On the wall of my office hangs a reproduction of a full-page
advertisement by the Union Carbide Corporation, dated 1961. Most of the
ad is a colorful painting with a short text below it. The headline
beneath the painting reads, "Science helps build a new India." In the
bottom third of the painting, a thin, dark-skinned man wearing a turban
is plowing desert ground, wrestling a large wooden plow pulled by two
skinny oxen yoked together with wood and rope. Two dark-skinned women
wearing traditional saris look on, one holding a parasol, one balancing
a large basket or jug on her head. Behind this agricultural scene,
still in the bottom third of the painting, is the River Ganges; across
the Ganges on the far shore, bathed in golden sunlight, is a scene that
could line the New Jersey Turnpike as it passes through Linden --an
enormous chemical complex, a tangle of bulky pipes, tall stacks and
huge tanks resembling a petroleum refinery, except that Linden's
refineries are dark with soot and grime while Carbide's rendition
shimmers with the color of gold. In Carbide's ad, the golden industrial
dream is reflected across the wide Ganges, gleaming.
The top two-thirds of the picture is dominated by a huge disembodied
hand, unmistakably the hand of a light-skinned white male, extending
downward from the upper right. The hand is so large that it covers most
of the pale orange sky. The hand is pouring a clear red fluid out of a
chemist's flask, and the red fluid is streaming down, partially
obscuring the agricultural scene below. The hand seems clearly intended
to remind us of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo
depicted the hand of God bestowing life by touching Adam. The text of
the ad says, in part, "...Union Carbide recently made available its
vast scientific resources to help build a major chemicals and plastics
plant near Bombay." Below the text is the Union Carbide logo and the
slogan, "A hand in things to come."
It was 12 years ago yesterday that the Union Carbide corporation killed
an estimated 8000 residents of Bhopal, India and injured 300,000
others, some 50,000 to 70,000 of those injuries permanent.[1,2,3]
Starting about two o'clock in the morning, Carbide's Bhopal pesticide-
manufacturing plant leaked 42 metric tonnes (46.3 tons) of methyl
isocyanate, a heavy, deadly gas, into a sleeping, impoverished
community, killing and injuring hundreds of thousands.
In 1988 --when Indian authorities were still aggressively pursuing
legal remedies against Carbide --the WALL STREET JOURNAL reported that
corporate executives throughout American industry were following
Carbide's case closely because it was the first major test of a U.S.
corporation's liability for an industrial accident in a third-world
country. Carbide almost immediately accepted "moral responsibility" for
the Bhopal massacre, but the corporation subsequently denied and evaded
any other kind of responsibility. The Indian government initially
sought $3 billion from Carbide. In response, Carbide hired $50 million
worth of legal talent to fight the claim and eventually agreed to pay
$470 million to compensate its victims or their surviving relatives, a
settlement that cost Carbide 43 cents per share of stock. (Later
Carbide kicked in another $20 million to support a hospital in Bhopal.)
In return for the settlement, the government of India agreed to protect
Carbide against any further lawsuits by victims. The day the settlement
was announced, Carbide's stock price rose $2.00 per share on Wall
Street because investors realized that the company's fortunes couldn't
be touched. After all the lawyers and Indian government officials had
taken their fees and bribes, the average claimant received about $300,
which, for most victims, was not enough to pay their medical bills.
Carbide says a disgruntled employee caused the gas leak that
devastated Bhopal but Carbide has steadfastly refused to allow this
theory to be tested in a court of law under judicial rules of evidence.
It is conclusively known that Carbide's Bhopal plant was designed in
such a way that, after the deadly gas leak began, the main safety
system --water sprays intended to "knock down" such a leak --could not
spray water high enough to reach the escaping stream of gas. In sum,
the plant's safety systems had been designed negligently. Internal
documents show that the company knew this prior to the disaster, but
did nothing about it.[4,p.12] Small wonder that Carbide officials --for
all their cheap talk about accepting moral responsibility --do not want
the issues of causation and blame adjudicated.
Methyl isocyanate (MIC) burns (in a corrosive chemical sense, not a
fire sense) when it combines with water --water in a person's eyes, or
a person's throat and lungs, for example. Thousands who survived are
blind, or had their lungs burned so badly that they cannot work or, in
many cases, even breathe well enough to walk.
