Remember the tragedy of Bhopal, but also understand the causes

In this Year of remembered 20th anniversaries for the proletariat a less well remembered one is Bhopal. Bhopal is an ancient city, the state capital of Madhya Pradesh in Central India. It did not differ greatly from many other Indian cities until in the early hours of the morning of 3 December 1984, when forty five tons of escaping gas, Methyl Isocyanate (MIC), from the Union Carbide pesticides plant drifted through the shanty town that had grown up around it, on through the city and into the surrounding countryside. For some death came as they slept, others woke with burning eyes and throats. And as the panic set in among those who had not already succumbed to the poison all around them, they ran, gulping even more of the toxic gas into their lungs leaving trails of dead and dying in the most horrible contortions as they writhed their last moments in unspeakable agony. Before the week was out the death toll stood at around 3000 (the number of deaths directly attributable to the ‘accident’ has risen over time to around 20,000) with more than 300,000 affected by the deadly poison. About 2000 animals had died and 7000 more were severely affected along with most crops in and around Bhopal.

If India had applied the same logic as America and Britain did after 11 September 2001, Indian jets would still be bombing America for the devastation this US corporation brought on India in just this one incident. It was described at the time as the worst-ever industrial ‘accident’ but the very word accident paints a picture of something that could not have been foreseen, an unintentional, unfortunate chance occurrence, something for which no one can be blamed. Let us be quite clear, this was imperialist genocide of the type that happens everywhere, admittedly, to a far greater degree in the third world than in the imperialist countries but even in their home countries the imperialists commit industrial murder against workers.

As huge as the loss of life at Bhopal was, it is only a fraction of the toll that the uncontrollable juggernaut that is imperialism takes among the people of the world every year. In that same year of 1984 there were two other cases of mass industrial genocide by imperialism in the third world. The first was in Cubatao, Sao Paulo, Brazil where a fractured pipeline caused a petrol explosion which ripped through a shanty town killing 508 people. The company, Petrobras, claimed that ‘only’ 90 people died and even tried to blame the victims for illegally being on company land. The second was in San Juan, Ixhuatepec, Mexico where an explosion of liquid nitrogen gas (LNG) reservoirs, holding some 90,000 barrels, engulfed the shantytown surrounding it killing 452 and injuring 4,284 inhabitants.

The aftermath of the Bhopal tragedy was years of wrangling in courts, both in India and America, as Union Carbide sought to avoid paying anything at all initially (at one point they even tried to claim that terrorism by Sikh extremists was to blame) and as little as possible eventually. Although they agreed a settlement in 1989 not a penny reached any of the victims until 1992 and then only selectively. Twenty years on there are still victims of that day living in poverty and agony, there are people who either were not yet born or who have moved to Bhopal since that ‘tragedy’ whose health is ruined because of the massive amount of pollution Union Carbide left behind at the plant as they just walked away. In his book ‘Bhopal – Anatomy of a crisis’, Paul Shrivastava says; “In one sense, the Bhopal crisis was simply an industrial accident – a failure of technology. But the real story behind the accident goes much deeper than mere technology. It extends to the organisational and socio-political environment in which the accident occurred.” Paul Shrivastava is a professor with a string of degrees in business and engineering to his name who seeks answers and remedies only within the framework of imperialism (trying to teach wolves to behave like sheep) but this work, which was written for the business community, is all the more worth reading because of that. The above quote, if followed to its logical conclusion (somewhere Mr Shrivastava doesn’t want to go), points the finger of blame unmistakably at imperialism.

He carries on – “Organisational pressures within Union Carbide contributed to both the accident and the ensuing crisis. The Bhopal plant was an unprofitable operation, for the most part ignored by top Union Carbide officials. With several of Union Carbide’s traditionally profitable divisions in the United States faltering, the Bhopal plant was a prime candidate for divestiture. The Indian subsidiary that owned the plant, Union Carbide (India) Ltd. (UCIL), was primarily a battery company that had made an unsuccessful foray into the pesticides market. At the time of the accident, the Bhopal plant operated at only about 30 to 40 percent of capacity and was under constant pressure to cut its costs and reduce its losses.” What Mr Shrivastava calls ‘organisational pressures’ we would see as the logic of imperialism dictating any cuts, any action which would produce profit, for in the imperialist world profit is the sole reason for all production.

