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A little beyond shredding documents...
January 26, 2002 4:43 PM   Subscribe

A little beyond shredding documents... According to Human Rights Watch, the irrepressible Enron paid local police to beat, harass, and intimidate farmers and fishermen in India who opposed the building of their new power plant in their backyards. Does this, after Exxon-Mobil was taken to court for building torture centers in Indonesia, call into question the power of small states vis a vis humongous multinational corporations?
posted by skoosh (27 comments total)

 
Hmmm. Good thing Enron finally collapsed, otherwise we'd never have known about a three year old HRW report. Enron was clearly a company run by a bunch of crooks, but this HRW PR ploy is no better than GM advertising 0% financing to "help the economy". Using the latest headlines to fill your coffers with donations is slimy, whether you're a multinational corporation or multinational NGO.
posted by dchase at 5:18 PM on January 26, 2002


That's some pretty heavy negativity, dchase. How does releasing this report turn into a "PR ploy" to "fill...coffers"? I see a "contribute" link on the menu bar at the left, as on all the other pages at the site, but I don't see anything slimy about this piece.

Are we reading the same article?
posted by mr_crash_davis at 6:21 PM on January 26, 2002


skoosh, I am not sure the 1 billion people in India would agree that India is a "small state"! Agree with your larger point though.
posted by rsinha at 6:46 PM on January 26, 2002


Oh pulease.. India is a cesspool of corruption. Let's roll back to Bhopal shall we? Union Carbide built a plant remote from civilization to synthesize pesticides to support a burgeoning agricultural industry.

A disgruntled Indian employee pumped water into a methylisocyanate holding tank. The resulting exotherm, over pressure and venting into the air killed 2000 people. But, only because local politicians re-zoned surrounding land to allow people to move and live close to the plant. For this the CEO of Union Carbide was indicted of murder.

Megalo-corporate paranoia is for the under informed.
posted by Real9 at 7:25 PM on January 26, 2002


I thought it was more like 3800 people killed.
posted by ArkIlloid at 7:39 PM on January 26, 2002


Other sources cite 2,000. But, thanks for the spellbitch. I was going from memory.
posted by Real9 at 7:44 PM on January 26, 2002


For more third world hilarity read the tragi-comedy of errors as a confederacy of dunces (the indian government) expedites aid to the afflicted.
posted by Real9 at 8:00 PM on January 26, 2002


rsinha: You're right; my bad. I was thinking of those who like to say that multinationals often make more money than the GDPs of many small countries, and their detractors who counter that the largest multinational corporations have no power to raise armies or make laws. Well, if you can't raise your own army or police force, I guess renting one is the next best thing.

dchase: I think you overlook the fact that publicity is, for almost all activist groups, the main way that they advance their agendas. I feel quite sure that Human Rights Watch released their 1999 report in 1999, and is revisiting the issue now because people at the moment are interested in all things Enron. What does this do? It gets the information out to the public. Why does Human Rights Watch collect donations? So that it can get this sort of information out to the public. This is in contrast to GM or any other corporation, which seeks money so that it can pay dividends to its shareholders, not so that it can produce more and more advertising. For political activist groups, unlike most businesses, publicity is conceptually inseparable from their core activities of raising awareness and organizing campaigns.
posted by skoosh at 8:22 PM on January 26, 2002


"raising awareness" snort! guffaw!
posted by Real9 at 8:27 PM on January 26, 2002


Real9: SOme facts about the Bhopal Gas tragedy". Reports in international (not Indian) newspapers range from 8,000 (MSNBC link) to 13,000 (Guardian link). For a more personal look at the incident go to.

More than 500,000 people were effected. 10-15 people die monthly even today. Till now, Union Carbide has paid $470 million.

Yes, the Indian Government was culpable in not dealing with the tragedy adequately. Interesting to know that the biggest industrial accident in the world gives at least one person some cause for "hilarity".
posted by rsinha at 8:29 PM on January 26, 2002


rsinha, You cite high numbers as the norm. How honest is that? I went off memory and cited a government number to back it up.

English not being your first language and America not being your first country I can understand your eagerness to correct my spelling.

Perhaps you missed the word "tragi-comedy" in the post you find so objectionable. That would be called context.
posted by Real9 at 8:47 PM on January 26, 2002


English not being your first language and America not being your first country I can understand your eagerness to correct my spelling.

Please don't feed the trolls, people.
posted by rodii at 8:58 PM on January 26, 2002


rod, thanks for bringing your DOT edu social ostracism of anything not politically correct. I bow to your moral superiority. It would be so much fun if next time you brought a fact also.
posted by Real9 at 9:31 PM on January 26, 2002


Real 9:

Let's get a few things clear:

Re: “Let's roll back to Bhopal shall we? Union Carbide built a plant remote from civilization to synthesize pesticides to support a burgeoning agricultural industry.”

