Bhopal’s lessons to Egypt

Twenty-eight years ago the world awoke to the aftermath of one of the most notorious industrial disasters begun in the central Indian city of Bhopal.

Overnight, a plant belonging to the Indian subsidiary of an American company, Union Carbide Corporation, leaked toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas from a pesticide plant situated among neighborhoods and slum communities. Some 3,800 people were reportedly killed in the hours following the leak, and hundreds of thousands suffered the effects of the gas in the years that followed.

The notoriety of the Bhopal disaster, combined with three decades of drawn out legal battles in Indian as well as US courts, has elevated the case to symbolic status.

Reflecting on the Bhopal tragedy reveals some important lessons for the present Egyptian context.

Nearly 30 years after the Bhopal disaster began, survivors and activists continue to demand justice, restitution, and a ruling for liability against UCC (which was acquired by DOW Chemical in 2001). Charges include blatant negligence by management leading up to the disaster as well as health and environmental damages incurred since then.

Victims continue to suffer from the debilitating health effects of MIC gas, and from consequences of exposure to chemicals leaked from the factory into surrounding land (an account of 26 years of the Bhopal aftermath may be found at www.bhopalmarathon.org). 

For almost three decades, UCC has succeeded in evading liability through legal acrobatics and collusion with the Indian government. A grossly inadequate settlement was reached between UCC and the Indian government in 1989: of those who succeeded in obtaining any compensation, most received between US$300 and $500.

Today, chemicals continue to leech from the plant site into the area’s groundwater, children of Bhopal survivors are born with relatively high rates of health defects, and citizen groups continue appealing to their state and central governments to have their grievances addressed.

The impunity of UCC/DOW has come to represent a recurring global dynamic that disproportionately subjects vulnerable populations to consequences of corporate negligence, and to debilitating and persistent effects of corporate environmental disasters. Bhopal has become shorthand for a more generalized international arrangement that sees developing economies lowering expectations of environmental and public liability in order to maintain their reputations as friendly investment havens, effectively bartering away the rights of their most vulnerable citizens.

The still-unresolved Bhopal case should serve as a forewarning to Egyptian policy-makers who are now setting policies to enable economic development, while having to respond to a newly vocal public demand for social justice.

If a pessimistic legacy of the Bhopal case has been its exposure of the way that multinationals can exploit their globally dispersed arrangements to evade justice, a more hopeful revelation has been the emergence of social movements mobilizing long-running international campaigns for justice.

The Bhopal experience has also alerted people to the need for anticipating and acting before such tragic environmental disasters are allowed to precipitate, and is to a large extent responsible for the ongoing public movements against establishing more nuclear power plants in India without putting in place effective safeguards and liability laws.

The promise for citizen mobilization against industrial exploitation may also find precedence from within our own Egyptian context. One example is the case of the Canadian consortium EAgrium, which intended to set up operations producing fertilizer in the port city of Damietta in 2008.

After brokering a contract with the government that was widely unpopular among local residents, the conglomerate was stopped by effective counter-mobilization from public coalitions protesting the threats that the emissions from such a facility would pose to the city’s tourism market, real estate values, and fishing industry.

This case succeeded in uniting between citizens of disparate socio-economic, professional, and civic affiliations. The 2008 outcome of the EAgrium case is a promising example of citizens mobilizing against a vision of development that renders them vulnerable to environmental exploitation and health damages. Particular incidents of popular mobilization must, however, be backed by proactive and robust policy agendas.

Since well before the uprisings of January 2011, policies aiming to attract foreign investment to Egypt’s liberalizing market have marginalized considerations of the popular interest. They’ve consistently fallen far short of providing environmental protection or instating effective mechanisms for democratic accountability of big business. For example, law 83 of 2002 establishes “special economic zones” to attract investment, while exempting most of these zones from national environmental oversight.

More alarming still is that law promulgated since the 2011 uprisings continues to entrench this trend. Law 4 of 2012, issued in January of this year, was released under oversight of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to revise law 8 of 1997 and amend some of its provisions on investment guarantees and incentives. Article 7 allows for political reconciliation with an investor charged with the embezzlement and exploitation of public funds, and allows that such cases become resolved at the ministerial level while absolving such transgressors from criminal charges or from facing judicial accountability.

Such measures are intended to reassure investors that they are protected even when they violate the public interest, that disputes will be dealt with efficiently, and that investors will not be subject to drawn-out and public legal disputes.

Article 66 establishes a special committee overseen by the prime minister to deal with disputes between investors and bodies of the state, to ensure fairness and balance of brokered contracts. No specifics of the composition of the committee, its governing criteria and guiding principles, the mechanisms ensuring its accountability for protecting public assets, or the conditions of negotiation for fair contracts have been specified.

By making investment-friendly arrangements without providing mechanisms for democratic accountability, such measures set a dangerous precedent for the bartering away of public welfare for corporate profits. For publicly traded multi-national corporations whose value is bound up with reputation and brand integrity, legal exposure and liability is one of the key means to incentivize responsible operations. Taking that away leaves the citizenry with no clear recourse for justice.

Almost two years since launching a popular revolution, Egyptians continue to grapple with a demanding citizenship ethic that asserts rights as well as responsibilities in shaping a vision of national progress and development. The struggle continues for political and social change that is not merely cosmetic, but structural and substantive. This process must be critical in how it engages with normalized trends of global industrial development, and how it considers the assumptions that come embedded in these relationships.

Even as political leaders seek to attract investment to keep the gears of the economy churning, they now have an explicit mandate to recognize and protect the needs of their most vulnerable citizens. Bhopal can serve as a reminder not just for how globalization can subject third-world citizens to the externalities of transnational industrial development. It also stands as a testament to how citizen groups can take action to resist global dynamics that prey on their disenfranchisement, while envisioning and campaigning for societies that safeguard the welfare of all their members.

In Egypt, pursuing such an agenda must involve legal and policy reform that ensures mechanisms of liability and accountability for foreign investors. Beyond Egypt, national efforts must collaborate in order to advance global mechanisms for holding corporations accountable to their violations against human welfare, in whatever part of the world they might be carried out.

Aisha Saad, DPhil candidate, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford.

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