Bhopal victims see glimmer of hope

by Rajshree Sisodia
Mar. 30, 2006. 01:00 AM
NEW DELHI—Survivors of the 1984 Bhopal chemical leak were cautiously optimistic yesterday after senior Indian government ministers agreed to push for a cleanup of the contaminated Union Carbide plant and compensation for victims.
Ram Vilas Paswan, the federal minister for chemicals and fertilizers, yesterday met 39 surviving victims of the tragedy, which killed thousands when 40 tonnes of toxic gas leaked from the former Union Carbide pesticide plant the night of Dec. 3, 1984.
In the 22-plus years since, the death toll has topped 15,000.
Survivors want the Indian government to help in their ongoing battle to have the company prosecuted, to have access to safe drinking water and for the decontamination of the now-derelict factory and the surrounding areas.
The talks came after hundreds of victims marched from Bhopal to New Delhi on Saturday in their ongoing fight for justice. They have vowed to stay in the capital until their demands are met, and hope yesterday’s talks will pave the way for dialogue with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Bano Bee, a 60-year-old widow from the J.P. Nagar colony, a stone’s throw from the former pesticide plant in Old Bhopal, said protestors would go on hunger strike if their demands were not met.
Before the meeting Paswan, the mother of seven said: “Why should the prime minister ignore our demands? We will stay here in Delhi until we get what we want.”
Key to the protestors’ demands is decontamination of the disused factory and the surrounding areas, including Old Bhopal’s groundwater sources, which survivors claim are continuing to poison a new generation of people through contaminated drinking water.
Victims are also pushing for U.S.-based Dow Chemical Co., which took control of Union Carbide in 2001, to stand trial and accept responsibility for the tragedy.
Victims also renewed demands that former Union Carbide chairman Warren Anderson, who absconded from the Indian courts after being charged with manslaughter, be extradited from the United States to India.
Union Carbide says responsibility for decontamination of the Bhopal site now lies with the Madhya Pradesh state government, which assumed control of the plant in 1998. Dow maintains that, because it only took control of Union Carbide in 2001, it bears no responsibility for the leak or contamination.
Satinath Sarangi, a member of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, said: “The ball is squarely in the lap of the prime minister who will have to choose between Dow Chemical and the people of Bhopal.”
New Delhi made a number of moves yesterday in reaction to the victims’ demands. It recommended a national commission that would: co-ordinate and fund health care for victims’ families; support funding for safe drinking water projects; recommend the inclusion of the Bhopal tragedy as a subject in the national school curriculum; and push the Indian Central Bureau of Investigation to re-apply for Anderson’s extradition.
The response marks a breakthrough for the gas survivors’ campaign after decades of governmental apathy. The U-turn comes amid growing pressure, from in and outside the sub-continent, for the victims’ demands to be met. Twenty U.S. Congress members, led by Democrat Frank Pallone Junior, last week wrote to Singh urging New Delhi to act.
“It is outrageous that the CEOs of Union Carbide and its successor, Dow Chemical, have yet to be brought to justice… The Indian Government has repeatedly said that justice will be served but has exemplified no commitment to this end. At a time when a new generation of victims is surfacing among children born to gas-affected parents and those exposed to contaminated drinking water, the (Indian) Government must take care of those affected by this horrific tragedy,” the letter said.
Last night, an official with the Indian prime minister’s office said they had received the gas victims’ request to meet Singh but added that a date for talks had yet to be finalized.
“We will get back to them when a time is fixed. I cannot tell you a time frame, (but) we will let them know,” the official said.
The tragedy in Bhopal left virtually no homes untouched. Thousands of people were killed in the immediate aftermath of the disaster in late 1984, while activists claim another 12,000 men, women and children have since died as a result of gas-exposure related illnesses.
In the areas surrounding the factory site, where 550,000 people now live, ongoing exposure to contaminated water supplies has spawned a new legacy of victims.
Independent research commissioned by environmental group Greenpeace revealed the groundwater around the pesticide plant is unsafe for human consumption.
The findings, in 1999, showed the groundwater contained “high concentrations” of the insecticide Sevin and mercury. Water samples taken from wells near the factory showed the presence of carbon tetrachloride, which the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says can cause damage to the liver, nervous system and kidney, and is a “probable” human carcinogen, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Levels of carbon tetrachloride found were more than 1,700 times the World Health Organization limit for safe drinking water.
Rajeshree Sisodia is a freelance journalist based in India.

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