Carbide initially said that MIC injuries would all become apparent
immediately after exposure and no long-term consequences could be
expected. This has turned out to be wishful thinking. This week, the
International Medical Commission on Bhopal (IMCB) released the results
of a multi-year controlled study of people living in Bhopal and they
reported numerous injuries now becoming apparent in victims who had
appeared to recover after their initial exposure. For example, small
airway deterioration --a kind of emphysema --is apparent among people
who have never smoked tobacco, but who inhaled MIC as youngsters that
night 12 years ago. Central nervous system damage is becoming apparent
in another group. As time passes, the harms attributable to the Bhopal
disaster are growing worse and more numerous.[5,6,7,8,9,10,11]
In December, 1987, India's Central Bureau of Investigation, the
equivalent of the U.S. FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation], filed
criminal charges of "culpable homicide," a crime just short of murder,
against 10 Carbide officials, including then-president Warren Anderson.
Warren Anderson now lives comfortably in Vero Beach, Florida. He and
his fellow Carbide executives have continued to thumb their noses at
India's courts, where, if convicted, they would face sentences ranging
from 3 years to life in prison. Carbide has successfully resisted all
efforts to extradite those responsible for the Bhopal massacre, and
Carbide's executives remain fugitives from justice. The Indian
government has not pursued the matter aggressively, for fear of
appearing unfriendly to the petrochemical industry.[4,p.11] Carbide
itself has become even more profitable than it was before the massacre;
indeed, Carbide's chairman, Robert D. Kennedy, described the firm in
late 1994 as "a darling of Wall Street."[4,p.10]
Carbide had no choice but to evade liability for its actions, says Ward
Morehouse, one of Carbide's most thorough critics: "Had they been
genuinely forthcoming and made truly disinterested offers of help on a
scale appropriate to the magnitude of the disaster, they would almost
certainly have been confronted with suits by shareholders seeking to
hold the management accountable for mishandling company
funds...."[12,p.490] In other words, because the Bhopal massacre was
perpetrated by a publicly-held corporation (i.e., one in which members
of the public can buy stock), the victims could not possibly have
received fair compensation for damages. The legal nature of the
corporate form prevents management from "doing the right thing"
whenever it would cost investors dearly. (A privately-held corporation
could do the right thing if the stockholders agreed to make an
This of course tells us that the future holds more Bhopals because the
overseers of publicly-traded corporations now have real, tangible
evidence that they cannot be brought to justice, no matter how great
the crimes they commit. That would appear to be the dreary lesson that
Bhopal portends for things to come. As HARPER'S magazine said recently
(describing Juarez, Mexico, not Bhopal), "The future is based on the
rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer, and industrial growth
producing poverty faster than it distributes wealth." The Bhopal
story affirms that this is the future promised by a "free trade" world.
Carbide has closed and abandoned its Bhopal plant, refused to clean up
the substantial pollution of water and soil that it created there, and
left town, forsaking its tens of thousands of victims who must now fend
But all is not gloomy. Some good may yet emerge from Bhopal.
** In January 1996, a group of organizations petitioned the New York
Attorney General demanding that Carbide's corporate charter be revoked.
(A corporate charter is a piece of paper issued by a state legislature
giving a corporation the privilege of doing business.) Under New York
law, a corporation's charter can be revoked if the corporation causes
great harm. By any reasonable standard, Carbide would appear to fall
within such a definition. A charter revocation could be a signpost
pointing toward a quite different future.
** This week 300 groups and individuals issued a new "Charter on
Industrial Hazards and Human Rights" --a document some are calling a
Magna Carta of corporate harms and human rights. The charter tries to
draw positive examples from the Bhopal experience, gathering all the
lessons into one human rights document that emphasizes the need to
address the impact of industrial hazards on women, indigenous peoples,
and minority groups.
** In Bhopal, a new medical clinic has opened its doors, dedicated to
serving the victims of Carbide's negligence and managerial malfeasance.
The Bhopal People's Health and Documentation Clinic is real, and is
serving the day-to-day needs of gas victims and their families. You can
help by sending a donation to their U.S. fiscal agent, the Pesticide
Action Network in San Francisco. Make your check out to "Pesticide
Action Network/Bhopal" and mail it to PAN, Suite 810, 116 New
Montgomery Street, San Francisco, CA 94105. To discuss a donation,
telephone PAN at (415) 541-9253.
Carbide's successful evasion of liability for the Bhopal massacre
stands as a dark statement of things to come in a "free trade" future.
