Monday, June 7, 2010


As the Gulf of Mexico turns into a cesspool and the rainbow sheen on an once blue ocean enrages everyone with a conscience, what next- is the question on everyone's mind. The live video of oil gushing out and the discrepancies in the estimated volume polluting the pristine waters on a daily basis only make things more excruciating. As the disturbing images of birds imprisoned in brown goo remind us of the curse of oil, another monumental industrial catastrophe from the past is in the news once again.

Twenty five years ago on a dreadful December night in 1984, a deadly gas leaked into the air from an American owned chemical plant, in the city of Bhopal in northern India. The horror of what transpired that night can never be put into words. The nightmares are still fresh in the scorched eyes of its victims, and the memories never seem to fade and the pain is relentless. More than 20,000 people have perished since that night. Some died instantly, some over the years and some continue to die and others are yet to be born. The ghost that killed that night was Methyl Isocyanide (MIC) and some of the people who created it and stored it in a congested urban center were sentenced to two years in prison by a court in Bhopal this month. It took the system twenty three years to pin the blame on eight Indian men. As expected the CEO of Union Carbide, Warren Hastings, now an old man, was not among the eight. Union Carbide does not exist anymore. It was bought by Dow Chemicals thus absolving the American officials of some of the crime. There are cases pending against the American officials in US courts for the past twenty five years that have amounted to nothing. Extradition requests for Warren Anderson are still being pursued. The Bhopal court fined the convicted members of the Indian unit of Union Carbide Rs 500,000 ($11,000) each. All the convicted applied for bail immediately after sentencing and their request was duly granted.

As oil gushes into the gulf, and marine and avian life is decimated, it is impossible to ignore the parallels between the two tragedies. In both cases multinational corporations are to blame. And failure of oversight is the primary recipe for disaster. Bhopal still haunts us two decades later and so will this disaster. We cannot even begin to comprehend the fall out of this new human engineered calamity. Another catastrophe stemming from greed and callousness, where profit trumps safety and the sanctity of life. In the Gulf the human toll is less direct. All that is lost so far is livelihood and the food that it produces for human consumption. The catastrophe in Bhopal questioned the way we live. The rape of the Gulf of Mexico will question the motives for our unending addiction to oil for generations to come.

As the pundits begin to estimate what the clean up will cost and whether BP will survive this calamity financially and as Wall Street predicts BP's buy out, the parallels between Bhopal and the Gulf become even more eerily similar. When Union Carbide realized what had happened in Bhopal, they figured they could throw money at the problem and cut their losses. And so they did. In 1989 they agreed on a settlement and paid out $490 million. The Indian government had asked for $3.3 billion. Unfortunately the settlement for the victims amounted to very little as the pool was too large. Each ended up getting as little as $1000 as compensation. In the present situation BP is doling out huge sums of money to help the fishermen and the coastal communities directly affected by the spill. The President has vowed to go after the company, and has launched a criminal investigation. Whether anyone will go to jail for this, is yet to be seen. The clean up costs are estimated to be close to $23 billion and BP has vowed to take on the expense. An escrow account of $20 billion dollars has been set up to handle all claims as long as they last.

Whether BP will survive this financial burden is to be seen. What is glaring is the disparity in the way this disaster is being handled. Since this tragedy is unfolding in the continental United States the pressure to take responsibility is immense. In Bhopal, twenty five years later, the dodging game still continues and the victims are still fighting for justice. If a disaster like Bhopal were to take place in the west, the outcomes would have been monumentally different. Life is cheap if you are poor. Partly to blame is the Indian government, that pushed for a lighter sentence as they were fearful of the negative impact it would have on foreign investment. A similar sentiment is being expressed by some congressmen and senators in the United States establishment.

What is astonishing is that the disaster unfolding in the Gulf is not the first of its kind. On 3rd June 1979 there was a similar explosion on the Ixtoc rig off the coast of Mexico. This explosion spilled three million barrels of oil into the ocean and its effects are still glaringly present in the ecosystem of the region. Some scientists beg to differ but fishermen have to travel far into the ocean to find their catch. They never had to do that before oil hit their shores. This rig was drilling only at a depth of 11,000 feet below sea level when disaster struck. The Deep Water Horizon was meddling a mile below the ocean surface and two miles below the sea bed. According to a recent New York Times article The Niger Delta in Africa has endured the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez spill every year for 50 years by some estimates. The oil pours out nearly every week, and the swamps are long since lifeless. Children play in oil soaked puddles and the ground water has turned to poison. The largest American company in the world Exxon-Mobil is the culprit here and does not payout compensations anywhere close to what BP is being asked to in the Gulf. So much for the double standards in the era of globalization.

Some 25 years after the gas leak in Bhopal, 390 tonnes of toxic chemicals abandoned at the plant continue to leak and pollute the groundwater in the region. Though there is some dispute as to whether the chemicals still stored at the site pose any continuing health hazard there is clear evidence that the violators got away without even cleaning up the mess. I don't think BP is going anywhere, and I don't think a thorough clean up is even possible.

What stands out from all of the above observations and all that is being unearthed about BP and its recklessness, is that big corporations care about one thing alone, PROFIT. When governments, whose job is to safeguard the public fail, we have a recipe for calamity. When there is collusion between corporations and governments, then all that are left are wastelands, making the citizenry impotent and emaciated. Whether this systemic problem can be fixed is questionable. Even as President Obama tries to salvage the situation the best he humanly can, he is being accused by the right of "shaking down" the corporations, which visa-vie is not good for America and Capitalism. It never seems to amaze me, that no matter the cost we pay for our kamikaze ways, politics always divides us in the face of adversity and trumps the severity of the situation at hand.

As the doomsday scenario unfolds in the Gulf, one cannot help question the validity of human addiction to oil. From wars to eco-disasters oil is the plague that spurs ruin, yet it touches us daily in the most innocuous ways. There are more than two hundred products in an average household that are directly derived from petroleum. So where and when do we begin to see that we are in quicksand and the rope that can pull us out is shredded. Humans tend to act when there is catastrophe, or they tend not to, no matter what. Already the oil industry is contesting the six month moratorium on deep water drilling with some success. Change is discomforting and as a result deadly slow. If we can think that we can conquer this latest catastrophe and go back to the ways of the past, think again. This time the genie is not going back into the bottle. It is what it is.