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Gulf response fuels India's fury over Bhopal

Two man-made disasters, separated by different causes, decades of time and thousands of miles, nevertheless have become connected in a national mind-set.
Image: Bhopal gas victims shout slogans as they stage a protest in New Delhi
Victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy shout during a protest in New Delhi, India, on Friday.Raveendran / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The New York Times

The contrast between the disasters, more than a quarter-century and half a world apart, could not be starker.

In 1984, a leak of toxic gas at an American company’s Indian subsidiary killed thousands, injured tens of thousands more and left a major city with a toxic waste dump at its heart. The company walked away after paying a $470 million settlement. The company’s American chief executive, arrested while in India, skipped bail, never to return. This month eight former senior officials from the company, including one who has since died, were convicted of negligence, but the sentence — two years in jail — seems paltry to many here compared to the impact of their crime.

No matter how halting the Obama administration's response to the gushing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico might look to Americans, Indians cannot help but marvel — and envy — the alacrity with which the United States government has acted.

BP’s $20 billion cleanup fund, as vast a sum as it seems from here, is in all likelihood merely a down payment on what the company will probably pay for the damage caused by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. A criminal investigation has begun. And while the environmental toll is huge, the cost in human lives, compared with Bhopal, has been minimal.

Now, almost 26 years later, in the face of public outrage prompted by the light criminal sentences and the inescapable contrast with the BP disaster, the Indian government is trying shake off the shadow of Bhopal, an episode that has become synonymous with ineffectual governance and humiliation at the hands of Western capital.

Indeed, the disaster and its aftermath are a reminder that even as India aspires to superpower status, it still struggles to provide its 1.2 billion people with some of life’s most basic necessities.

“This is one case where every organ of the state failed,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Center for Policy Research. “An event like this is actually does remind you that India is a weak state.”

Analysts and historians say that the entire episode reeks of the humiliation of a poor and powerless country at the hands of a rich and resourceful Western corporation. India sought $3.3 billion in damages from the American company Union Carbide, but in 1989 settled for less than half a billion dollars. Charges of culpable homicide against the company’s senior officials were later reduced by India’s Supreme Court to a charge most often used against reckless drivers in car accidents.

Many Indian commentators have taken the BP comparison further, arguing that the Obama administration cares more about fish and birds in the Gulf of Mexico than it does about Indians maimed by an American company. But the onus, others argued, lies with the Indian government.

“If we in India aspire to sup with those at the high-table in the world, then the Indian government cannot be allowed to undervalue Indian lives so contemptuously,” wrote Sitaram Yechury, a member of the upper house of Parliament representing the Communist Party, in The Hindustan Times.

Fresh extradition effort
At a news conference late Thursday, government officials announced a raft of new measures, including increased compensation for victims and a fresh effort to extradite Warren M. Anderson, the octogenarian former chairman of Union Carbide, the company that owned the pesticide factory in Bhopal, from the United States.

The government approved compensation of about $22,000 for the families of people killed by the leak, and about $4,000 for those with a diagnosis of cancer or total renal failure linked to the toxic gas. It also pledged that it would clean up the abandoned factory. Activists have long sought to make the Dow Chemical Company, the company that bought the now-defunct Union Carbide, pay for the cleanup. The Indian government said Thursday that it would pay and seek reimbursement if a court found Dow liable.

Some of the measures, like increased compensation and a cleanup of the site, are simply a matter of money. But others will be much harder to accomplish. The government said it would ask the Supreme Court to revisit its 1996 decision to reduce the criminal charges against the men convicted this month. Because the charges were reduced to negligence, the men faced a maximum sentence of 2 years rather than 10 years under the previous charges.

Mr. Anderson traveled to India in the wake of the disaster in 1984. He was arrested and released on bail, then fled the country. He is still considered an absconder, but has retired comfortably on Long Island.

Indeed, his departure, along with what many see as the meager price the company paid in compensation to the victims, became symbols of India’s impotence, confirmation that it was a soft state unable to protect its citizens.

The new measures did little to quell anger among victims and activists.

“The victims will get hardly 10 percent of the money and rest will go to the pockets of ministers and bureaucrats,” said Satinath Sarangi of Bhopal Group for Information and Action, an advocacy group. “Indian people have to pay for the crimes committed by the U.S. corporations.”

Hari Kumar contributed reporting.

This article, "," originally appeared in The New York Times.