Bhopal disaster 25 years on — bring corporate killers to justice


Pierre Rousset


Twenty-five years after the worst industrial disaster in history, the people of Bhopal, in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, are still fighting for justice.

On December 3, 1984, a leak at Union Carbide’s Bhopal factory sent a barrage of toxic gases through the city. The streets were flooded with people desperately trying to flee the clouds of poison, choking, convulsing, vomiting and writhing in pain.

The poor suffered the worst casualties, with less ability to escape quickly in vehicles.

At least 8000 people died in the immediate aftermath and hundreds of thousands more were left with horrific injuries and severe lifelong health problems. Subsequent generations have also suffered the effects.

The Bhopal plant had employed sub-standard technology, far inferior to that in Union Carbide’s United States factory. In the years leading up to the disaster, Union Carbide slashed jobs at the plant, dramatically decreased staff safety training and cut costs from the maintenance budget.

A series of smaller leaks during that time hinted at what was to come. By that fateful day, the factory’s safety systems were all utterly dysfunctional.

Union Carbide, concerned only with avoiding any admission of liability that may have financial consequences, criminally refused to release information about the leaked gases.

This prevented hospital staff from being able to determine appropriate urgent treatment, escalating the number of fatalities and serious injuries.

The death toll now stands at more than 20,000 and rises almost daily.

Shana Ortman, US Coordinator of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB), told Green Left Weekly that for many Bhopalis, “December 3, 1984 was just the beginning of a lifelong disaster”.

She said more than half a million people were exposed to the gases and more than 100,000 people remain unable to work due to exposure-related illness.

“Union Carbide may have abandoned their plant in 1984, but the toxic waste that they had been throwing into a breached solar evaporation pond has stayed and spread each monsoon season into surrounding neighbourhoods.

”More than 20,000 people have been forced to drink water contaminated with toxins like mercury, dichlorobenzene, chloroform, carbon tetrachloride and other persistent organic pollutants and heavy metals.

“This has caused all sorts of birth defects and health problems for children and adults living in those neighbourhoods.”

In 2001, Union Carbide became a wholly owned subsidiary of the Dow Chemical Company. Ortman said: “Dow, according to its own public statements, made the decision to acquire the company with full knowledge of the criminal charges pending against Union Carbide and their status as a fugitive from justice.

“Despite repeated public requests and protests around the world, Dow Chemical has refused to make its new subsidiary appear before the Bhopal District Court to face the criminal charges pending against it.

“Dow also insists that Union Carbide corrected the situation when they settled the civil damages for [US]$470 million with the Indian government in 1989. However, this settlement did not extinguish the criminal charges against the company or its officials.

“The settlement only dealt with illnesses and deaths from gas exposure on December 3, but did not deal with the groundwater and soil contamination that Union Carbide left behind.”

The ICJB wants the US Congress to hold a congressional hearing into the ongoing contamination at the abandoned site in Bhopal and Dow’s liabilities, and has received support from some members of Congress.

Ortman told GLW that under the Bush administration, the US State Department refused to extradite Warren Anderson, Union Carbide CEO at the time of the disaster, to India to face criminal charges.

The ICJB is hoping that the new administration will grant any future request from India.

The Indian government has asked for more than $20 million from Dow as an advance payment towards cleaning up the abandoned site at Bhopal, including the poisoned groundwater and contaminated areas around the plant. But Dow has not been forthcoming.

Ortman said the Indian government “must begin clean up now to prevent further spread of the toxins” and should “use the legal system to force Dow to pay for it”.

The ICJB is also demanding that Union Carbide “show up in court to face trial in the ongoing criminal proceedings against them in India”.

Ortman said the Indian government also “promised to build pipelines to bring clean water to the communities that have been drinking, eating, and washing with water contaminated by the chemicals that Union Carbide left behind”.

She said that while construction began, it has stalled, and “needs to be completed urgently”.

In August 2008, the Indian government promised to set up an “empowered commission” to address the range of health, environmental, social and economic issues in Bhopal. The ICJB is calling for this promise to be fulfilled immediately.

Since the disaster, survivors and their supporters have been fighting for justice and reparations. In recent years the campaign has been successful in pushing a number of Indian universities to reject sponsorship from Dow. Last year, protesters prevented a Dow research and development centre from being built near Pune.

On November 19, in the lead-up to the 25th anniversary of the disaster, hundreds of Bhopalis protested outside Dow’s offices in Noida, near New Delhi. The protesters vowed to continue their campaign to force Dow out of India until the company accepts its liability in Bhopal.

To mark the anniversary on December 3, Ortman said “survivors have called upon activists around the world to organise a day of action”. More than 100 actions globally are expected to take place, including “die-ins or protests, educational actions like vigils, film screenings or photo exhibits, and individual actions, like call-ins or hunger fasts”.

Kerryn Williams

For more information and to support the campaign, visit www.studentsforbhopal.org.

You can also donate to the campaign at www.bhopal.net/donate.