Where's Warren?

Feature story - 27 August, 2002
The start of the Earth Summit in South Africa, a comfortable residence somewhere in the US and a small Indian court house. One man connects all these things in a 18 year tale of disaster, death and corporate irresponsibility.

Protestors draw attention to the contrast between efforts to find Osama bin Laden and those to extradite Warren Anderson, former chief executive of Union Carbide. Anderson is evading justice in the United States and wanted for crimes in Bhopal.

You are head of a huge multinational chemical firm when your company decides to cut some safety corners at a pesticide plant in India. A few months later an explosion at the same plant results in the world's worst industrial disaster in Bhopal, India, causing the deaths of 20,000 people and making 120,000 people chronically ill.

What do you do? Immediately send a disaster relief team to the area and disclose all the details of the deadly gas leak so survivors can be treated properly? Offer to fully compensate survivors for the horrendous damage to their eyes, throats, lungs and loss of entire families? At least you should clean up the polluted factory and allow residents to rebuild their lives without a toxic legacy?

If your name is Warren Anderson, former head of Union Carbide (now Dow Chemicals) the answer is a big fat no to all of the above questions. You let your company abandon the polluted factory site allowing it to poison Bhopal residents for 18 years. You do not disclose the composition of the poisonous gas so doctors can properly treat the 120,000 people who are still sick. Your lawyers ensure survivors only get between US$ 300-500 compensation each, if they are 'lucky', for their ruined lives, despite the fact you run a huge US corporation with assets in the billions.

If you were Warrern Anderson, when you are charged with homicide by an Indian court, rather than offer abject apologies or sincere regret, you disappear into hiding, most likely in the US.

Rasheeda Bee, a Bhopal survivor describes what happened to her. 'We heard a lot of noise outside, and then somebody opened the door. Then we got the gust of the poison wind. I told my people in my family that we must run, because everyone is running away. By which time we found out something has happened in the Union Carbide factory.

'Our eyes were inflamed, so we couldn't open them, so we were running blindly. My father and everybody else was frothing at the mouth. My sister also. We did not know what to do so we ran as far as we could. And then we just sat there.

'Later, my father died of cancer.'

In a climate where US corporate bosses are being paraded in handcuffs for cooking the books and costing investors big money, how hard have the US authorities tried to track down a man wanted to answer for the death of 20,000 people in India? It seems that as long as the corporate crime happens outside the US then it does not really matter.

On August 26-27th the Government of India will attempt to lower the charge against Anderson to negligence, which means he will not have to stand trial in India. The crime has not changed, but maybe the US government and Union Carbide's new owners Dow Chemicals are working behind the scenes to pressure the Indian government?

Ironically Monday August 26 is also the start of the Earth Summit in South Africa where corporations, with the backing of administrations like the US, will argue that they can be trusted to look after the world and any government rules on the environment should be avoided at all costs. If Bhopal and its deadly legacy are any guide it seems the one thing we really need, to save the planet from more Bhopals, are proper government enforced international laws rather than voluntary corporate promises.

If recent events are anything to go by we can not even trust corporations to look after their money, something very dear to their hearts, never mind looking out for the global environment as well.