Thank you SEVIN: Union Carbide’s image, then and now.

Union Carbide was an already established and prestigious American multinational that provided the world with lamps, batteries and photo-paper (among other useful daily products) when it sought to penetrate the Indian market. When it did, its revenues rose to unthinkable new highs. Never had the company been so successful, so rich, so powerful. Why? Because UC had offered what was billed as a definitive solution to Indian farmers’ troubles with failing crops and plants ravaged by insects every new season. A very potent insecticide that would kill any insect, regardless of its shape or size was at last going to solve all their problems, and this miracle product was called SEVIN.  SEVIN was the world’s newest and most potent pesticide, capable of annihilating any type of insect or parasite.

It sounded great but a major drawback was that SEVIN was made out of an ingredient that outranked all the other chemicals placed at the very top of the “DANGER- HIGHLY TOXIC” list, methyle isocyanate, aka MIC.  But it didn’t matter:as long as the MIC was sealed in its own special tank, the pros outdid the cons. SEVIN and thus Union Carbide were going to bless India with its innovative genius and finally make crops grow plentifully. As it promised, Union Carbide was going to “help build a new India”, an India totally sold on the use of ever more chemicals and pesticides in its agro-industry.

SEVIN, Made to Serve India! Or so they thought.

Indian agricultural industrialists viewed Union Carbide’s product as a blessing. Finally a reliable, strong insecticide that would turn the sterile Punjab fields into lush, productive and lucrative crops. Finally, our farmers will not starve! Union Carbide’s was held in awe!

I never quite realized the extent to which Union Carbide had been revered before the gas tragedy actually occurred in 1984. For me, Union Carbide was a powerful multinational that committed an unforgivable crime that it never owned up to. Resorting to bribery on a massive scale, it got away with murder. Literally. And in the thousands. To this day! Union Carbide represented everything that a company could do wrong in a foreign country. But UC’s practices were not an exception. A terribly immoral Western economic model and system tacitly allows, even encourages,  corporations to disregard Western labour and environmental laws when they set up shop (or sweat shops!) in developing countries. Our corporations often disregard or simply bride their way out of following local laws and regulations; they wreak havoc then leave, not having paid any price for the social, environmental, health and/or other disasters they visited upon a community. Hardly ever do they face the consequences of their criminal acts. Union Carbide is not the only corporation that has not paid for its terrible crimes. Nestle, Nike, Starbucks, Dove, and Dole are but a few of the world’s most powerful and hugely profitable corporations. They are known to have exploited workers, to have destroyed protected forests, to have employed children, among other unethical actions. Everyday, we find out about more examples of corporate irresponsibility. The Western Corporation, when it operates in developing countries, becomes a model of corruption and negligence. Like children who party in the house when the parents are gone. Except that the parents are not gone; they are just bribed into closing their eyes to the unsafe, immoral practices of those Western factories and plants.

From Union Carbide to Nestle and beyond. History repeats itself and will do so until we in the West apply pressure on corporations and on our governments to demand higher ethical standards and accountability out of our corporations.

I’m glad that I stumbled on some books and articles that describe the admiration Indians had for Union Carbide prior to the tragedy, as that is an attitude I would have never imagined possible. These readings made me realize that there was a pre-Union Carbide era and a post-Union Carbide era in India. We, and by “we” I mean most people aware of the Bhopal gas tragedy, just happen to be living in the post-Union Carbide era and in an era in which people have become more aware and more critical of Western corporations in general. We definitely don’t live in a post-corporation era, but we’re slowly opening our eyes to the many shortcomings of the current system.

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