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Coporate Responsibility:
Finisterra's Lesson

By Binu Mathew

03 December, 2004

The 20th anniversary of Bhopal gas tragedy, the worst industrial disaster in history was a day of embarassment for Dow chemicals, the present owner of Union Carbide and the major news media around the world.

It all began with a cruel joke the BBC played on the hapless victims of the tragedy and their familes. In an embarassing goof up BBC awarded $ 12 billion compensation for the victims and an unbelievable announcement from Dow chemicals that they are "taking full responsibility" for the tragedy.

At 9 GMT, (and at) 10 GMT, BBC World ran an interview with a man called Jude Finisterra, who claimed that he was a spoke person for Dow chemicals. What he said in the interview was more than anything the victims ever dreamt in their wildest dreams. He said Dow will own up the responsibility of the disaster, clean up the area of the disaster which is still threateningly toxic, and will immediately pay out a compensation of $12 billion. As soon as the BBC broke the story satellite channels in India were running this big news break as the top story and there was cheer in the streets of Bhopal. Even the reuters carried the story quoting BBC.

The cheer in Bhopal was short lived. Soon Dow was out on the street doing some emergency fire fighting. Dow's spoke person Marina Ashanin was quick to clarify "Dow confirms there was no basis whatsoever for this report ". "We also confirm Jude Finisterra is neither an employee nor a spokesperson for Dow." Ashanin stressed that there was no change in Dow's position on Bhopal.

Dow, which bought Union Carbide three years ago, has always maintained it "has no responsibility" for the Bhopal tragedy on December 3, 1984, in which nearly 40 tonnes of highly toxic methyl isocyanate escaped from a storage vat of the Union Carbide factory, and killed at least 15,000 men, women and children and ruined the lives of half a million more.

Even on the tragedy's sensitive 20th anniversary, and with a public vigil vilifying Dow and Union Carbide underway on the faraway streets of Bhopal, the company continued to remind the world it "never owned or operated the Bhopal plant". And it refused to bend even slightly to demands by many, including most recently, Amnesty International, that it show a little compassion for the victims.

Over a telephonic interview with Rashmee Z Ahmed of Times Of India Dow's spoke person said it had "philanthropic initiatives in India," but these were just the same as "elsewhere around the world in communities where we live and work."

"These initiatives are not specific to Bhopal as we do not own or operate a facility there," it added.

But the company said even though it was not responsible for the disaster, it still remembered that "day (December 3, 1984) well and the following days, when several thousand people died."

It said the only good to come out of Bhopal was that "the chemical industry learned and grew - creating Responsible Care (a code of conduct and practice for chemical producers) with its strengthened focus on process safety standards, emergency preparedness, and community awareness."

Jude Finisterra's bold subversion of the media on the 20th anniversary of Bhopal disaster once again forced Dow to announce to the world the gross injustice it is committing to the victims and reiterate that it will not change it's position in the near future. It was a game that was played out by the rules of the corporate press. Whoever Jude Finiesterra is, it was a game that the world loved, it helped to bring to the world's notice corporate irresponsibility in the face of public opinion.

Finisterra's compensation amount of $12 billion is a reminder to the shameless sell out government of India made with Union Carbide. In an out of court damage settlement reached between Government of India and UCC on December 14, 1989, both parties agreed to an amount of $ 470 million as damages to the disaster.The first suit filed by Melvin Belli, an American lawyer, claimed damages upto $15 billion. Later the Indian Government arrogating itself the sole power to represent all the victims, filed a suit for $3.3 billion. Four years after filing the suit and without informing the victims, the government settled for nearly one-seventh of the original claim. Of the $470 million settlement $200 million was covered by UCC's insurance and another $200 million had already been put aside. Out of an annual revenue of $8 billion a year, the corporation had to find just $70 million to close the books.

The settlement clearly shows a double standard in treating victims of industrial disasters in India and elsewhere. Union Carbide and eight other companies paid US $ 4.2 billion as potential damages for Silicone Breast Implants to 650,000 claimants. This amount was 9 times more than what the Bhopal victims were given and less than a 10th of the $5 billion court award against Exon Valdez for polluting the Alaskan coast. Approximately US $ 40,000 was spent on the rehabilitation of every sea otter affected by the Alaska oil spill. Each sea otter was given rations of lobsters costing US $ 500 per day. Thus the life of an Indian citizen in Bhopal was clearly much cheaper than that of a sea otter in America. If the award amount of $470 million where distributed equally among all the victims of Bhopal disaster each would get around only $200.
Many of the people did not get even that much relief. More than 250,000 claims were never documented or classified, making it hard for these victims to obtain compensation. The largest amount paid for death was around $ 2,000. Many of the victims in the gas trgedy were poor, illiterate people. They had no idea of compensation or the importance of keeping records. When the government agencies demanded documents, they had nothing to provide. And some who had documents lost it in the 1992 Hindu - Muslim riot. There is no provision for providing compensation for severly affected children who are born after the disaster.
Finisterra also takes our attention to another important issue, the renponsibility of Dow to clean up the disaster site. Amesty international in a recent report said toxic material continued to contaminate water supplies around the plant site. "The site has not been cleaned up so toxic wastes continue to pollute the water which the surrounding communities rely on." There are reports that mercury is lying on the ground inside the site.
Twenty years ago this day, dead bodies were beeing piled up on the streets of Bhopal, or were piled up on funeral pyres. Today Hundreds of thousands of the survivors are suffering breathing problems, eye diseases, damaged immune systems, nerve damage, memory loss, cancer, miscarriages, gynaecological problems, impaired mental health and social exclusion. Families are plunged into debt because of the inability of the breadwinner to work full time due to health damage from the leak, and families who had since moved into the area were reporting health problems from drinking the water. Now we need the likes of Jude Finisterra to remind the world the lessons of corporate responsibility and natural justice.

Binu Mathew is the editor of











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