The man who would disappear has vanished from the face of the earth. Warren Anderson, former chairman and CEO of Union Carbide and the most famous absconder from the Indian courts, died on September 29 at a nursing home in tiny Vero Beach, Florida. His family did not report his passing. Anderson did fly to Bhopal, disregarding legal advice, to take responsibility after the gas tragedy of 1984 (the 30th anniversary is just a month away) but left after posting bail of a paltry Rs 25,000 and never returned. In Indian eyes, he will remain a symbol of impunity, the author of the world’s biggest industrial disaster who went unpunished. The US government refused his extradition for want of evidence of direct culpability. Union Carbide and its present owner, Dow Chemical, denied responsibility, holding that the Bhopal plant was operated by an Indian subsidiary whose executives stood on trial. Besides, Union Carbide regarded the 1989 settlement of $470 million as closure. However, settlement and justice are never the same thing.
Imagine Bhopal in reverse. Imagine that the US subsidiary of an Indian transnational had allowed a disaster to happen, in which a population the size of Vero Beach, the town where Anderson died, was killed outright, and a population the size of Atlanta’s was maimed in a manner that caused morbidity and mortality over decades. US law may have granted the CEO of the Indian transnational bail for lack of proof of direct agency, but would the administration have permitted the company and its representatives to withdraw altogether from its jurisdiction? In the looking-glass world of Bhopal, 1984, the Indian authorities actually facilitated the departure of Anderson. The settlement that followed was a pittance, its disbursement wholly inefficient, and nothing was left over for obvious long-term costs, such as chemical clean-ups at the site. Finally, the disaster poisoned generations, and it is now impossible to enumerate the number of lives affected, including the families of the disabled.
Bhopal apparently haunted Anderson, who dropped out of public life and became a recluse, flitting between residences in New York State, Connecticut and Florida to elude process servers. But were his hardships, though tedious, on the same scale as that of the victims of the tragedy? That is for the ghosts of Bhopal to reckon. We, the living, should be more concerned about the bungling of our own government, which utterly failed the victims. India is expected to industrialise rapidly, and it cannot afford any more Bhopals.