Union Carbide officials convicted 25 years later by Indian court
This morning a criminal court in Bhopal, India finally convicted seven former officials of the now defunct Union Carbide India Ltd. (UCIL)–it was eventually sold to Dow Chemical–for their role in the December 3, 1984 chemical gas leak at Union Carbide‘s pesticide plant which killed as many as 15,000 people and left countless more–as many as 550,000 according to the New York Times–suffering the long-term residual effects of environmental contamination and critical health problems including birth defects.
After rendering his verdict in the quarter-century-old criminal case, the Indian magistrate cautioned the seven that they faced sentences of up to two years in prison, then promptly granted them bail and released them on bonds to return to court for sentencing on a later date.
But Warren Anderson, the CEO who was in charge of Union Carbide‘s multinational corporate holdings when the Bhopal disaster struck was not among the seven.
On the lam in the Hamptons
Wanted on an arrest warrant that has never been executed, Anderson continues to reside on a quiet street in a Long Island hamlet oblivious and impervious to the toothless Indian justice system and the calls from Bhopal’s victims to hold him accountable.
Like a geriatric Osama Bin Laden, still on the run and wanted by authorities for the murder of thousands, Anderson has been within scooping distance but never taken into custody.
In fact, he’s been living quite comfortably with his wife in upscale Bridgehampton, New York for the past three decades, unscathed and untouched by the still extant criminal case in which he was formally charged by the Indian justice authorities within days of the tragedy. Anderson’s notable neighbours include Madonna, Kelly Ripa, and retired Boston Red Sox legend Carl Yastrzemski.
The reason that Warren Anderson was not among the seven defendants convicted today in Bhopal court was that he had already been released on bail on December 7, 1984 and skipped the country.
Four days after the explosion that released a lethal chemical gas cloud on the plant, killing anywhere from 3,000 to 15,000 people in its vicinity, Anderson had traveled to the Indian industrial site and was placed under arrest and taken into custody.
Along with two local company officials, Anderson was charged with criminal conspiracy, culpable homicide not amounting to murder, causing death by negligence, mischief, mischief in the killing of livestock, making the atmosphere noxious to health and negligent conduct in respect of poisonous substances.
But almost immediately after his physical arrest and detention, Union Carbide was remarkably able to obtain Anderson’s release on bail with the consent of Indian justice officials “so that he could leave India at the earliest opportunity because his presence could provoke strong passions.”
Anderson allowed to skip country by Indian government
At the time, that bizarre and highly dubious decision was apparently condoned by local authorities in Bhopal such as Sudip Bannerji, an information director for the Madhya Pradesh state authorities who told the international media that Anderson was “asked to leave the country at the earliest (opportunity)…because his presence might provoke strong passions against him and because we do not consider his presence in this country desirable.”
On that almost laughable pretext–imagine, say, Adolf Eichmann being left alone in Buenos Aires or Charles Manson in Death Valley out of consideration for their victims’ communities–Anderson was quickly sprung on a measly $2,000 cash bail–which his driver or “batman” probably had tucked in the glove compartment–and scrammed stateside.
According to Bannerji at the time:
”By arresting him for his constructive liability, the letter and spirit of the law has been served. We have released him because he is not required for investigations into the case and because there was never any intention of persecuting him.”
The feared “persecution” about which India’s local justice types were apparently concerned may have been spontaneous demonstrations of outrage and anger toward Anderson and the two top Indian executives of Union Carbide such as a group of 100 protesters amassed outside the factory’s guest house carrying placards that read: ”Hang Anderson.”
Despite that, and the exponentially balloning death and casualty toll in the hours and days after the deadly gas cloud leak, Bannerji insisted that there had been “no pressure on state authorities from Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s Government to release Mr. Anderson.”
Anderson himself was understandably relieved at the unusual accommodation by his host prosecutors. After being released from the jail, the government flew him and his entourage to New Delhi where climbed into a private jet and headed back to corporate HQ in Danbury, Connecticut.
In his first “media statement” to the press, Anderson was easygoing.
“Of course we are worried about the long-term effects,” he told reporters, who described him at the time as “looking calm and relaxed, adding he would not comment about the long-term impact of the chemical disaster on Bhopal residents: ”I will let you know at a press conference.”
Survivors still dispute final death toll
According to this morning’s Times of India, the passing of ‘light’ sentences–they were convicted of “death by negligence”– after such a protracted delay provided “little closure for victims” and “legal experts have alleged that there was an attempt to cover up the case”:
It took…three long years to file a chargesheet that many believed was weak. Then in 1996 the charges were watered down making all sections carry the maximum punishment of 2 years.The charges were also all bailable and with the prime accused in the case – former Union Carbide (USA) chairman Warren Anderson still on the run and unlikely to present himself in Indian court, there is little hope that justice will be served.
It was also cold comfort to families of the victims (and estimates of the loss of life range from an initial body count of 4,000 up to as high as 15,000 fatalities since 1984) and those suffering the still lingering environmental and physical ailments caused by the gas leak that the long defunct corporate subsidiary Union Carbide India Ltd. was convicted of the same charge.