Union Carbide didn’t build the factory to ‘support a burgeoning agricultural industry’ . They built it for the same reason that other multinationals build factories in Asia. Because they could get much cheaper labour in MP. Nothing wrong with that. It also happened to help the local economy a great deal. But to say that's why Union Carbide set up a factory there is misrepresentation.

“A disgruntled Indian employee pumped water into a methylisocyanate holding tank. The resulting exotherm, over pressure and venting into the air killed 2000 people. But, only because local politicians re-zoned surrounding land to allow people to move and live close to the plant.”


So far as I recall (and it was a long time back), the plant when it leaked effected people outside of the immediate neighbourhood too and impacted some in the capital of MP too. Even if there were no one living closer to the plant (I don’t know of any re-zoning of any surrounding land. But I’ll take you at face value here), the toll and the eventual impact probably would have been high.


-I went through the site that you linked in your subsequent post. That site appeared to publicize Union Carbide’s efforts in aiding the victims in Bhopal. And even their explanation . is a lot more convoluted than that of ‘ a disgruntled Indian employee pumped water into methylisocyanate holding tank’ (!). It also has lots of disclaimers. From where did you derive your sabotage theory?

Re: ‘For more third world hilarity read the tragi-comedy of errors as a confederacy of dunces (the indian government) expedites aid to the afflicted.’

The page that you linked to has details on: ‘Union Carbide Aid & Relief Efforts’ . What was so hilarious or ‘tragic-comic’ about that?


The same site says:
‘3,800 persons died, 40 persons experienced permanent total disability, and 2,680 persons experienced permanent partial disability.’ Different from the number that you quoted.

I also think its irrelevant whether 2000 died or 15000 died. Fact remains that thousands of people died there. Nothing terribly hilarious about it.
posted by justlooking at 10:54 PM on January 26, 2002


I believe Enron is the only company ever to have the priveledge of it's own Amnesty International report.
posted by Jongo at 6:56 AM on January 27, 2002


Wow...It's people like Real9 that have driven me far away from MeFi. Jeee-zus.
posted by mapalm at 8:07 AM on January 27, 2002


I believe this is the most balanced report on Bhopal to be found. This report discounts Carbide's suggestion of sabotage and indicates the squatters' shanty towns were there before the plant was built in 1969. (One can imagine that industrial siting and shanty towns are coincidental for similar reasons.) The report also supports the idea that this was an investment sought specifically by the Indian government so that it would no longer have to import the pesticides it needed to expand agricultural production in a country that, then, was facing grave shortfalls in food production in the face of a growing population.

There's a lot of politicized hoo-hah in the other Bhopal links -- e.g. a charge that Union Carbide escapes liability because India has no such thing as a class action lawsuit. (One would normally think such a thing would motivate legal reform in India rather than anger at Union Carbide, which did subject itself to the legal settlement forced by the Indian government.) In the end the incident occurred, the company paid compensation under the laws of the land, and that just isn't enough for some people. When there's been a death, certainly you can never, ever come up with a dollar value that will salve the wound of loss. To the extent that the plant was unregulated and the Indian and provincial government were unwilling to supervise the investment they sought. One of the factors here was equipment safeguards that simply weren't operational or properly maintained.

The particularly egregious point of protest is the idea that Indian victims ought to have been financiall compensated at the same level as American victims. There simply isn't an economic justification for that. We may not be able to put a price on a life, but we can certainly put a price on such things as future earnings -- and sadly, many of the victims simply weren't much more than garbage-pickers.

Other charges seem to be based on nothing more than the fact that Union Carbide was a corporation designed to extract profits from resources in the ground or the labor of others. Well, that's what companies do. It isn't intrinsically evil.

Yes, something horrendously bad happened here, but under the existing legal system of a democratic country, compensation was awarded. No, it can never be enough, which is why these protests will never go away. But let's not devolve into thinking that a failure to fix what can't be fixed -- lives forever lost -- is the equivalent of an eternal calumny on a corporation that, dear me, is in the business of making money, and despite that has tried to do what it can in the face of a serious accident.
posted by dhartung at 8:31 AM on January 27, 2002


Good points, although we've wandered off-topic after hitting that hot-button on Bhophal ...

I'm wondering what insights dhartung and the rest of you have on the issue of direct corporate financing for armies and security forces.

I think skoosh is on to something with his comment about "... detractors who counter that the largest multinational corporations have no power to raise armies or make laws. Well, if you can't raise your own army or police force, I guess renting one is the next best thing." One of the linked articles states, "Exxon was implicated by virtue of the local army units it hired to protect its natural gas fields ..." Selling torture equipment or Zyklon B to an organization that doesn't respect human rights is one thing. Using private or corporate money to fund an army or police force is another.

