Sons of Anarchy

Bhopal: a lesson in Corporate Crime and Disaster Fatigue

It seems every year there is a new disaster either natural or man-made that we are supposed to emotionally and financially respond to. Recently we’ve had the oil spill off New Zealand, the earthquakes in Haiti, Turkey Chile and Japan, the nuclear disaster in Fukushima Prefecture in Japan, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the fear of avian flu.

Bhopal memorialAnd before the recent batch of disasters we had the Exxon Valdes oil spill, SARs and foot and mouth epidemics and the Indian Ocean tsunami. Just the most cursory search of the internet will reveal a dark litany of deaths caused by negligence, freak weather and tectonic movement. It seems to go by so fast it is easy to forget. The Chile mining disaster when we followed the fate of that brave band of trapped miners is already fading from memory. The scenes of devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 seem almost as a half forgotten dream. The world is even starting to lose interest in the epoch defining moment in 2001 when the World Trade Center was attacked.

Our children will read about these things in their history books and yawn. Their minds will wonder to sunny beaches in Koh Samui, to Christmas and to break time games of football. The only ones who remember are the victims and the family of the victims. The media bombards us with gruesome images and then celebrities and politicians make appeals for money. In short the media onslaught and the demand on our sympathies and resources are causing disaster fatigue. The result of this is that often the perpetrators get off lightly.

A good example of this is the Bhopal disaster in 1984. The Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India leaked methyl isocyanate gas and other chemicals. The immediate death toll was 3,000 and 8,000 people have since died from gas related diseases. (Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhopal_disaster).

Countless more inhabitants of the city of Bhopal have permanent respiratory problems, reproductive defects, immune and neurological disorders, lung injury and birth defects. It is hard for the Indian authorities to get exact figures of the numbers of people affected but it is estimated that the Bhopal pesticide plant disaster has affected between 100,000 to 200,000 people.

And what were the punishments handed out to the negligent factory owners that deliberately ignored safety regulations, poorly maintained the plant and used unskilled labor all to save money and improve the bottom line? In 2010 7 ex-employees of UCIL along with the former chairman received 2-year prison sentences and personal fines of $2,000. The lack of justice is a heinous crime in itself.

Karl Marx noted that the first time history repeats itself it is tragic, the second time it is farcical. He forgot to add that the fourth and fifth time it happens it becomes absurd and then forgettable. Only those who suffer feel the injustice permanently; only they refuse to believe the white washing; only they refuse to go on to the next disaster.

It is time that the punishments start to fit the crimes; that we do more to prepare and prevent rather than reel from one shocking story to the next. It is time that we stop letting the world be ruled by the greed for pieces of paper (money) and instead by common sense. It is such a simple idea that it is anarchic.