Constitution was proclaimed, Blacks lived in slavery while the indigenous people lived in squalor on reservations.
On a bright Sunday morning (July 3, 1988) in the cloudless Persian Gulf, the USS Vincennes was cruising near the Straits of Hormuz. On the skyline appeared an aircraft, and the captain of the Vincennes ordered a missile be fired at it. Turned out the plane was an Iran Air Airbus A300 with 290 passengers and crew aboard; among the former were 66 children. The plane was blown out of the sky, all lives lost.
The American government at first refused to compensate Iran or the victims, many of whom were from other countries. Eventually, in 1996, after the matter was taken before the International Court of Justice, the US agreed to pay a paltry $61.8 million. You try to work out what price it put on the heads of those hapless passengers.
Fast-forward to December 21 that same year. Pan Am Flight 103, a jumbo jet carrying 243 passengers and 16 crew members, explodes over Lockerbie, Scotland. All in the aircraft perish, along with 11 persons on the ground. Terrorism is suspected. Investigations, including forensic examination of a briefcase believed to have held a bomb, are thorough.
On the flimsiest evidence, Libya is fingered as the source of the bomb. Readers should note that prior to Pan Am 103, the US had shot down two Libyan fighter aircraft over the Gulf of Sidra and sunk four Libyan ships-without provocation. As he later sought to escape ostracism, Gadaffi took responsibility in 2002, extradited two Libyans to face trial-and compensated the US in the sum of $2.7 billion-US$10 million per victim.
-To be continued