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The Role Economic Forces Played In Influencing Legal Developments After Bhopal Gas Leak

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By Shailza Sharma:

The Big Push theory in Economics proposes that the progress of an economy depends on the support of foreign investment in the domestic companies. The Indian Economy was characterized by protectionism, extensive regulation and public ownership from 1947 to 1991. In these years of India’s ‘inward looking’ economic policy the Bhopal tragedy took place in 1984. It now symbolizes the exposure of India and the unsuspecting Third world to the great and unknown dangers concealed in the modern technology brought to them by multinational corporations (1).

The emergence of the ‘global risk society’ as Ulrich Beck says and as further explained by Upendra Baxi in his paper, there is a struggle over the scale, degree and urgency of the risks involved. Thus, the looming question is whether the opening up of the Indian economy also opens up portals for events such as the Bhopal catastrophe? Is this risk justified in the name of development or modernization? The main aim of corporations like Union Carbide is to use the cheap labour and low safety standards in a developing country like India to expand profits.

Even today, when our country is free of colonizers; a new method of colonization which has emerged in this globalized age is the concept of post modern capitalism. This is evident in the importance given to the plight of the corporations as compared to getting justice for the victims of Bhopal. This is an emerging dimension of economic exploitation by the developed country. According to Marc Galanter, many countries do not have the capacity to develop such legal systems that can handle gigantic and complex lawsuits. Since the very beginning the focus of Bhopal activists was to get healthcare and economic needs of the victims satisfied which was never complied with.

In most societies there is pretence that government affords more protection than in fact it does (2). The Indian government proved this point openly when the first lawsuit filed against the UCC was in the US judicial system, although the same was rejected by Judge Keenan on the basis of forum non conveniens. Judge Keenan also pointed out that if the American government decided this case, then it would ‘revive a history of subservience and subjugation from which India has emerged’ (3). In the end the litigation was sent back to India, one of the reasons being that India was once a colonized nation and by allowing the US to try this would have meant the reiteration of the superiority of a developed nation economically and politically.

Marc Galanter points out that it is the ‘goodness’ of the legal system in which one operates that finally lets you achieve justice for its citizenry. One of the many contentions of UCC to avoid liability was that if any entity was responsible for the relevant acts or omissions it was UCIL, its Indian subsidiary. This led the Government of India to examine the principles of corporate law regarding the standards of protection applicable for owners of hazardous products. Further, the only way of escaping legal liability and moral responsibility known to the Northern corporate world is the way of merger and amalgamation and of divestiture of assets to successors-in-interest being The Dow Chemicals (4).

Thus, first the pinning of responsibility on the Indian subsidiary UCIL and then the shifting of hands of management in favour of Dow Chemicals very clearly marks play of economic forces which prevented the Indian judiciary to get justice for the Bhopal violated effectively.

It is important to take notice of the fact that economic growth, globalization and modernization are necessary to combat such disasters effectively. The economic power and control held by the Multinational Corporations gave the power to set up market in unsuspecting countries like India as opposed to their home countries with stricter safety standards and regulatory regimes. As an industrializing country we lacked the proper infrastructure to cope with an industrial accident like the one in Bhopal. As mentioned by Ulrich Beck there is an emergence of ‘global risk society’ which does not include countries like India due to their incapability or powerlessness of managing such risks.

The failure of the Indian government to hold the UCC liable and pierce the corporate veil goes to show that UOI was ready to industrialize the nation even at the cost of the Bhopal victims. This helps resurface the notion of ‘modernity’ that we believe in which has been borrowed from the West, was evident when the government aligned itself with the corporations in order to support economic growth.

Thus the enthusiasm of the developing nations to embrace industrialization through a transfer of technology from industrialized nations rendered the developing nations vulnerable to risks involved with the use of these technologies (5). All these economic factors led the UOI to supply a very weak legal response to the Bhopal victims which remain pending even to this date.


(1) Marc Galanter, When Legal Worlds Collide: Reflections on Bhopal, the Good Lawyer, and the American Law
School, Pg 292
(2) Marc Galanter, When Legal Worlds Collide: Reflections on Bhopal, the Good Lawyer, and the American Law
(3) Writing About Impunity, Upendra Baxi, Pg 28
(4) Writing About Impunity, Upendra Baxi, Pg 29
(5) Two Tragedies in Bhopal: A Case Example in the Context of Global Economy, Deborah Wood, May 12, 2001,
Pg 22

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

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