The Bhopal gas tragedy was the worst industrial disaster in human history. Twenty-five thousand people died, 500,000 were injured, and the injustice done to the victims of Bhopal over the past 25 years will go down as the worst case of jurisprudence ever.
The gas leak in Bhopal in December 1984 was from the Union Carbide pesticide plant which manufactured “carabaryl” (trade name “sevin”) — a pesticide used mostly in cotton plants. It was, in fact, because of the Bhopal gas tragedy and the tragedy of extremist violence in Punjab that I woke up to the fact that agriculture had become a war zone. Pesticides are war chemicals that kill — every year 220,000 people are killed by pesticides worldwide.
After research I realised that we do not need toxic pesticides that kill humans and other species which maintain the web of life. Pesticides do not control pests, they create pests by killing beneficial species. We have safer, non-violent alternatives such as neem. That is why at the time of the Bhopal disaster I started the campaign “No more Bhopals, plant a neem”. The neem campaign led to challenging the biopiracy of neem in 1994 when I found that a US multinational, W.R. Grace, had patented neem for use as pesticide and fungicide and was setting up a neem oil extraction plant in Tumkur, Karnataka. We fought the biopiracy case for 11 years and were eventually successful in striking down the biopiracy patent.
Meanwhile, the old pesticide industry was mutating into the biotechnology and genetic engineering industry. While genetic engineering was promoted as an alternative to pesticides, Bt cotton was introduced to end pesticide use. But Bt cotton has failed to control the bollworm and has instead created major new pests, leading to an increase in pesticide use.
The high costs of genetically-modified (GM) seeds and pesticides are pushing farmers into debt, and indebted farmers are committing suicide. If one adds the 200,000 farmer suicides in India to the 25,000 killed in Bhopal, we are witnessing a massive corporate genocide — the killing of people for super profits. To maintain these super profits, lies are told about how, without pesticides and genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), there will be no food. In fact, the conclusions of International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development, undertaken by the United Nations, shows that ecologically organic agriculture produces more food and better food at lower cost than either chemical agriculture or GMOs.
The agrochemical industry and its new avatar, the biotechnology industry, do not merely distort and manipulate knowledge, science and public policy. They also manipulate the law and the justice system. The reason justice has been denied to the victims of Bhopal is because corporations want to escape liability. Freedom from liability is, in fact, the real meaning of “free trade”. The tragedy of Bhopal is dual. Interestingly, the Bhopal disaster happened precisely when corporations were seeking deregulation and freedom from liability through the instruments of “free trade”, “trade liberalisation” and “globalisation”, both through bilateral pressure and through the Uruguay Round of General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) which led to the creation of the World Trade Organisation.
Injustice for Bhopal has been used to tell corporations that they can get away with murder. This is what senior politicians communicated to Dow Chemical. This is what the US-India Commission for Environmental Cooperation forum stated on June 11, 2010, in the context of the call from across India for justice for Bhopal victims. As one newspaper commented, Bhopal is being seen as a “road block and impediment to trade… the recommendations include removing road blocks to commercial trade by (India), and adoption of a nuclear liability regime”.
Denial of justice to Bhopal has been the basis of all toxic investments since Bhopal, be it Bt cotton, DuPont’s nylon plant or the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill. Just as Bhopal victims were paid a mere Rs 12,000 (approximately $250) each, the proposed Nuclear Liability Bill also seeks to put a ceiling on liability of a mere $100 million on private operations of a nuclear power plant in case of a nuclear accident. Once again, people can be killed but corporations should not have to pay. There has also been an intense debate in India on GMOs. An attempt was made by Monsanto/Mahyco to introduce Bt brinjal in 2009. As a result of public hearings across the country, a moratorium has been put on its commercialisation. Immediately after the moratorium a bill was introduced for a Biotechnology Regulatory Authority of India —the bill does not only leave the biotechnology industry free of liability, but it also has a clause which empowers the government to arrest and fine those of us who question the need and safety of GMOs.
From Bhopal to pesticides to GMOs to nuclear plants, there are two lessons we can draw. One is that corporations introduce hazardous technologies like pesticides and GMOs for profits, and profits alone. And second lesson, related to trade, is that corporations are seeking to expand markets and relocate hazardous and environmentally costly technologies to countries like India.
Corporates seek to globalise production but they do not want to globalise justice and rights. The difference in the treatment of Union Carbide and Dow Chemical in the context of Bhopal, and of BP in the context of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico shows how an apartheid is being created. The devaluation of the life of people of the Third World and ecosystems is built into the project of globalisation. Globalisation is leading to the outsourcing of pollution — hazardous substances and technologies — to the Third World. This is at the heart of globalisation — the economies of genocide.
Lawrence Summers, who was the World Bank’s chief economist and is now chief economic adviser to the Obama government, in a memo dated December 12, 1991, to senior World Bank staff, wrote, “Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the less developed countries?”
Since wages are low in the Third World, economic costs of pollution arising from increased illness and death are least in the poorest countries. According to Mr Summers, the logic “of relocation of pollutants in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that”.
All this and Bhopal must teach us to reclaim our universal and common humanity and build an Earth Democracy in which all are equal, and corporations are not allowed to get away with crimes against people and the planet.
Dr Vandana Shiva is the executive director of the Navdanya Trust