Wednesday, 3 December 2014

A dire anniversary, which calls for action

Thirty years ago today, on 3 December 1984, the people of Bhopal in Central India woke up to the realisation that their city had been the victim of perhaps the worst industrial accident the world has seen.

Overnight, the toxic gas Methyl Isocyanate leaked from the local fertiliser plant run by Union Carbide. Estimates of deaths vary, though it seems likely that 8000 died within a fortnight and 8000 later on as a result of the poisoning. The Indian government counted nearly 600,000 injuries, some 42,000 of them serious including nearly 4000 permanently disabling.

Bhopal victims lie where they fell, on 3 December 1984
To this day, there are children in Bhopal struggling with serious disability that most experts attribute to the accident, though the allegations is impossible to prove.

Eventually, Union Carbide paid $470 million in compensation, which works out at around $900 million in today’s terms. Taking only the deaths into account, that works out at about $56,000 per life, about $3000 more than US median salary currently. It seems that the worth of an Indian life takes a relatively low-paid US worker just over a year to earn, and that’s if we think the injuries to survivors count for nothing.

Union Carbide now belongs to Dow Chemical. For the year up to the third quarter of 2014 its earnings (profit) were about $2.3 billion, approximately twice the compensation paid for Bhopal. It paid its Chief Executive, Andrew N. Liveris, a little over $20 million last year, or a tad under the equivalent of 360 Bhopal lives.

In 2013, Dow Chemical paid over a million dollars in political contributions, getting on for 20 Bhopal lives’ worth. They contributed to both main parties in the US though, if we exclude the sums going to ostensibly non-party Political Action Committees and the like, Republicans received nearly four times as much as Democrats.

Like most large corporations, Dow is buying itself politicians, and is principally favouring its natural allies in the Republican Party.

By coincidence, today, as well as being the anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, also saw newspaper stories about the physicist Stephen Hawking. He was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease at 21 and given two years to live; this year, he celebrated his 72nd birthday.

He owes his survival to his doctors. But he owes his ability to communicate, given that he now can only do so through moving a cheek muscle, to Intel with whom he has collaborated for many years. The work the company has done with him will benefit many highly disabled people.

Comparing the Intel and Dow stories teaches a key lesson: corporations are neither good nor bad, any more than guns are. What matters, in both areas, is what use we make of them. Helping Steven Hawking and others afflicted by a terrible debilitating disease? Good. Poisoning Bhopal? Bad.

It’s the same with guns. Sometimes we just have to use them, whether it’s to defeat the Nazis or ISIS. At other times, we’d like them securely locked away somewhere. Over here in Europe, we have taken strict steps to make sure they are, steps the US would do well to imitate.

Sadly, however, though we haven’t allowed the US to influence us out of gun regulation – we have, you might say, stuck to our guns – we seem to be having trouble breaking with US thinking on regulating our corporations.

Putting that right, so that we move towards a society in which a bunch of reckless bankers can’t put our entire finance system at risk, or a bunch of inept managers poison an entire city in India, feels to me to be as urgent for the world as gun control is in the US. And a lot more important than cutting immigration.

Besides, what better tribute could there be to the suffering citizens of Bhopal?

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