So what was the “organisational and socio-political environment in which the accident occurred”? On the organisational front, Mr Shrivastava presents us with a picture of a plant which has been set up to produce something, for which, it would seem, there was not much of a market, and realising their mistake, the company cuts staff, which in turn has an effect on procedures being carried out properly which then causes unsafe practice. Whilst it is undeniably true that these staff cuts did take place, and this cavalier attitude to the safety of workers and residents alike is a hallmark of capitalist production, the implied ‘un-profitability’ of the product must be questioned. First, Bhopal was not the only plant producing MIC based pesticides, Union Carbide also had pesticides plants in America where much stricter safety rules were applied, including the use of modern, technical (expensive) safety equipment, early warning and back up systems, all lacking at Bhopal. These plants were of course, not legally allowed to be built anywhere near towns or populated areas in the US. Secondly, after the industrial genocide at Bhopal, within days in fact, the company restarted production, on safety grounds they said, to use up the MIC before the plant could be closed down. But if they were so safety conscious one has to ask why so much chemical waste was left to drain into the soil or evaporate into the air, and why the company could not or would not tell the local authorities what these chemicals were? It is obvious that the product did have value and Union Carbide were intent on getting the last penny’s worth out of Bhopal before walking away. Again we have to stress, imperialists don’t cut corners because they necessarily have to, they cut them whenever and wherever they can to increase profits.

Moving on to the ‘socio-political environment’, the state government needed to attract industry to employ people and increase state revenue therefore through taxation. The imperialists wanted cheap labour and little or no state control over what they produced or how they produced it to increase their profits. Mr Shrivastava explains it thus; “India, as a whole, and Bhopal in particular, had extensive systems of laws governing industrial production, occupational health and safety, labour relations, trade practices, and pollution control. Bhopal possessed a large pool of skilled labour trained at local technical institutions. These attributes created a unique ‘industrial culture’ that supported a wide range of technologies. But effective regulation of technologies was inhibited by political and practical considerations. The government was reluctant to place a heavy industrial safety and pollution-control burden on industry for fear of losing job opportunities.” Once again if Mr Shrivastava would follow the logic of his words he would find the finger of guilt pointing once again at that old culprit imperialism. It does not matter what laws are in force or how many of them there are, when they stand in the way of profit for the imperialist they are ignored and discarded.

Some might wish to attribute equal blame to the Indian authorities. Mr Shrivastava goes much further than that, laying far too much blame on the shoulders of the state Government. It has to be said that that government was totally corrupt, but its corruption has to be seen in the light of India’s historical oppression and exploitation, both political and economic, first by British colonialism, then British imperialism leaving it prey also now to British imperialism’s main successor, American imperialism, all of which made India a satellite of the imperialists and totally dependent on them.

Mr Shrivastava also blames the facts that “General citizen awareness was low” and “there was no community watchdog groups monitoring industrial hazards”. Basically anyone or anything can be blamed, even the company, as an individual company, comes in for some mild criticism, but no blame must be attached to the political system of imperialism; and yet with each and every twist and turn he makes to avoid doing that he comes back face to face with it. Imperialism is the killer in the workplace. Imperialism is the monster that starves children to death. Imperialism is the slaughter machine on battlefields and in places like Bhopal. But imperialism is also the cunning fox, which will pay workers in one country a few pennies more to keep them divided, create a labour aristocracy to divide them and spread the evils of racism and sexism to keep them apart. For our part we must learn everything there is to know about imperialism, We must stand alongside any and every enemy of imperialism whatever their colour or nationality. At times this will make us deeply unpopular but we must try to teach the proletariat the truth, not as an academic exercise but in order to create the one thing we need more than any other, a party of the proletariat which understands the world we live in through Marxist-Leninist analysis and is steeled to lead our class on the only road that will destroy imperialism, the road of socialist revolution!

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