MAC: Mines and Communities

London Calling! December 2 2004

Published by MAC on 2004-12-02

London Calling! December 2 2004

Rage against the dying of the light

On this anniversary of the worst industrial mass killing ever recorded, we all - in our ways - return to the city where poisons still leak from an uncleansed factory into the local water supply, and where half a million people continue suffering disability or a lingering death. There is another round of demands for “justice”, by extraditing Union Carbide’s ex-president, Warren Anderson, from the USA. And a new burst of outrage that Dow Chemicals, which bought out Carbide in 2001, has washed its hands of all responsibility, by selling out its shares in an Indian subsidiary.

Of course these responses are appropriate. On the other hand where, after twenty years of futile travelling, do they seem to have led? Perhaps one day there will be a “settlement” and survivors will get more than the obscene baksheesh handed out so far (between around US$600 and US$2,000 per victim). By then, however, who will be left to benefit and how demeaning will be the scramble for the spoils? Do we realise that the Indian government itself is sitting on two thirds of the compensation sum agreed, paid fifteen years ago and even then derisory?

The cry of “No more Bhopals!” has resonated around the world for nearly two decades. If it compels us to unearth what dirty deeds are being done in all back yards and fields, then good. Still, there are many lessons this disaster should have taught us and apparently hasn’t yet. Take this: in 1984 almost as many peasants and workers died from pesticide poisoning in Brazil as in Bhopal. Yet who cared? Or this uncomfortable piece of unlearned history: through its vast wartime and post war uranium mining and enrichment programmes, Union Carbide probably abetted the killing of more people than any other single corporation in US history. Who cares to remember? The bodies of those who will die over the coming twenty years of absestosis and mesothelioma, from mined and processed materials peddled by US and European companies, could fill Bhopal five times over (and a lot of these corpses would be Indian). Yes, we care - but do we really care to know who was responsible, and that some of them – Anglo American for instance - are doing more dirty business today?

What happened at Bhopal two decades ago was appalling. But, more than this, it was emblematic of an illusory promise of swift prosperity that ensnares us all. Many Indians sealed the Faustian bargain with a passion equal to that displayed by Union Carbide (albeit with far less cynicism than the company). There is also a direct line between Union Carbide, atomic weaponry and what happened at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. (How many thousands are still dying from that “accident” - and which of us can recall the date it occurred?). It’s not sufficient to demand “no more Bhopals!” as if safer management, corporate transparency, and a bunch of pro bono lawyers, will magically deliver us from future evil. Rather, we must reject the very premise that “toxicity” – in its broadest sense - can be transformed by human agency into its opposite: whether it be by chemicals enunciating a “green revolution”, sustainable agriculture dependent on genetic manipulation, climate change mitigated by uranium power; or peace coming through proliferation of the weapons of war. Even worse is the abiding faith that profiteering corporations can take us there

Just this week, a Southern government announced it would take another US company to court for reckless misuse of a technology and its chemical constituents, which allegedly led to the poisoning by arsenic and heavy metals of an isolated fishing community. Of course, we shouldn’t blithely compare the use of a faulty submarine pipe carrying diluted cyanide with a massive system rupture that blasted 25 tonnes of deadly methylisocyanate into the lungs and eyes of thousands of urban dwellers tightly packed around a factory wall. And Newmont - the gold miner – is not just a crude clone of Union Carbide - the destroyer of worlds

But, nor should we dismiss uncomfortable parallels between Buyat Bay in 2004 and Bhopal in 1984. Both companies were patently dishonest about the dangers of a technology previously demonstrated to be faulty. Both imposed it upon poor people untutored in coping if that technology went terribly wrong. And both spun their profits into corporate safe havens, thousands of miles offshore, protected by governments at home and abroad.

Provincial police arrested Newmont officials last October, but released them following US protests. In 1985, Bhopal’s police chief also detained three Union Carbide personnel, including Warren Anderson, when they descended on his city. But he was forced to let them go after the US ambassador pressured the Indian government. Can we be sure this won’t happen again in Indonesia? Or that such patterns of betrayals will not be repeated countless times, over until our anger takes us to their institutional roots, and does away with our dependence on those structures altogether?

Sixty-seven years ago the poet Dylan Thomas – himself no stranger to the industrial poisoning of his own South Wales heartland – took final leave of his father after a protracted death, in terms that bear urgent re-invoking now:

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way
Do not go gentle into that good night

Grave men, near death who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse. bless, me now with your fierce tears I pray
Do not go gentle into that good night
Rage, rage against the dying of the light

[Sources: Brazilian deaths in 1984 from pesticide poisoning: see International Labour Reports no 8, March/April 1985; Reports on Bhopal in 2004: Amnesty International, London; The Independent, London, 2/12/2004; Planetark 2/12/2004; Union Carbide’s nuclear-military history: The Gulliver File, London 1992; Newmont in Indonesia: see; Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle into that good night” New Directions, 1971]

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