When corporate financial support goes directly to the army, it's a different business model than paying corporate taxes to a government which prioritizes the corporation's security, due to its importance in the economy. Direct corporate financial support to armed groups tends to cut the government out of the loop in decisionmaking. Typically the non-company interests of local stakeholders are represented by a government, and in cases where the government is sufficiently out of touch with its people, by non-governmental organizations instead, [hopefully unarmed ones!]

Is it really desirable to take government out of the decisionmaking and policymaking process for armies and security forces?
posted by sheauga at 12:17 PM on January 27, 2002


Let me first address the Union Carbide stuff before I get to the original thread:

Dhartung: I was certainly not condoning the lack of governmental supervision of the Union Carbide facilities. It is unfortunately true that a combination of corruption, weaker legal safeguards and eagerness to attract investment allows multinationals to get away with a lot more in Asian countries than in Western economies. Whether that should allow corporations to have disparate safety standards and supervision in different countries is a different debate. It is to my mind the other side of the same argument that poorer countries apply when they say that their IP laws allow third party drug manufacturers to developer and sell expensive drugs at a cheaper cost and that they should be allowed to do so. Neither was I debating what $ value to attach to the victims on Bhopal tragedy, whether that was sufficient or whether there was ground to ask for more compensation. India has a fairly decent legal redressal system, but I dont know much about class action laws either in India or here. Also most of the victims were too poor and the local state government too compromised. So I dont know whether law would have ensured justice in this case.

My objections to real9's post were the following:

-Real9's charectarization of Union Carbide's investment in MP as an effort to support the local economy. Governments are forever trying to attract investment from elsewhere to their own countries. Like University presidents - that is one of the major responsibilities of a politician these days. It is to my mind facile to suggest that Union Carbide was convinced by MP government to set up shop in Bhopal to do good. (not that I am suggesting that anything other than profit should be the motive for a publicly traded corporation).

-Charectarisation of the event as hilarious, tragi-comic

-Misrepresentation of the number of people dead.

-Misrepresentation of the cause of accident.

Re: the original thread:

I am not very surprised that Enron (or its contractors - Enron probably didnt get their hands dirty themselves) co-opted the local law enforcement machinery. It is true that India has a lot of corruption. In that it is not very different from other countries in Asia. The methods that Enron employed are not very different from what other corporations in similar situations have used in South Asia. Tatas iamong the Indian conglomerates and Unilever/P&G among the multinationals n India are among very few that I know of, that haven't sullied their hands in a big way. (that has been my impression. I am certainly not vouchsafing their integrity!).

Does it mean that the decision making is being taken outside of the hands of the local government there? The state government of Maharstra wanted that plant built as much as Enron (albeit on their terms) and they probably didn't want the controvery to snowball into a movement of the size of the Narmada dam when it starts attracting the attention of mainstream media. They knew exactly what they were doing.

Corporations have always exploited the local laws and weaknesses. e.g. the banana republics of South America till the sixties. the sweatshops in China to which Wal-Mark, Nike et al contracts out etc. Even in USA, companies would always be looking for leverage. Companies like Intel are directly contrinuting to LAPD in CA towards buying of sophisticated equipments etc. A cashtrapped entity like LAPD is bound to feel some obligation towards these corporations which will make them chase copyright infringements more vigorously than the murder cases.

But do I feel corporations are evil? Definitely not. I have worked in the corporate sector in India and USA all my life. And I have seen more individual and organizational demonstrations of integrity there than I have come to expect from our politicians.

Companies like the political institutions are made of people - similar people and they need to be monitored. In the last 50 years business has become a lot more global and the way business is monitored has not changed significantly to reflect the new realities. I think bodies like WTO ARE steps in the right direction, but they need a lot more teeth for enforcement of human rights too. A multinational is monitored within a country's boundaries and they therefore would exploit individual weaknesses of different economies as long as you let them. I think eventually we would need to have a system like that of International War Crimes Tribunal that would chase multinational entities across national borders. Until that happens - let us be grateful for organizations like HRW that bring such violations to light.
posted by justlooking at 1:30 PM on January 27, 2002


Kausik,

I characterized the Indian government's response as tragi-comic. If you are uncomfortable with the concept of tragicomedy, the classics would be lost on you.

I did not misrepresent the number of people dead. There is a bimodal state of numbers regarding bhopal. One set is 2,000 and the other in the range of 4,000. Take your pick. I did and cited a reference. I see you have seen fit to merely throw unreferenced stones.

