Posted by: John Elliott | June 14, 2010

In 1984 the US rescued Union Carbide’s Warren Anderson – and now dares vilify BP’s Tony Hayward

I was there in Bhopal on December 7,1984, when Warren Anderson, then the chairman of Union Carbide, was whisked away from the stricken city to Delhi and back to the US – and we all knew that it was happening with the help of Rajiv Gandhi, then India’s prime minister.

Since then Anderson has been protected by the US business-political establishment from being extradited to India to answer for the appalling human and environmental damage wrought by his company’s gas leak in Bhopal a few days earlier. That was one of the world’s worst industrial disasters,  leading to the death of over 5,000 people and continuing ill-health of over 500,000. (See my last visit and report six months ago).

Now that same American establishment that has protected Anderson has been pillorying Tony Hayward, BP’s chief executive, following BP’s oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. The tirade has been led by President Barack Obama, who has been behaving like a spoiled child for the past 50 or so days, casting around for someone to blame when it is his own officials who are primarily at fault.  

The wrecked Bhopal plant, Nov 2009

  These two man-made catastrophes have generated mega outbursts of irrational media coverage in India and the US in the past week, both fuelled by political cant.    

In Delhi, politicians and media have been in a frenzy over the Bhopal gas leak following a court judgement last Monday that eight Indian former Union Carbide executives should serve two-year prison sentences and be fined about $2,000 (subject to appeals that could take years).     

In neither case are the main political players really focussing on the primary issues – the appalling damage and threat to the environment in the Gulf, and health problems in Bhopal where thousands of people have suffered for over 25 years.     

In both cases it is the US that is making sure its interest are protected. On Bhopal, Anderson was airlifted out of India when he could have been detained, and has been protected ever since by the American business-political establishment. On the Gulf spill, it is America that has decided that BP and Hayward, not its own officials and companies, should be the target for abuse and penalties.  

“Who’s ass to kick?” 

Obama is frightened politically about the damage the spill will do to him and the Democrats. Consequently, he has been stoking anti-BP sentiment instead of steadying it, when the real culprits are officials in various US government organisations that for years have allowed oil companies to negotiate exceptions on environmental and safety procedures.   The New York Times explained this on June 6. It started by talking about the managerial muddle on the BP rig, with unclear lines of authority and control, but it then went on to report how US officials had allowed the catastrophic situation to develop. :    

 “Deepwater rigs operate under an ad hoc system of exceptions. The deeper the water, the further the exceptions stretch, not just from federal guidelines but also often from company policy. So, for example, when BP officials first set their sights on extracting the oily riches under what is known as Mississippi Canyon Block 252 in the Gulf of Mexico, they asked for and received permission from federal regulators to exempt the drilling project from federal law that requires a rigorous type of environmental review, internal documents and federal records indicate.”  

So when Obama said last week that he wanted to know “whose ass to kick”, the answer should have been American officials in the regulatory authorities. Sure, BP is massively responsible for what has happened, but for Obama to have personally attacked its chief executive, Tony Hayward, is mean and pathetic – and the president has ended up demeaning himself. 

On Bhopal, the court sentences passed on the eight men are of course ridiculously small – and 25 years late. But the Indian media, egged on by politicians, has gone off chasing who it was who allowed Anderson to escape instead of focusing on Indian and Bhopal authorities that allowed a potentially unsafe chemical plant to be built so near the city, then allowed slum housing to mushroom nearby, and then failed to carry out regulatory checks.  

Of the eight, the only well-known figure is Keshub Mahindra, chairman of Mahindra & Mahindra, one of the most respected and “clean” Indian groups. He was non-executive chairman of Union Carbide India at a time when such posts had no real corporate responsibility and were mainly involved in helping the company operate in the country. The other seven (including one who has died) were victims of an American management that had effectively walked away from the investment and wanted to dump it.

On the escape of Anderson, I was there in Bhopal at the time – December 7, 1984 –  and later learned about what happened from both government and company sources. 

Arjun Singh, then the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh (Bhopal is the state capital) heard that Anderson was flying into Bhopal from Bombay on a flight that stopped in Indore. So he ordered his police to the airport without (fearing leaks) telling them why, till the plane had taken off from Indore, when he told them Anderson should be arrested on arrival.

