Saturday, 21 August 2010

Sauce for the goose - look out gander

In my railings against what seems to be a US crusade against BP, I had reserved one event. To be used like that last round of ammunition when one was surrounded by Native Americans or when wounded on the plains of Afghanistan. Instead of my name on this bullet, was the word Bhopal. A major industrial incident that killed over 2,000 immediately and a considerable many more when the deaths of those consequent on the accident are considered. The tragedy occurred within a plant operated by a subsidiary of Union Carbide - a American company. There were allegations that the escape of gas was inevitable due to the negligent way the plant was operated. In June 2010, seven ex-employees, including the former UCIL chairman, were convicted in Bhopal of causing death by negligence and sentenced to two years imprisonment and a fine of about $2,000 each, the maximum punishment allowed by law.

A government affidavit in 2006 stated the leak caused 558,125 injuries including 38,478 temporary partial and approximately 3900 severely and permanently disabling injuries. An event of this scale will have considerable debate and I suggest it has now been encapsulated by governmental action. The official UC line is a masterpiece of 'say nothing until you get a good lawyer' The law in India grind slower than the mills of God and UC negotiated a deal that got them out of the frame before things got around to minor details such as responsibility and who got what in the way of compensation.

However, it seems that some people just cannot let things rest. POTUS is scheduled to visit India and one of our more responsible papers got quite chippy about UC in Bhopal in relation to BP in the Mexican Gulf.
While Barack Obama is lambasting BP for spreading muck in the Gulf of Mexico, he should perhaps pencil in a date with the people of Bhopal when he visits India later this year. While 11 men lost their lives on BP's watch and the shrimps got coated with black stuff, the chemicals that killed thousands of people in Bhopal in 1984 are still leaching into the ground water a quarter of a century after a poisonous, milky-white cloud settled over the city.

The compensation – some $470m – paid out by Union Carbide, the US owner of the plant and now part of Dow Chemical, was just the cash it received from its insurers to compensate the victims, a process that took 17 years. But it's one rule for them and another for anybody else. (My emphasis here just to initiate thought of how much we might pay for 11 lives and a few molluscs)

Obama wants "British Petroleum" to pay back every nickel and dime the Deepwater Horizon disaster costs. To make sure BP gets the message, the president says he back Congress plans to retrospectively raise the liability limit for claims from $75m to $10bn. That's real money.

While foreign companies in the US are shown the big stick, Washington offers a big shield for its multinationals abroad. In the case of Bhopal, it was the US that blocked India's requests to extradite Warren Anderson, the former chairman of Union Carbide who accepted "moral responsibility" for the accident until a short spell in an Indian jail changed his mind.
Now, it seems that that article has got to the desk of the American Deputy National Security Adviser Michael Froman and he has caused an e-mail to be dispatched. "In his e-mail in July to Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman of the Indian Planning Commission, Mr. Froman wrote: "We are hearing a lot of noise about the Dow Chemical issue. I am not familiar with all the details, but I think we want to avoid developments which put a chilling effect on our investment relationship." Just in case Singh failed to get his drift, the correspondence came at a time when Mr. Ahluwalia was enlisting U.S. support for India to borrow funds from the World Bank. A U.S. official said the Obama administration is not trying to pressure India and is not linking future investment in Asia's third-largest economy to the nation's claim for damages for the Bhopal accident.

"The assertion that there was linkage between two separate and distinct issues is wrong, is incorrect," said Benjamin Chang, a spokesman for the National Security Council, as reported by the Press Trust of India news agency from Washington. Nice try Ben but, to me, you have re-opened a can of worms that UC's long and wide-ranging case tried to close. They write it up as Game Over whereas the position at NSC suggests it is still an issue. Separate and distinct maybe but still an issue.

We have Senators who have transmogrified the Gulf incident where they may well have status into the matter of the release of a sick Libyan where they have no better position other than public interest. We are not in the position where we can have even the most inconsequential effect upon what Obama does but our Prime Minister might well take on the attitude of Froman. Instead of cravenly denouncing BP and selling the pass in advance of any single legal consideration together with his saying that the release was wrong, he could get up off his knees and send an e-mail. In days of yore, we would have sent a gun boat to the party givers in Boston. Now we do things electronically - maybe Twitter could give added impact?

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