Flowers at the Altar of Profit and Power: the continuing disaster at Bhopal

Pearce, Frank and Tombs, Steve (2011). Flowers at the Altar of Profit and Power: the continuing disaster at Bhopal. CrimeTalk.



In June 2010, over 25 years after the massive gas leak which killed thousands at a chemical plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, an Indian court finally handed down sentences following successful criminal prosecutions related to the disaster. After the original charges of culpable homicide had been watered down, seven senior managers working at the Bhopal plant in 1984 were found guilty of death by neglect (an eighth so charged had died during the legal process), given two year prison sentences and fined the equivalent of approximately USD2,100. Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL), then a subsidiary of the American company Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) and since 1995 of Eveready Industries India Ltd (EIIL), was fined USD11,000. All those found guilty were Indian nationals but Warren Anderson, American CEO of UCC at the time of the gas leak, UCC itself and Union Carbide Eastern (UCE), another subsidiary of UCC with oversight over UCIL, could not be considered for trial in their absence: the court labelled these three named defendants ‘absconders’.

From some viewpoints, the convictions may represent justice, albeit of a limited kind. It is certainly exceptional for any senior manager to receive a custodial sentence following occupational deaths or environmental damage. In a whole series of ways, however, the verdict merely represents another in a long series of instances of justice denied. Hazra Bee, of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, responded to the sentences by stating “We feel outraged and betrayed. This is not justice. This is a travesty of justice … the paltry sentencing is a slap in the face of suffering Bhopal victims”. On the same website, Sathyu Sarangi, of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, commented that “by handling those guilty of the world's worst industrial disaster so leniently, our courts and Government are telling dangerous industries and corporate CEOs that they stand to lose nothing even if they put entire populations and the environment at risk”.

In this article, presented in five Parts over the next few months, we draw on a considerable literature (see our Bhopal bibliography) to consider the claims of Sarangi, Bee and others in the context of the long struggle for justice by the victims and residents of Bhopal – a struggle that continues, but within which the recent convictions represent a landmark.

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