In this new world order, multinational corporations do whatever feels
good for them, and after they've had their way with a community, they
wash their hands and move on.
On the other hand, the continuing struggle in Bhopal to put things
right is a testament to the power of the human spirit, which refuses to
--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)
 The basis for the estimate of 8,000 deaths and 300,000 injuries,
70,000 of them permanent, is meticulously documented by the prize-
winning journalist, Dan Kurzman, in his book, A KILLING WIND: INSIDE
UNION CARBIDE AND THE BHOPAL CATASTROPHE (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1987),
pgs. 130-133. The death count most often repeated by the NEW YORK TIMES
is 2000, but other unofficial estimates run as high as 20,000. The
Indian government now acknowledges 7072 deaths; see Wil Lepkowski, "Ten
years Later; Bhopal," CHEMICAL & ENGINEERING NEWS [C&EN], December 19,
1994, pg. 12.
 R. Bertell and G. Tognoni, "International Medical Commission,
Bhopal: A model for the future," THE NATIONAL MEDICAL JOURNAL OF INDIA
Vol. 9, No. 2 (1996), pgs. 86-91.
 P. Cullinan, S.D. Acquilla, and V.R. Dhara, "Long term Morbidity in
survivors of the 1984 Bhopal gas leak," THE NATIONAL MEDICAL JOURNAL OF
INDIA Vol. 9, No. 1 (1996), pgs. 5-10.
 Wil Lepkowski, "Ten Years Later; Bhopal," CHEMICAL & ENGINEERING
NEWS [C&EN], December 19, 1994, pgs. 8-18.
 Rosalie Bertell, "Twelve years After Bhopal--An Editorial
reflection," INTERNATIONAL PERSPECTIVES ON PUBLIC HEALTH Vols. 11 and
12 (1996), pgs. 2-4.
 Birger Heinzow, "Results of the International Medical Commission on
Bhopal (IMCB)," INTERNATIONAL PERSPECTIVES ON PUBLIC HEALTH Vols. 11
and 12 (1996), pgs. 4-8.
 M. Verweij, S.C. Mohapatra and R. Bhatia, "Health Infrastructure
for the Bhopal Gas Victims," INTERNATIONAL PERSPECTIVES ON PUBLIC
HEALTH Vols. 11 and 12 (1996), pgs. 8-13.
 Rajiv Bhatia and Gianni Tognoni, "Pharmaceutical Use in the Victims
of the Carbide Gas Exposure," INTERNATIONAL PERSPECTIVES ON PUBLIC
HEALTH Vols. 11 and 12 (1996), pgs. 14-22.
 J. Jaskowski and others, "Compensation for the Bhopal Disaster,"
INTERNATIONAL PERSPECTIVES ON PUBLIC HEALTH Vols. 11 and 12 (1996),
 Ingrid Eckerman, "The Health Situation of Women and Children in
Bhopal; Final Report for the International Medical Commission on Bhopal
1994," INTERNATIONAL PERSPECTIVES ON PUBLIC HEALTH Vols. 11 and 12
(1996), pgs. 29-36.
 Thomas J. Callender, "Long-term Neurotoxicity at Bhopal,"
INTERNATIONAL PERSPECTIVES ON PUBLIC HEALTH Vols. 11 and 12 (1996),
 Ward Morehouse, "The Ethics of Industrial Disasters in a
Transnational World: The Elusive Quest for Justice and Accountability
in Bhopal," ALTERNATIVES Vol. 18 (1993), pg. 487. See also David Denbo,
Ward Morehouse, and Lucinda Wykle, ABUSE OF POWER; SOCIAL PERFORMANCE
OF MULTINATIONAL CORPORATIONS: THE CASE OF UNION CARBIDE (New York: New
Horizons Press, 1990).
 Charles Bowden, "While You Were Sleeping," HARPER'S MAGAZINE
December 1996, pg. 44.
 Paper copies of the Charter are available from the Council on
International and Public Affairs, Suite 3C, 777 United Nations Plaza,
New York, NY 10017; single copies and small quantities are free.
Telephone: (212) 972-9877. For a free electronic copy via E-mail, send
the word CHARTER in the body of a message (not in the "subject" line)
Descriptor terms: union carbide; free trade; pesticides; bhopal; india;
methyl isocyanate; mic; industrial disasters; future; charter on
industrial hazards and human rights; human rights;