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Professor Vijay Prashad describes the horrific circumstances in which thousands of Indians died and generations suffered health effects – and how the CEO of Union Carbide suffered no consequence

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. And welcome to this edition of the Prashad report.

Now joining us from Northampton, Massachusetts, is Vijay Prashad. Vijay is the George and Martha Kellner Chair in South Asian History and professor of international studies at Trinity College. His most recent book is The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South. And he’s a regular contributor to The Real News.

Thanks for joining us, Vijay.


DESVARIEUX: So, Vijay, December 2 marks the 30th anniversary of that infamous gas leak in Bhopal, India. Can you just remind our viewers exactly what happened that day 30 years ago?

PRASHAD: Well, I remember this very vividly. The night of December 2-3, a tank in a Union Carbide factory, Bhopal, India, leaked methyl isocyanate. And this gas swept through a working-class area called Jayaprakash Nagar, right near the plant. Eventually tens of thousands of people would be killed, half a million people affected. It was the largest chemical industrial accident in India till then, and in fact till now. It was a grotesque accident, because partly it was preventable, and secondly because the gas leak didn’t just kill people immediately; it affected an entire generation and the children born to them. So it was like–in a sense, I guess, like a Chernobyl for India.

And it’s important to recognize that this gas leak took place at a factory, Union Carbide, which was owned by an American company. They own more than 50 percent of the stake in this factory. There was an Indian minority holder, but it was essentially an American firm.

And just before the accident–the accident, so-called accident, took place in 1984. Just two years before, in 1982, there had been a study done of the plant. The Indian government had been involved. Many recommendations had been made for changing the piping, changing some of the infrastructure, upgrading security and safety mechanisms, etc., but nothing was done. And in that sense it was almost an industrial crime.

And because it was an industrial crime, the local authorities moved very quickly. They put out arrest warrants for the important leadership of the factory. People were arrested, including in 1985 the head, the CEO of Union Carbide, an American businessman by the name of Warren Anderson. But through various mechanisms he was able to post bail, and he left India in 1985.

DESVARIEUX: And wasn’t this Warren Anderson–didn’t he recently pass, Vijay?

PRASHAD: Yes. So Warren Anderson died just about a month ago.

Now, it’s important. For 30 years there has been an arrest warrant for Mr. Warren Anderson for essentially culpable homicide. I mean, there was enough evidence to show that the Union Carbide had been very negligent in its procedures, and this negligence, at least the intergovernmental government had suggested at the time, went all the way to the top. So the actual warrant was for culpable homicide not amounting to murder. In other words, Warren Anderson didn’t directly murder anybody. But indirectly, their kind of negligence killed tens of thousands of people.

You have to remember it’s grotesque. He posted bond of $2,000 when he left India. And from 1985 till his death in 2014, the United States government essentially refused to extradite Mr. Warren Anderson to India to face charges. In fact, quite disgustingly, in the last 20 years, as the Indian government has tried to come closer to the American government, there has been ample evidence of the Indian government colluding with the American government to prevent Mr. Anderson coming to justice in India. In other words, there is evidence that a particular ambassador from India was working with some Indian industrialists to suggest that if India didn’t push very hard to extradite Warren Anderson, it meant that India would treat American business with kid gloves, and therefore Americans should invest in India. I mean, the kind of position put out there was, if India is too aggressive against Warren Anderson, if it’s too aggressive against Union Carbide, then American firms will not come to India. And this was allowed to remain in that way, even though there were revelations about ten years ago of this kind of collusion.

The reason these revelations came out was that Greenpeace was able to find Mr. Warren Anderson’s home in New York State, and they went to the front door, rang the doorbell, and served him with a warrant. Of course, there was no efficacy to this, there was no power behind it, but it was a symbolic move. And at the time, evidence of this collusion had come out.

Well, now Mr. Anderson is dead. In that sense, the statute of limitations has run out on him. But Union Carbide was bought by Dow chemicals, and Dow chemicals in a sense has purchased the liability for what happened in 1984 on the night of December 2 and 3. And as of now, the compensation paid to the victims has been anemic, and pressure on Dow chemicals has been, I think, very limited.

So this is a very sad story. It’s been going on my entire adult life. A generation of Indians were radicalized by the grotesqueness of Bhopal. We were in college when this happened, and it was unbelievable to see the level of callousness by the authorities, the callousness by the United States government. And, of course, nothing has come of it since then.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Vijay Prashad, thank you so much for that update, and we look forward to having you back on real soon. Thanks for joining us.

PRASHAD: Thank you so much.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Vijay Prashad

Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor, and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. He is an editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. He is a senior non-resident fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. He has written more than 20 books, including The Darker Nations and The Poorer Nations. His latest books are Struggle Makes Us Human: Learning from Movements for Socialism and (with Noam Chomsky) The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility of U.S. Power.