I did not misrepresent the cause of the accident. Sure, there are hundred of socialist activist web pages out there decrying the "pathetic excuse" of disgruntled employee that Union Carbide sticks to this day. But, the scientific and engineering community as part of failure analysis has concluded that a disgruntled employee, in fact the safety monitor of the tank of methyl isocyanate in question sabotaged the tank and created the accident. This isn't a matter of debate. Its now in textbooks.

Perhaps what can be concluded from all this is that third world countries in addition to lacking the technical competence to internalize sensitive technology, also lack the cultural ability to manage risk. They get plenty of support in their blame throwing of the resultant disasters from the technically illiterate first world left.
posted by Real9 at 7:55 PM on January 27, 2002


rod, thanks for bringing your DOT edu social ostracism of anything not politically correct. I bow to your moral superiority. It would be so much fun if next time you brought a fact also.
Of course, that was from the guy who brought you:

Some folks believe that Chelsea shares no genetic material with William Jefferson Clinton. Webb Hubble has been suggested as a more likely paternity candidate.

and, then again,

Derbyshire's entire line of argument would be derailed if Chelsea was Webster Hubbell's love child. Before the humorless thought police kick in. It's a joke!

And then later said this to me:

y2karl, I was impressed right up to the point that was apparent that your direct insult was a recycled mantra and probably borrowed.

But at least his not-old-enough-to-get into-an-NC-17-movie-legally-let-alone-buy-his-own-beer-tone is constant:

Apparently, you had no argument. How.. sad. You cannot complain that I didn't try to drag you out of insult and into discussion.

"Crap like your last paragraph..." ahem... I must have struck a nerve that rendered you bereft of argument. Perhaps you could take another stab at discourse.


luriete, In your apparently incompetent effort to imbed a URL, did you even read my reference to the local resistance to the EPA effort to "clean up" the Hudson river? I'm sure you know best for them. Really.

Poago, What law? Catch your breath now. Get back to us when you have a fact to share that backs up your hyperventilating.

Apparently, you had no argument. How.. sad. You cannot complain that I didn't try to drag you out of insult and into discussion.


Ok, let me get this straight. Y'all are getting upset because fiction is matching your prejudices. Neato. How do you folks keep your arms from doing those Seig Heils?

And then, again, in another thread,

Also, the author of this flame bait FPP should be chastised for associating political views, opposed to his own, to Nazis.

Class act or what?
posted by y2karl at 10:42 PM on January 27, 2002


Real9:

I probably shouldn't have bother to reply. But anyway:

-Is that page belonging to one Mr. Graham of 'Barret Engineering Consulting' that you cited 'the scientific engineering community' that you referred to?

That page ends with:
'The reference for this information is forthcoming.'
Wow!
That page also has a helpful link on top to:
'CLICK HERE for help with Fastening, Materials, Corrosion, Structural & Mechanical Design '!


-The reference for 'no of people dead' in Bhopal that you cited took me to 'Lakes Environmental Software'! I hunted hard in the footnotes and finally discovered the reference to 2000 dead in Bhopal - again without any attribution. Not sure how a software company is now the authority on this. Btw, the page that seemed so hilarious to you and that you linked to quoted the number to be 3800. (I can't believe that I am even bothering to comment about the number of people dead in what is to my mind a huge tragedy no matter how many thousands died!)

But let me bow to your better judgement (reinforced no doubt by an education in 'classics') on the definition of what is hilarious and what is tragi-comic. After all, unlike some of us, English is obviously your first language. I must admit though, that I am very glad that other 'English speakers' on this thread did not appear to share your taste in tragi-comedies.

I dont think asking you to define what constitutes 'cultural ability to manage risk' is good for the health of this forum. I would just let that one pass for the sake of overall health of this community.

Kaushik
posted by justlooking at 11:12 PM on January 27, 2002


YrKarl:

you missed one of the classics:

Union members are pretty much like folks who live in trailer homes. They were screwed before the tornado arrived.
posted by Real9 at 4:25 PM PST on January 25


I went thru all that stuff last night after I read Real9's 'hilarity/tragi-comedy' post. But didnt not want to bring them up ...
posted by justlooking at 11:19 PM on January 27, 2002


Please don't feed the trolls, people.
posted by rodii at 5:29 AM on January 28, 2002


y2karl, I'm flattered to be stalked. But, don't make this a habit.

For anyone still reading references, here's another one perhaps the most detailed I've read about the intimate details preceding the Bhopal disaster.
posted by Real9 at 7:07 PM on January 28, 2002


Wow...It's people like Real9 that have driven me far away from MeFi. Jeee-zus.
We're all so glad that you came back here to tell us that you were staying away. Again.
posted by darukaru at 8:40 PM on January 28, 2002


You're right, darukaru...why fucking bother.
posted by mapalm at 9:08 PM on January 28, 2002


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