And according to today’s online edition of The Guardian, “local activists insist the actual toll is almost twice as high, and say the company and government have failed to clean up toxic chemicals at the plant, which closed after the incident.”
In its report today on the court verdict, Reuters quoted one of the survivors of the leak, Ram Prasad, a 75-year-old villager, who said: “This punishment is not enough. I lost my son, younger brother and my father and I still have nightmares.”
Union Carbide distances itself from Bhopal disaster
The parent corporation sold Union Carbide India Limited operations (after an interim name change under different ownership as Eveready Industries) to U.S.-based conglomerate Dow Chemical in 2001.
Today Dow Chemical corporate brass are predictably insistent that the case was “resolved”–that is, once and for all–back in 1989 when Union Carbide negotiated a U.S. $470 million settlement (uh, about as much as BP’s advertising budget for last month) with the Indian government.
For its part, Union Carbide would rather talk about something else. In a highly circumspect ‘disclaimer’ posted earlier today on its corporate website–well, actually, it’s linked to the Union Carbide site but has an anonymous sounding “url”–the corporation formally states:
By requirement of the Government of India, the Bhopal plant was detail designed, owned, operated and managed on a day-to-day basis by Union Carbide India Limited…and its employees. All the appropriate people from UCIL — officers and those who actually ran the plant on a daily basis — have appeared to face charges…Union Carbide and its officials were not part of this case since the charges were divided long ago into a separate case. Furthermore, Union Carbide and its officials are not subject to the jurisdiction of the Indian court since they did not have any involvement in the operation of the plant, which was owned and operated by UCIL. ***Please note: In 1994, Union Carbide sold its entire stake in UCIL to MacLeod Russell (India) Limited, which renamed the company, Eveready Industries India, Limited (Eveready Industries). In 1998, the state government of Madhya Pradesh took over the Bhopal site from Eveready Industries.
Last August, however, Union Carbide was also stubbornly proclaiming it had ‘clean hands’ in the aftermath of Bhopal, but in much less equivocal terms than today’s reverential and understated media blurb.
On August 2nd, 2009, just days after the Bhopal criminal court had issued an arrest warrant for the arrest of bail-skipping Anderson, Union Carbide publicly defended their former executive “saying that managers at the company’s plant in Bhopal could not have anticipated a gas leak that killed 10,000 people 25 years ago” and that “overwhelming evidence has established that the Bhopal gas release was caused by an act of employee sabotage that could not have been foreseen or prevented by the plant’s management.”
“…Forget all your troubles ♪♫ forget all your cares… ♪♫ “
With the ink barely dry on the Bhopal arrest warrant, a Union Carbide spokesman Tomm Sprick said in a statement to the American media that “the release” (meaning the gas leak at the company’s Bhopal plant, not his press release) “had terrible consequences, but it makes no sense to continue to attempt to criminalize a tragedy that no one could have foreseen.”
More contentious though was Sprick’s insistence, given that the reporters were only talking to him because of the Warren Anderson arrest warrant, that his company “never attempted to escape responsibility for the disaster” and “immediately accepted moral responsibility for the tragedy and also provided substantial monetary and medical aid to the victims.”
With the retired former CEO Anderson still “on the lam” and cooling his heels in the Hamptons while living nicely off of a Union Carbide pension, his former employers’ sense of “moral responsibility” may be on a sliding scale.
Back in 1985, Anderson was decidedly more of a presence in the parent corporation’s initial “negotiations” for a settlement with Indian authorities. In fact, some may recall him as pushy and overbearing, telling the Indian government at one point that they were being obstructionist and uncooperative in setting a dollar amount on the costs of human suffering, etc.
Telling the U.S. media he was “puzzled” by India’s “lack of response to Union Carbide‘s pledge of an immediate $5-million in aid in addition to the nearly $2-million already offered” in the months immediately following the disaster, the company’s prez was downright impatient to sew things up. And preferably before another planeload of high-powered and publicity-friendly American litigation lawyers like Melvin Belli and F.Lee Bailey arrived to muddy the waters.
”In fact, the response all along to our offers – whether of food, medicine, medical equipment or child care facilities,” Anderson whinged, “has been that the Government can take care of things and that no help is needed. They cannot refuse or ignore our offers to help and then complain that we haven’t been helpful.”
“Justice delayed is….yadda yadda yadda….call the next case”
The belated verdict in the Bhopal disaster arrives just at the wrong time for Indian politicians who are debating passage of legislation aimed at restricting the liability of foreign corporations who want to get in on the ground floor of India’s profitable private nuclear industry.
But Veerappa Moily the country’s minister of law and justice today betrayed some degree of sheepishness when he commented on the inordinate delay in the Bhopal criminal prosecutions: “Delay in justice is practically denial of justice. It is most unfortunate that it has taken that much of time to give the verdict. We have to address that issue.”
In spite of those sentiments, environmentalists and government critics (is there any distinction these days?) point out that toxic waste at the Bhopal site has still not been safely disposed of and that the groundwater in the vicinity of the plant remains highly contaminated, a claim that Veerappa Moily’s fellow cabinet ministers deny.