Global Policy Forum

Bhopal and the Age of Globalization


By Gary Cohen

November 1999

Fifteen years ago, on December 3, 1984, Union Carbide Corporation's pesticide factory accidentally leaked poisonous gases into the city of Bhopal, India. In one night of chemical terror over three thousand residents were killed and hundreds of thousands of others were injured, many of them permanently. Bhopal has been called the "Hiroshima of the Chemical Industry", the worst commercial industrial disaster in history.

In the last fifteen years since the chemical accident, there have been few positive changes in Bhopal. Union Carbide's pesticide factory remains abandoned and contaminated, leaking toxic chemicals into the nearby slum. Despite an extradition order pending since March, 1992, the Indian government, which issued the extradition order, has made no moves to bring former Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson to trial. Instead, the government is courting chemical companies to expand their manufacturing capacity in India, as well as allowing them to introduce genetically engineered crops to replace traditional farming practices.

For Union Carbide and the Indian government, the Bhopal incident was a public relations fiasco that is finally fading from the public's memory. With the recent merger of Union Carbide and Dow Chemical, even the name of Union Carbide will soon disappear.

For the survivors of the Bhopal disaster, the toxic nightmare has continued unabated: At least sixteen thousand people have died so far from injuries related to their toxic chemical exposure fifteen years ago. 550,000 people have injury claims before the compensation courts set up in Bhopal. Of the claims processed so far, 90% of the claimants have received only $400 for their personal injuries, which is barely enough to cover medications for five years. Unfortunately, the courts do not understand the long term health impacts related to peoples' toxic exposure. People are suffering from significant immune system collapse, which is contributing to many other illnesses not covered by the courts.

The bright sign in this otherwise bleak landscape is that people have continued to struggle for their lives and for justice. There have been more than one hundred protests in Delhi and Bhopal. An international medical commission visited Bhopal in 1994 to help facilitate streamlined compensation and health assistance to those affected. The survivors themselves set up a model health clinic in 1997 to attend to the wounded, and have shared their stories with citizen groups around the world. People in Bhopal have not given up.

The significance of the Union Carbide disaster extends well Bhopal. It takes its place beside so much other needless destruction that has occured during the last hundred years. During the first half of the century, mass destruction was carried out in the name of nationalist ideologies that made certain people enemies of the state, and therefore expendable. In the latter days of the twentieth century, the global corporation has emerged as a major agent of destruction, with an ideology that condones the sacrifice of people and the environment at the altar of free trade and next quarter's profit margin.

Through a narrow economic logic that has become a religious catechism, social, environmental and public health goals are considered "external" to the corporation's drive to realize a profit. Additionally, human rights and spiritual values, the fundamental threads that connect us to what is sacred in nature and to each other, have become not only irrelevent, but are considered "quaint", blocking the inevitable march of globalization. Those who resist this industrial and technological juggarnaut - workers, communities, indigenous peoples, traditional farmers - have become expendable.

Renowned philosopher Hannah Arendt, in attempting to understand the Nazi era, has written that evil was not only commited by fundamentalist zealots, but by people who were simply doing their jobs. In this way, thousands of petty officials could fulfill their small, seemingly innocuous jobs, connected together in a vast machinery of brutality and injustice that sent millions of people to their deaths.

The Nazis' efficient technological and corporate structure was an effective mechanism both in removing individual responsibility and in dehumanizing the people who were the victims of this system. Jews in transport trains to the death camps were called "pieces". On their one-way journey to Auschwitz, train officials processed 15,000 pieces from Hungary, 10,000 pieces from Greece, a million pieces from Poland, etc. Arendt called this phenomena the "banality of evil."

While there is a critical difference between the Nazis' philosophy of genocide and the economic calculus of global chemical corporations, a similar dehumanization and banality also finds expression. In its 1989 annual report, Union Carbide told its shareholders that the Bhopal gas leak had cost them 43 cents per share. The horrible suffering of over half million people was thereby reduced to 43 cents per share. On the day that Union Carbide settled with the Indian government on behalf of the Bhopal victims, its stock rose two dollars. Yet people in Bhopal remained sick and dying, their cases lost in a hopeless bureaucracy that will likely outlive them.

