Thirty years on, Bhopal survivors fight for justice

The US government ignored Indian requests to extradite UC CEO Warren Anderson, who died a free man in September.

December 3 marks the 30th anniversary of the horrific Bhopal gas disaster. It also marks 30 years of relentless struggle for justice by survivors.

The city of Bhopal, capital of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, was the site of a pesticide plant run by Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) subsidiary of the US-based Union Carbide Corporation. UC became a subsidiary of Dow Chemicals in 2001.

Starting on the night of December 2, 1984, a deadly cloud of toxic gases ― methyl isocyanate (MIC), hydrogen cyanide and mono methyl amine ― spilled out of the factory and engulfed the city of Bhopal.

More than half a million people were exposed to the lethal emissions. Residents tried to flee for their lives, but the effects of the gases were horrific. By the morning, the city was littered with bodies.

At least 8000 people died in the days immediately after the leak, but the exact death toll is unknown. Whole communities were wiped out, leaving no one behind to identify the dead.

People continued to die as a result of exposure to the gases, and today the body count stands at 30,000 people. More than 150,000 people are also living with chronic illnesses due the disaster. Tens of thousands of children have been born suffering birth defects and other medical problems.

Preventable tragedy

What happened in Bhopal was not simply an unfortunate tragedy, but an entirely preventable corporate crime of epic proportions. It shows the impunity claimed by negligent corporations, and provides a stark example of global capitalism’s disregard for human life.

The Bhopal plant was built using technology and materials inferior to its sister plant in the US. UC consciously allowed it to deteriorate, opting to gamble with the lives of Bhopali citizens rather than spend money on measures to safely maintain the plant.

Many leaks and malfunctions, which raised the spectre of a larger disaster, were ignored by senior UC personnel, as were the results of its own 1982 safety inspection.

Local journalist Rajkumar Keswani wrote a series of ominous articles in the years prior to the leak, his last just months before, warning: “Bhopal on the Brink of a Disaster”.

Even fully functioning, the six safety systems at the plant were not adequate to prevent a major leak. However, not a single one was operational at the time of the disaster. Not even the emergency siren at the plant was working, which would have given some residents more time to escape.

Prioratising profits

After the initial massacre, the company continued to prioritise protecting its profit margin above saving lives. UC refused to release vital information identifying the composition of the fatal gases, which desperate medical staff requested as they scrambled to determine effective treatment for victims.

The company went to great lengths to minimise its financial liability for the disaster, flying medical “experts” from the US to Bhopal to claim the effects on victims were minimal. In the months after the leak, UC colluded with Indian authorities to block the use of the drug sodium thiosulphate to treat injuries.

The significant successes made using this treatment indicated the victims had suffered cyanide poisoning, which UC fervently denied.

The parent company tried to place responsibility for the disaster on UCIL, despite the fact that UC had pressured the Indian government to exempt it from Indian laws so that it could maintain majority ownership of its Indian subsidiary.

UC, right up to its CEO Warren Anderson, was involved in the management decisions of the Bhopal plant ― particularly in driving the cost-cutting measures. It was fully aware of the safety issues.

UC also put considerable resources into a PR campaign to claim that a disaffected employee at the Bhopal factory had deliberately caused the leak. The company stuck to this absurd and unproven story to claim it was the victim of industrial sabotage, rather than the perpetrator of a crime against humanity.

Anderson flew to Bhopal after the disaster, where he was charged with manslaughter and placed under house arrest. He was allowed to fly back to the US, after he promised to return to face Indian courts.

He never did, and in September ― after almost three decades of suffering by his surviving victims ― Anderson died in the US, a free man. The US government ignored Indian requests to extradite this mass murderer.

In 2001, the Dow Chemical Company bought Union Carbide. Dow has washed its hands of the Bhopal disaster, refusing to abide by its legal responsibilities.

For more than a decade before the disaster, improper waste management and disposal at the site had been polluting farmlands around the factory. UC failed to clean up the site, leaving a toxic wasteland after it abandoned the plant in 1998.

Neither the company nor Indian authorities warned those living in surrounding areas of the severe contamination of soil and water. Many people drank from poisoned water sources for years.

This contamination continues to cause severe health problems for local residents and their offspring.

Without the participation or agreement of the victims, UC negotiated a settlement with the Indian government in 1989. The company’s categorisation of injuries, which determined about 93% of victims suffered only temporary or minor injuries, was accepted by the Indian government.

Just US$470 million compensation was paid, which included about $1000 for every death and less than $500 for victims with lifelong injuries.

In exchange, the Indian government agreed to UC’s outrageous condition that the company be absolved of any further criminal or financial liability.

Court action

In 2010, successful campaigning by survivors pushed the Indian government to file a Curative Petition in India's Supreme Court, claiming US$1.2 billion from UC and Dow. This would provide victims an extra $1600.

Yet the petition was based on UC’s initial distorted figures for deaths and injuries, and the 93% of survivors deemed ― without scientific or medial basis ― to have only minor injuries were excluded.

On November 11, five women survivors launched an indefinite waterless fast in New Delhi. They demanded the government revise the official death and injury tolls in the petition and grant extra money in compensation to survivors.

The fast ended on the fourth day when the minister of chemicals and fertilisers agreed to meet their demands.

Rachna Dhingra, from the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, said on November 15: “We see this as the first major official initiative to correct the historical wrongs in Bhopal.”

This is the latest victory in the three-decade-long struggle maintained by courageous survivors and their supporters. The campaign has continuously thwarted efforts by Dow to make the world forget Bhopal.

After concerted protests, Dow abandoned its establishment of a research and development centre in Pune, Maharashtra in 2010. The global campaign forced Dow to remove its logo from the London Olympic stadium prior to the 2012 Olympics.

The campaign continues to demand that the company pay compensation sought by the Curative Petition, face the criminal charges in the Bhopal District Court, and clean up the contaminated site.

[Visit www.bhopal.net for details of events marking the 30th anniversary and information on how to support the campaign.]

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