Dharmesh Shah has come all the way from India to Grangemouth this weekend for a purpose. He wants to stick it to one of the world’s biggest chemical companies.
The 26-year old Indian campaigner is outraged that the Dow Chemical Company seems to have washed its hands of the terrible disaster at Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh, 25 years ago next month. So he is attending a protest today (Sunday) at the US multinational’s newly acquired Scottish factory in Wholeflats Road.
“We have not learnt the lessons we should have done, so it’s just a matter of time before another Bhopal happens because big companies have shown that they don’t respect human life,” he told the Sunday Herald.
“There are still communities living around chemical plants, and companies are sending all their dangerous products to India, where the safety regulations are weak.”
Bhopal was one of the world’s worst ever industrial accidents. Shortly after midnight on 4 December 1984 the highly toxic gas, methyl isocyanate, leaked from a tank at a pesticide plant and killed thousands of local people.
The regional government put the immediate death toll at 3,787. According to campaigners like Shah, the real number was more like 8,000. In the years since, they say, another 25,000 have died from chronic diseases caused by the contamination, though this is disputed.
At the time of the accident, the plant was owned by the US company, Union Carbide. In 2001, Union Carbide was bought by Dow, and since then, though it protests its innocence, the company has become the target of the seething anger that Bhopal left in its wake.
According to Shah, there are still 10,000 tonnes of toxic waste at the pesticide plant, polluting the groundwater and causing illness. “Dow has to pay for the clean-up,” he said.
“There are people dying from drinking contaminated water and the company is refusing to do anything about it. They just need to spend a fraction of the money they spend on public relations globally on setting right what happened at Bhopal.”
In 2008 Dow had worldwide sales of £34 billion in 160 countries, and earlier this year acquired the £6 billion US chemical company Rohm and Haas. As a result the plastic products factory run by Rohm and Haas in Wholeflats Road, Grangemouth, is now owned by Dow.
“The people of Bhopal have been campaigning for justice for 25 years and are now trying to stop Dow expanding in India,” said Shah, who is with the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal. “They should not be expanding in Scotland until they are made liable for the damage which they have caused and from which they have benefited.”
Alongside other Indian and Scottish protesters, Shah will be attending a “remembrance” outside the Dow premises in Grangemouth at 3pm this afternoon, followed by a public meeting nearby. They will also be criticising Dow’s environmental and human rights record elsewhere in the world.
Dr Eurig Scandrett, who is researching Bhopal at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, stressed the importance of working with trade unions. “We want to find ways to protect jobs without having pariah companies like Dow moving into the area,” he said.
Dow, however, argued that it could not be held responsible for the “terrible tragedy” of Bhopal. “Dow never owned or operated the plant, which today is under the control of the Madhya Pradesh state government,” said a company spokesman.
“Dow acquired the shares of Union Carbide Corporation more than 16 years after the tragedy, and 10 years after the $470 million settlement agreement – paid by Union Carbide Corporation and Union Carbide India, Limited – was approved by the Indian Supreme Court.”
He insisted that the chemical industry had learnt lessons from the accident, and created a system of “responsible care” to protect workers and local communities. “While Dow has no responsibility for Bhopal, we have never forgotten the tragic event and have helped to drive global industry performance improvements,” he said.
Tomm Sprick, who still acts as Union Carbide’s spokesman on Bhopal, accused the protesters of spreading “misconceptions” about the accident. Trying to blame Dow for what happened was “misdirected”, he argued.
“Carbide had no assets in India at the time of the transaction with Dow and Dow never owned or operated the Bhopal site. Therefore, there were no liabilities for Dow to inherit through Union Carbide on the Bhopal issue.”
See also: http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/index.php/news/content/view/full/83252