Cloud of Shame over Bhopal

Today is the twentieth anniversary of a cataclysmic event which killed over 3,800 people and injured some 600,000, of which 2,750 have permanent disabilities. However, whereas there can be few people with access to radio or television unaware of "9/11" and the terrorist attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, there is no annual memorial on "3/12" to the victims of the chemical plant disaster in Bhopal, India, even though the number of casualties was similar and the ongoing plight of victims and their families is considerably worse.

Why do we have this double standard? Do we, deep down, feel that Indian lives are somehow worth less than American or European lives? We would not - or, perhaps more accurately, could not - say so, but our actions belie our supposed beliefs. Or is it because we feel that those killed by terrorists deserve more of a memorial than those killed by the woeful negligence of a commercial company? If so, it would be somewhat perverse, not least given that the effects of the "unacceptable face of capitalism" are more lethal but more capable of resolution. Indeed, whilst Britain and the USA flounder around talking tough on terrorism, more and more manufacturing processes are being exported to Asia, and in due course to Africa and parts of Latin America, where the pressures to cut corners to keep prices down will inexorably lead to more industrial catastrophes.

At Bhopal, in the centre of India, Union Carbide, a USA based multinational company, produced pesticides. One chemical component used in the process, methyl isocyanate (MIC), reacted violently with water. For a full hour the plant's personnel and its safety equipment failed to detect a massive leak of water into the MIC tank and a highly toxic cloud of MIC was released into the atmosphere. Local health officials had had no education on the toxicity of the chemicals used at Union Carbide and consequently there were no emergency procedures in place. The narrative of the valiant but vain efforts taken by employees at the site to avert disaster is very moving but the long series of disabled and failed protective systems made their task impossible.

The Indian government undertook civil legal action against Union Carbide and settled, almost five years later, for $470 million. The average compensation for a death caused by the disaster was $1,300 and most of the injured received just $550 - which does not even cover treatment of the chronic illnesses caused by the leak. The derelict site still leaks poisonous substances into the water and soil around the plant. The poor people of Bhopal and the tragedy that befell them on 4/12 deserve to be remembered.

Lest we feel that the 9/11 syndrome is peculiarly American, consider the following example of double standards. A group of islands in a faraway ocean, owned by Britain, with a native population of just over 2,000, is now occupied by a foreign power which persuaded the British government to remove all the islanders so that it could install a military airbase on the main island. Why was this acceptable when it was apparently necessary to go to war to prevent a foreign country occupying another group of islands occupied by almost 3,000 British settlers in another faraway ocean?

The first example is that of Diego Garcia, in the Chagos Archipelago, in the Indian Ocean, and the second is that of the Falkland Islands, in the South Atlantic.

The Ilois people settled Diego Garcia in the late eighteenth century and formed a close knit, peaceful, thriving Creole community. All that ended when the Americans decided in 1961 that they wanted Diego Garcia for an air force base. Between 1967 and 1973 the British government forcibly removed the inhabitants to make way for the military base. Today, in place of 2,000 Chagos islanders there are 2,000 American troops, the native people having all been removed to Mauritius, 1,000 miles away.

The Falkland Islands were first settled by the French, then by the Spanish, and, from 1833, by the British. The islands have been the subject of territorial dispute since the eighteenth century. Unlike Diego Garcia the Falklands are very bleak and persistently windswept. The islanders import consumer goods and are self-financing - apart from defence - mainly through the sale of fishing licences. In April 1982, misreading British policy as indicating a lack of commitment, Argentina invaded. It took an expeditionary force from the UK, fierce fighting and around 3,000 deaths, to force an Argentinian surrender ten weeks later.

All the nationalistic slogans and posturing which leaped into prominence over the Falklands could be applied to Diego Garcia - so why the double standard? It might just be that the Chagos islanders are not so visibly "British", and that the Argentinians, unlike the Americans, are not English speaking. The Diego Garcia scandal gets even worse. In 2000 the islanders won a historic victory in the high court, which ruled their expulsion illegal. It did no good. Tony Blair's government invoked "royal prerogative" to annul the 2000 court judgement and to prevent the islanders from returning home. They have even been denied compensation.

Justice for the people of Diego Garcia is still being fought and their case will go to the European Court of Human Rights and, possibly, to the International Criminal Court. But don't mention Robin Cook's famous espousal of a "moral dimension in foreign policy". It simply does not exist if you are on the wrong side of the tracks.

28 November 2004