Other examples of this corporate philosophy abound. The DuPont Corporation continued producing chlorofluorocarbons throughout the 1980s even though research in the mid-1970s showed these chemicals destroyed the ozone layer and would lead to millions of skin cancers. Today, malignant melanoma is one of the fastest growing cancers worldwide. As long as DuPont could evade liability for these health consequences, it made sense to continue producing these chemicals. The Johns Manville Corporation continued producing asbestos even when research showed that asbestos was killing its workers. Dow Chemical has continued to market a pesticide called Dursban, even though it is recognized to be a neuro-toxin that especially effects small children. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC), Dursban is present in the blood of every U.S. citizen.

Recently, this corporate logic has become enshrined in the economic underpinning of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariff (GATT) and a new international agency called the World Trade Organization (WTO). Under this new regime, global corporations are free to export dangerous products and technologies to 110 nations, as they shop around for the cheapest labor costs and weakest environmental and public health protections. When individual nations try to impose strict environmental laws to defend their citizens, the exporting nation can appeal to the WTO to strike down those environmental laws as an unfair restriction of trade.

The globalization of the toxics economy and the establishment of the WTO as the global arbiter on trade and environment issues has made the violence against the Earth and her inhabitants an inevitable conclusion. What is most frightening about Bhopal is that it is not unusual in the Age of Globalization. It is the way that people are routinely treated by global corporations and the international agencies in their service. Cancer-causing pesticides banned in the U.S. and Europe are freely sold to farmers in Asian, African and Latin American countries. Native American tribes are offered bribes by the U.S. government to accept nuclear waste on their sacred lands. Asbestos, long banned in the U.S. because of its devastating impacts on workers, is sold by Canadian companies to "developing" countries. Medical waste incinerators, discredited in the United States, are being financed by World Bank grants to more than 20 countries trying to grapple with their burgeoning waste streams. This kind of corporate violence is repeated in every corner of the Earth.

We have all become "pieces" on the global corporate chessboard. Companies routinely calculate the profits lost from discontinuing a dangerous product measured against a possible accident or litigation costs if these measures are not taken. Union Carbide made such a calculation when it decided to cut back on safety personnel and their training period at its Bhopal factory before the accident occurred. Dow Corning made a similar calculation when it continued to sell silicone breast implants after studies showed they were causing adverse health impacts in women.

The chemical trespass into our lives is so profound that it is not possible for a women to give birth to a child, anywhere on the Earth, without toxic chemicals in his/her body. It is not possible to breast feed a child, anywhere on the Earth, without passing dioxin and other dangerous toxins onto the child. Are we going to accomodate ourselves to the wholesale poisoning of the next generation of children so that the chemical industry can continue to reap huge profits?

Now the same companies that spread their dangerous products and waste throughout the world have embarked on the next major biochemical experiment - genetic engineering. Under the guise of feeding the world's poor, Monsanto, DuPont, Novartis and Zeneca have taken out patents on hundreds of plants to gain control over the world's food supply. These companies are rapidly selling off their chemical divisions to avoid liability and raise cash while putting all their corporate eggs in the biotech basket. In the process, they are mixing genes from different species in wholly new ways and releasing them into our food and the environment with little understanding of the consequences.

Bhopal is not only a symbol of the technological failures and corporate abuses of the twentieth century, but a powerful warning sign for the next century. Are we willing to continue to enjoy the commodities of the global market at the expense of species extinction, poisoned children and ecological destruction of epic proportions? Are we willing to to sacrifice all that is sacred, including our own genetic heritage and the genetic diversity of the planet, so that a few powerful corporations can become wealthier than most of the world's nations? Bhopal calls us to mourn for the dead, but it also challenges us to fight for the living, both in Bhopal and around the globe. Bhopal calls us to resist the further destruction of the earth and to join with our neighbors to defend our children and our communities. Without that level of spiritual and political resistence, Bhopal will remain a symbol of our collective ecological nightmare.

Gary Cohen is a campaigner with Health Care Without Harm.

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.