Nearly three years after toxic gases from a Union Carbide Corporation’s (UCC) factory killed an estimated 15,000 people and left more than half a million seriously ill in the Indian city of Bhopal, a chemical trading firm – Visa Petrochemicals Private Limited – was incorporated in Mumbai, reported Al Jazeera.
Over the next 14 years, Visa Petrochemicals became a linchpin in an elaborate plan by American chemical giant UCC to discreetly sell its products in India while it evaded criminal trial for spewing lethal gases that killed the residents of Bhopal on the midnight of 2 December 1984.
A Bhopal court had declared UCC’s then-CEO Warren Anderson a fugitive and ordered that the properties and products of UCC and its subsidiaries, all of which were proclaimed offenders and absconders in India for not appearing in the criminal trial against them, be seized, reads the report.
Internal company records, accessed by The Reporters’ Collective (TRC) for Al Jazeera, now reveal that UCC discreetly sold its products to several firms owned by the federal and state governments, and some large private corporations. Among them was a buyer from ground zero: a firm owned by the government of Madhya Pradesh, the state whose capital Bhopal saw one of the world’s worst industrial disasters. The firm was a joint venture partner in a cable company that bought UCC products.
To create a discreet backdoor into India where the public saw it as the devil of Bhopal and courts were going after it, UCC and its associates floated three firms, one each in India, the United States and Singapore. In its internal records, Carbide employees called them “front” and “dummy” companies. At times, they referred to these companies as their “extended arms”. These firms took orders from Indian customers on UCC’s behalf, relabelled its products, routed them through multiple ports and supplied them to customers. The company sold materials that went into the making of household products ranging from telephone cables to paints.
As per the report, UCC internally admitted that the dummy companies were “a legal requirement” to help it keep its “distance from India”. This admission was made in an internal business plan for UCC to keep selling its goods in India even after the Indian court had ordered the seizure of all its moveable and immovable assets in the country.
The court did not explicitly declare the future sale of UCC products illegal. But it had ordered that all its assets be seized, including products and goods meant for sale, reads the report.
The government companies that traded with UCC knew about this backdoor arrangement, as UCC privately informed them when its front company participated in tenders.
This backdoor arrangement continued until 2002, a year after American giant Dow Chemical bought all assets of Carbide for $9.3bn. The period saw Union governments led by both the main Indian parties, Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Between 1995 and 2000, the company sold more than 55,800 tonnes of wires and cables in the Indian market, according to records. In 1999 alone, the company sold products worth $24m through this arrangement.
While media in India had reported that Dow relabelled UCC’s products and sold them in the country through a front company for a year, the group’s elaborate discreet channels – the network of front and dummy companies – and information on UCC customers, including government corporations that knowingly bought products through this shadowy channel, had been buried so far. Information on the people behind the dummy companies and their workings – active for almost 14 years – is being published for the first time.
The fountainhead of these revelatory records are documents submitted in a US court hearing when Dow, UCC and its dummy companies got into litigation over the pricing of products in the early 2000s and submitted evidence of their relationships, reads the report by Al Jazeera.