Anderson had planned his visit as some sort of mercy and goodwill mission. As the plane landed in Bhopal, he looked out of the cabin window and saw the police cars, so said to Mahindra, who was sitting beside him, how good it was of the state government to provide him with an escort. 

He was immediately arrested and taken to the Union Carbide guest house on a hill overlooking the city. Along with a crowd of Indian and foreign journalists, I stood that afternoon at the guest house’s front gates waiting for Anderson to emerge. Shame on us all, he was whisked out of the back gate without most of us seeing him, and was released on bail after being held for just six hours. He was put on a government plane to Delhi, and then flew to the US.

Although we did not know that afternoon whether Anderson was being flown to Delhi to be detained there, we had no doubt that Singh, a leading Congress politician, was acting on the orders of – or at least with the approval of Rajiv Gandhi, the Congress prime minister. The government is now saying that Singh sent Anderson out of Bhopal because he feared civil unrest if the executive was seen in the city. But that does not explain why, presumably at the behest of the US, Anderson was then allowed to leave the country.

But whether Singh or Gandhi were wrong to have done that is not now relevent. The real crime has been committed by the Indian and American authorities, and by Union Carbide and Dow which has now taken over the company, by not punishing the right people and cleaning up the health hazards in Bhopal.

Now there’s a cause where President Obama could usefully “kick ass”.


  1. I knew a little about Bhopal disaster before and today i have gone through internet about this. Its very shocking and very meaninglessly inhuman that some Indians helped “Warran Anderson” to leave India and this is not so surprising that US did not agreed with Anderson extradition. If this same disaster was happened in US and the investor/corporate was belonged to any other country US would not think twice to go on a war against that country and would brutally kill the investor in the mean and quick time. I am mentioning this because US is one worst inhuman, corporate, money minting, cheap moral less country because for them only their citizens are humans other human beings are nothing if they had any humanity they would have not shown their partiality, osama gets caught because pakistan let US to allow on their land, this country can go anywhere and make their own rules and buy people, materialize humanity. The blame is on our Indian government and politics too. It is very clear that neither Indian government cares nor American government for Indian people it is all about their objectives and political gains and corporate add-on for future. People who have died and the people who are still effected with mutation effects on even 3rd generation births of Bhopal city. Some day this will all come to an end, great civilizations had fallen and turned to ruins, US has to learn whether to remembered as bloody killer in history or actually helpful to others. It is too sad to even feel that a person like Anderson is blessed with all the luxury and his kids, his grand kids are living a great life when thousands of innocent lives were driven through disaster and still going through it. I curse them, with all my heart, one day they will understand the pain these innocent people have gone through.

  2. Undoubtedly, one of the best article l have come across on this precious topic. I quite agree with your conclusions and will eagerly look forward to your coming updates.

  3. What did the Indian government do with the 470 million dollars it got in 1989? Being a 3 world country the goverment most likly wasted it on itself.

  4. “I guess they forgot all the GI’s who shed their lives for Dunkirk!!” – arjun_veer

    You call the Indian government incompetent fools and you come out with a comment like that? I can tell you exactly how many GIs lost there lives at Dunkirk, none. It happened one year before America “decided” to help us.

    You also claim that the British Government (and the BBC) is trying to shield itself from the “fall back” (I actually think you mean fall out but never mind) from BP’s problems. I think the government, and possibly the BBC, are trying to protect Britain’s name and shareholders given the relentless and hypocritical attacks on Britain, the British and the company by Obama, his officials and the US media in general.

  5. Sadly, a superbly written article. It is rather like the letter my OH sent to the papers a couple of weeks ago which did not get published. And we thought things would get better after Bush…

  6. Excellent notes. Came to notice only after the article in india-awake was published.

    Remembering Bhopal –
    I Between Facts and Frenzy
    II Responsibility Then and Now

  7. Thank you for putting it so clearly. You have managed to give intelligent voice to the feelings of outrage that we have felt (but only helplessly yelled at the radio). The Bhopal catastrophe – and the Nigeria oil mess – did get some mention here on one of the Any Questions programmes, but didn’t get nearly enough attention. I hope you will write to the Obama administration. We had been planning to, but your words will carry much more authority. He needs to read your blog!

