Obama, India and Avoiding Another Bhopal

Bhopal Memorial. Photo Luca Frediani uploaded by Simone.lippi [CC BY-SA 2.0] from Wikimedia Commons

Bhopal Memorial. Photo Luca Frediani uploaded by Simone.lippi [CC BY-SA 2.0] from Wikimedia Commons

President Obama and India’s Prime Minister Modi announced a deal has been reached over a years-long delay in the civilian nuclear industry within India during a three day visit from the United States leader.

The U.S. signed a deal with India in 2008 to provide civilian nuclear technology. But implementation has been stalled over an Indian law that makes companies that build and supply the equipment liable in case of an accident.

Both sides agreed Sunday to set up a multi-million-dollar insurance pool that does not force India to change its laws.

All the details of this new detail have yet to be revealed. However, we note a few facts that will be important as this story develops over time.

India’s laws regarding corporate liability for disastrous events is understandable. In the early hours of December 3,1984, methylisocyanate (MIC) gas leaked from a plant owned, managed and operated by Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) in the central India city of Bhopal. According to government figures, approximately 5,200 people died and several thousand other individuals suffered permanent or partial disabilities. In total, over 500,000 people were reported as being injured. According to Greenpeace, over 18,000 people have died since 1984 as a direct result of the Bhopal accident.

In the decades following, claims and clean-up from the disaster remain shrouded in controversy. In 1987, a Bhopal district court charged Union Carbide officials with culpable homicide, grievous assault and other serious offenses. Among those charged was Warren Anderson, the CEO of Union Carbide at the time. Anderson fled to the US, and a warrant was issued for his arrest in 1992. A formal extradition request was filed in 2003; the US refused, claiming that there was “insufficient evidence.” Anderson died in a Florida nursing home last year.

Union Carbide negotiated a settlement with the Indian Government in 1989 for $470 million, which is a total of only $370 to $533 per victim. This is a sum that’s too small to pay for most medical bills. In 2001, Dow Chemical merged with Union Carbide, and since that time had denied any liability, and has refused to pay for cleaning up the area.

With this history, it should come as no surprise that India placed the fair treatment of their population by foreign corporations as a high value in this current deal allowing foreign corporations to invest, build and operate nuclear facilities within their borders.

Another factor to keep in mind is that India is a neighbor with Pakistan. In case you have missed this in the US media, Pakistan is on target for an estimated 200 nuclear weapons by 2020, and India itself has nuclear weapons.

We also wish to ask if the subject of income inequality came up in the discussions Obama and Modi held. How about India’s recent track record regarding women’s rights, rape and violence against women?  Aren’t these subjects of international importance and things two “friends” should be able to discuss constructively? What will this new deal do for the lowest caste of the Indian population?

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