Bhopal and the US Response to BP's Gulf Blowout

I was there in Bhopal on December 7,1984, when Warren Anderson, then the chairman of Union Carbide, was whisked away from the stricken city to Delhi and back to the US – and we all knew that it was happening with the help of Rajiv Gandhi, then India's prime minister.

Since then Anderson has been protected by the US business-political establishment from being extradited to India to answer for the appalling human and environmental damage wrought by his company's gas leak in Bhopal a few days earlier. That was one of the world's worst industrial disasters, leading to the death of over 5,000 people and continuing ill-health of over 500,000. (See my last visit and report six months ago).

Now that same American establishment that has protected Anderson has been pillorying Tony Hayward, BP's chief executive, following BP's oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. The tirade has been led by President Barack Obama, who has been behaving like a spoiled child for the past 50 or so days, casting around for someone to blame when it is his own officials who are primarily at fault.

These two man-made catastrophes have generated mega outbursts of irrational media coverage in India and the US in the past week, both fuelled by political cant.

In Delhi, politicians and media have been in a frenzy over the Bhopal gas leak following a court judgment last Monday that eight Indian former Union Carbide executives should serve two-year prison sentences and be fined about $2,000 (subject to appeals that could take years).

In neither case are the main political players really focusing on the primary issues – the appalling damage and threat to the environment in the Gulf, and health problems in Bhopal where thousands of people have suffered for over 25 years.

In both cases it is the US that is making sure its interest are protected. On Bhopal, Anderson was airlifted out of India when he could have been detained, and has been protected ever since by the American business-political establishment. On the Gulf spill, it is America that has decided that BP and Hayward, not its own officials and companies, should be the target for abuse and penalties.

"Whose ass to kick?"

Obama is frightened politically about the damage the spill will do to him and the Democrats. Consequently, he has been stoking anti-BP sentiment instead of steadying it, when the real culprits are officials in various US government organisations that for years have allowed oil companies to negotiate exceptions on environmental and safety procedures. The New York Times explained this on June 6. It started by talking about the managerial muddle on the BP rig, with unclear lines of authority and control, but it then went on to report how US officials had allowed the catastrophic situation to develop.:

"Deepwater rigs operate under an ad hoc system of exceptions. The deeper the water, the further the exceptions stretch, not just from federal guidelines but also often from company policy. So, for example, when BP officials first set their sights on extracting the oily riches under what is known as Mississippi Canyon Block 252 in the Gulf of Mexico, they asked for and received permission from federal regulators to exempt the drilling project from federal law that requires a rigorous type of environmental review, internal documents and federal records indicate."

So when Obama said last week that he wanted to know "whose ass to kick", the answer should have been American officials in the regulatory authorities. Sure, BP is massively responsible for what has happened, but for Obama to have personally attacked its chief executive, Tony Hayward, is mean and pathetic – and the president has ended up demeaning himself.

On Bhopal, the court sentences passed on the eight men are of course ridiculously small – and 25 years late. But the Indian media, egged on by politicians, has gone off chasing who it was that allowed Anderson to escape instead of focusing on Indian and Bhopal authorities that allowed a potentially unsafe chemical plant to be built so near the city, then allowed slum housing to mushroom nearby, and then failed to carry out regulatory checks.

Of the eight, the only well-known figure is Keshub Mahindra, chairman of Mahindra & Mahindra, one of the most respected and "clean" Indian groups. He was non-executive chairman of Union Carbide India at a time when such posts had no real corporate responsibility and were mainly involved in helping the company operate in the country. The other seven (including one who has died) were victims of an American management that had effectively walked away from the investment and wanted to dump it.

On the escape of Anderson, I was there in Bhopal at the time – December 7, 1984 - and later learned about what happened from both government and company sources.

Arjun Singh, then the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh (Bhopal is the state capital) heard that Anderson was flying into Bhopal from Bombay on a flight that stopped in Indore. So he ordered his police to the airport without (fearing leaks) telling them why, till the plane had taken off from Indore, when he told them Anderson should be arrested on arrival.

Anderson had planned his visit as some sort of mercy and goodwill mission. As the plane landed in Bhopal, he looked out of the cabin window and saw the police cars, so said to Mahindra, who was sitting beside him, how good it was of the state government to provide him with an escort.

He was immediately arrested and taken to the Union Carbide guest house on a hill overlooking the city. Along with a crowd of Indian and foreign journalists, I stood that afternoon at the guest house's front gates waiting for Anderson to emerge. Shame on us all, he was whisked out of the back gate without most of us seeing him, and was released on bail after being held for just six hours. He was put on a government plane to Delhi, and then flew to the US.

Although we did not know that afternoon whether Anderson was being flown to Delhi to be detained there, we had no doubt that Singh, a leading Congress politician, was acting on the orders of – or at least with the approval of Rajiv Gandhi, the Congress prime minister. The government is now saying that Singh sent Anderson out of Bhopal because he feared civil unrest if the executive was seen in the city. But that does not explain why, presumably at the behest of the US, Anderson was then allowed to leave the country.

But whether Singh or Gandhi were wrong to have done that is not now relevant. The real crime has been committed by the Indian and American authorities, and by Union Carbide and Dow which has now taken over the company, by not punishing the right people and cleaning up the health hazards in Bhopal.

Now there's a cause where President Obama could usefully "kick ass".

John Elliott, a former longtime Financial Times correspondent in India, blogs at Riding the Elephant, which appears across the page on Asia Sentinel.