  8. Well said, hope this article was read by few Americans too.
    $470 million agreed on 1989 as a compensation for Bhopal victimes, Let us apply Future value of money (for year 2010 @ 8% average Inflation) this comes to $ 2.3 billion, This is still worth of peanuts when we compare with the claim of $ 20 million for a oil spill (not costed a US human life)- Which is dishearting.
    Further to it, Let me assume this oil spil caused death of 5000 fishes in US then the settlement given for a Indian life is more painful that American fishes are precious than Indian life.
    For me all under Sun (claimed to be God’s creations) as precious as each other

  9. Looks like Arjun Veer has not got all his facts.. Firstly the Bhopal victims got Rs. 15000 ( $300 per head). after 26 years…. i am sure they have paid more in medical treatment out of their pockets. Also, as for the recent air crash, each victim got paid about Rs. 5 lakhs ( $ 10,000 each) by the govt apart from what they will get from insurance companies.
    By the way, if a private company messes up a city, should they not pay for cleaning up.. Why should the Indian govt ( and by default indian tax payers) pay for cleaning up… Did Union Carbide share their profits with the tax paying indians before the accident. If BP can be held accountable in trillions for polluting environemnt, how come Union Carbide, who not polluted and but also KILLED 15,000 innocent indians go scot -free? 2 years imprisonment? is this some kind of traffic violation they are being prosecuted? why Obama is not enforcing the same 2 year imprisonment and let go of BP with some $300 per head compensation? or does it mean that some lives are superior to other lives… Obama is clearly on a litmus test…

  10. The Indian government and people are a bunch of incompetent people. I am Indian and can see through this BS. First, the British government (BBC especially) is trying to avoid blame and shield itself from the fall back from BP’s problems; BP needs to pay. On the other hand, Union Carbide happened 25 years back; the victims WERE compensated. Now the compensation is seen as not enough – are they making up for the 16% Indian inflation? How much did Indian Airlines pay for all the lost victims of their recent plane crash? Let me see, less than $500 per dead victim! What has the incompetent Indian government done for the last 25 years? Why have they not cleaned up the place. Are they just waiting for some one else to do it or some opportunity to skim more money? How much did the various Indian political parties profit from all these years of UN and US aid that came their way? The Brits are clearly trying to run from their responsibility for BP – considering BP is a private firm and most Americans see it that way, I am ashamed at the BBC and the British governments blatant PR efforts at drumming up public support globally against the US. I guess they forgot all the GI’s who shed their lives for Dunkirk!! God save the USA…


    Typical hypocrisy of the US
    written by manchurian , June 14, 2010

    Obama should look at Bhopal before he goes further with BP. The British PM should remind him of his responsibilities to the people of Bhopal. More died in Bhopal than in the gulf of Mexico. Obama is kicking ass in the Gulf. He should be kicking ass for the mess left behind by Union Carbide. How can you trust the Americans? This is blatant deceit. Of course the corrupt Indian PM also contributed his share. The Americans of course did the corrupting.


    Bill Emmott . John Wyles . Ravi Visvesvaraya Sharada Prasad . Carnegie Mellon . Reshmi Ray Dasgupta “like this”

    Selvaraja Somiah Bom Bole Nath! Is life in Bhopal so cheap? I was in Jabalpur for years and during winter holidays always made it a point to visit friends in Bhopal. Always had a liking for the city of Bhopal. Its a shame how the clowns of Union Carbide have been so inconsiderate for the Bhopalies. Its all about making money.

    Prabha Chandran thanks John….the two situations are ironic: the same politicians who yell loudly about saving environment and lives are silent when its in someone else’s backyard. The blind leading the blinded…

    John Andrews Well said, John! Might, of course, is always right…

    Shiraz Sidhva I get your point, John,but I’m not shedding any tears for Tony Hayward.

    Prabha Chandran agree with Shiraz, they deliberately cut corners

  13. If US wants to lay hands on Osama Bin Laden for the tragic 3000+ lives lost at WTC, should not by th same standards they hand over Anderson for the 15000+ lives lost at Bhopal… Yes, You Can Obama..

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