President Obama will carry a crowded slate of high-profile issues on his trip to India next week, from opening new export markets to deepening counterterrorism ties. But the toxic legacy of the 1984 Bhopal gas leak will remain simmering in the background, as the disaster remains an open wound for many Indians.
Frustration over Bhopal, where a cloud of methyl isocyanate gas killed an estimated 15,000 people and left thousands more ailing, flared anew in June after a court gave two-year prison sentences to Indian employees of the pesticide plant that spewed the chemicals. That struck many in India as too lenient, particularly given that a subsidiary of a U.S. company owned the lethal plant and that the White House had leaned on BP PLC to set aside $20 billion for those affected by its Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
Even after the BP spill faded from international headlines, the thorny questions of accountability and liability raised by Bhopal continue to complicate U.S.-India relations -- this time in the form of an Indian law that risks shutting U.S. nuclear companies out of the civil market that was opened by a landmark bilateral agreement signed in 2005.
Amid pressure from critics of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government and renewed public attention on the gas leak, the Indian Parliament passed a law in August that could leave nuclear suppliers liable for damages from an accident. That break from precedent left U.S. industry leery of future investment and searching for ways to ensure that nuclear operators bear the compensation burden.
The simmering Bhopal debate "has come to a head on the nuclear liability bill," with indirect consequences for the United States, said Ashley Tellis, a former State Department adviser who helped secure the 2005 nuclear pact.
"The Indian public saw the decision the Obama administration made with respect to the BP oil spill in the Gulf," said Tellis, now a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Essentially, they used that to demand that the nuclear liability bill leave room for extracting compensation from suppliers in case of a future nuclear accident."
Despite the cocktail of anger and sorrow that keeps Bhopal fresh in the Indian consciousness, the prospects of the gas disaster derailing Obama's trip remain slim to nil.
Mumbai-based economist Rupa Subramanya Dehejia, who contributes columns on India to The Wall Street Journal, said that while the summertime confluence of the BP spill and the Bhopal verdict made the disaster "optically and atmospherically a contentious issue," the agenda for the two nations is now dominated by economic and security issues, including the nuclear law.
"It's true that Bhopal has made it more difficult in terms of the domestic political economy" to assuage industry concerns with the liability statute, Subramanya Dehejia said via e-mail. But ultimately, she added, the government "realize[s] the centrality of this issue in the India-U.S. relationship and I think will try to push it through."
Nonproliferation Policy Education Center Executive Director Henry Sokolski also predicted in an interview that Obama's trip would not be thrown off course by any fallout from Bhopal. But he added that the disaster is far from a rearview-mirror issue for U.S.-India relations.
"Bhopal is to [Indians], in their own anticolonial perspective, what 9/11 is to our antiterrorist outlook," said Sokolski, a former adviser to then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney during the George H.W. Bush administration. "The idea that [on] the liability issue, 'You don't understand, we need to be absolved of any responsibility to make a sale, we will be fine,' is really kind of cheeky."
Advocates of Bhopal survivors, while their level of action in the United States has dwindled in recent years, hope the gas leak can be tugged into view of the public eye focused on Obama next week.
Claire Rosenfeld, U.S. coordinator for the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, predicted that protests could occur during the White House visit. She underscored the still-raw harm posed by the deadly methyl isocyanate used at the infamous pesticide plant, owned at the time of the leak by an Indian subsidiary of Union Carbide Corp.
"You have contamination that's spreading, not getting better," Rosenfeld said. "Bhopal is a huge symbol of all that can go wrong with multinational corporations ... so in the broader context of policy issues in India, it's going to be an example of a worst-case scenario that still hasn't been resolved."
Indeed, disposing of toxic debris that still sits on the site of the now-shuttered Union Carbide plant remains a challenge for Indian officials. The country's environment minister acknowledged earlier this year that the government was "wrong" to have sent 40 tons of Bhopal waste to an incinerator in another town without notifying locals.
Rajendra Pachauri, the Indian scientist who chairs the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said this week that he "would certainly not be surprised" to see demonstrations during Obama's trip aimed at reminding the public of the leak's lethal legacy.
"Let's face it, the Bhopal tragedy is one of the worst, if not the worst, tragedies humanity has suffered as a result of an industrial disaster," Pachauri told reporters during a briefing to preview Obama's trip. "There are people who are suffering today. There is clearly the issue of liability and culpability."
Asked if the issue might arise in conversations between Obama and Singh, who are slated for a private dinner on the president's second night in India, Pachauri said: "Once they have a discussion in a free and frank atmosphere ... I wouldn't rule it out at all."
One sector already planning to come out in force during Obama's trip is India's leftists. Four parties on the left, including the communists, today announced plans to stage "a countrywide day of protest" on Nov. 8, focusing on "justice for the victims of the Bhopal Gas accident" as well as unrelated issues such as withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and limiting aid to Israel.
Carbide as a symbol
Five years after Bhopal, Union Carbide agreed to a $470 million settlement with India. Seventeen years after Bhopal, the company was bought by Dow Chemical Co. Still, former Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson remains a target for many advocates and green campaigners who argue that he should be extradited to face charges in Indian courts.
A group of Indian Cabinet ministers, in the wake of harsh criticism over the June court verdict, recommended the pursuit of an extradition claim against Anderson -- now 89 years old and retired -- in addition to further compensation from Dow. Though that move generated international headlines, the likelihood of an Anderson extradition appears nearly zero.
"To be sure, it would have been nice 20 years ago, when the events took place, if the Indian political system had done a better job of handling the criminal complaint as well as all the forensics of what happened," said Tellis, of the Carnegie Endowment.
"To suddenly say the solution to the problem is to go out and arrest the CEO, who was at that point the chief of the parent [company], not the subsidiary -- I can understand the political concerns that drive these claims, but it's just untenable."
Sokolski put it succinctly: "How do you get anyone to invest anywhere in India if you extradite him?"
Dow, meanwhile, has said it respects Bhopal victims but that its purchase of Union Carbide did not transfer responsibility for a disaster that occurred years earlier at a plant it never managed.
Subramanya Dehejia, the Mumbai-based economist, pointed out that "adequate compensation" for the victims and a public investigation of Bhopal -- the type of lessons-learned exercise now going on for the Gulf oil spill -- have yet to materialize.
"Having said that," she added, "Indians also will admit that successive Indian governments have mostly paid lip service to the disaster and failed to vigorously pursue cleanup and compensation. Therefore, any fair assessment would have to apportion blame to both governments for not doing enough."