Bhopal 20 Years on: Globalization and Corporate Responsibility
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The year 2004 marks the 20th anniversary of the worst industrial disaster in human history. Some 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate leaked from a tank at the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) chemical pesticide plant in Bhopal, India. The toxic cloud killed more than 20,000 people. Today about 150,000 are still chronically ill and hundreds of thousands of others suffer socially and psychologically. UCC accepted some moral responsibility for the disaster but rejected any legal responsibilities. In 2001 it was absorbed by Dow Chemical, which now states that it has nothing to do with what happened 20 years ago in Bhopal. The local Madhya Pradesh government and the Indian federal government have also let down the disaster victims. The financial compensation paid by UCC in 1989 has yet to be completely paid out to the claimants. The pesticide plant still exists and, in its current dilapidated state, poses an ongoing threat to surrounding communities. The Bhopal disaster, still unresolved after 20 years, raises questions about how multinationals operate. Globalization is an unstoppable process and multinationals play a prominent role in shaping it. They enjoy the advantages of increasingly borderless societies and economies but often seem reluctant to accept their social and environmental responsibilities. In the last two decades, partly because of what happened in Bhopal, governments and civil society have developed new values and greater expectations. Several international policy instruments have been created to make multinational operations more transparent, and responsible. They are a step forward. Their use, however, is still voluntary and this considerably weakens their potential usefulness. The role of various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as watchdogs of the process is useful and essential but ad hoc. Some NGOs, like the companies they monitor, lack accountability. In any case, the journey towards greater corporate transparency and accountability will be a long and slow one.
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