Thursday, December 3, 2009

Western shame: 25 years on from Bhopal

‘Corporate responsibility’ is a buzzword that the generation my grandmother belonged to never knew.  And mine will hopefully never know the horror of a gas attack. Sometimes  she told me about her father, who experienced this in the Great War and was never the same again. He was one of the lucky ones, only maimed by his experience. Others drowned on dry land as their lungs filled with fluid and their skin blistered.

Many a British schoolchild will have read Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est, and it doesn’t take much to imagine the horror of finding yourself surrounded by this invisible poison. I remember the sense of nausea as, watching TV news in December 1984, I realised how many Indians must have died a similary grotesque death during the Bhopal incident and its aftermath.

These images were a precursor to the 1988 pictures of Halabjah, when Saddam Hussein gassed Kurdish villagers. But unlike Saddam, who eventually – when his usefulness as a bulwark against Iran ran out – got what was coming to him, there has been no retribution for the deskbound generals who presided over this larger chemical obscenity.

Depending on whose estimates you believe, Bhopal resulted in the deaths of between 3,000 and 15,000 people – and its legacy continues today in the form of poisoned water and land. That takes no account of the walking wounded: those who were maimed and blinded and lost any quality of life they might have ever had.

As I listen to an anniversary report on France Inter, an Indian journalist details the cost-cutting that, he says, led directly to the release of gas. It’s impossible to imagine this being allowed to happen in the West, never mind a company like Union Carbide going unpunished.

China is much-critiqued, but those responsible for the baby milk scandal could be sure that they would never get the chance to develop a taste for prison food, never mind enjoy their liberty or draw any comfortable company pension they might have amassed.

Yet it is repeatedly stated that no-one has been successfully prosecuted for Bhopal. Money opens doors, and emergency exits for culpable CEOs are no exception it seems. So how can we in the West ever look an Asian in the eye and tell them that their life is just as valuable as a European or American one, when nobody has been held responsible for mistakes and sloppy practice that led thousands to meet their premature death in a fashion so hideous that – for this writer – it defies articulation?


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