Ranjit Devraj, IPS, June 18, 2009
A campaign in the United States led by two girl victims from Bhopal, highlighting lingering toxicity left behind by the 1984 gas disaster in their city, has paid off with a group of 27 members of the U.S. Congress asking Dow Chemicals to clean up the site.
Sarita and Sareen, both in their teens, were taken on a 42-day tour of the U.S., starting Apr. 21, by the Bhopal Group for Information and Action (BGIA) so they could meet and interact with officials, academics and politicians in New York, Washington D.C., San Francisco and other cities.
Rachna Dhingra, a member of the BGIA team, described the intervention of 27 Congressmen as a “big step” in getting Dow Chemicals to accept responsibility for cleaning up the disaster site in Bhopal, which it acquired from Union Carbide in 2001.
“In the U.S. we had meetings with the State and Justice Department officials, who took keen interest in the issue of extradition of Warren Anderson, chairman of Union Carbide at the time of the world’s worst industrial disaster,” Dhingra told IPS over telephone from Bhopal.
A runaway reaction at the Union Carbide plant – said to have been caused by gross negligence – resulted in cyanide gas spewing into the streets of Bhopal city on the night of Dec. 3, 1984, killing more than 3,500 people instantly and at least 8,000 people in the first week. Further chemical damage affected more than 200,000.
Anderson managed to slip out of Bhopal and fly back to the U.S. – refusing to return to India to face criminal liability.
But the main agenda of the BGIA tour was to bring pressure to bear on Dow Chemicals to clean up the site where the pesticides factory stood – that remains saturated with toxic matter, forcing poor communities around it to drink contaminated water 25 years later, Dhingra said.
Satish Sarangi, who led the delegation, told IPS that the changed attitude was possibly the result of a more responsive administration under President Barack Obama. “Among those we met was Henry Waxman, Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, who had in 1984 chaired the congressional sub-committee on the Bhopal Gas Disaster and had promised a fresh hearing where Dow officials could be summoned.”
In a letter to Dow Chemicals, the senators have demanded that the company take responsibility for meeting the medical needs of the survivors and their economic rehabilitation, besides cleaning up the soil and water of the area around the site.
“We request that Dow ensures a representative appear in the ongoing legal cases in India regarding Bhopal, that Dow meets the demands of the survivors for medical and economic rehabilitation, and cleans up the soil and groundwater contamination in and around the factory site,” the lawmakers said in a letter to Dow chairman and CEO, Andrew Liveris.
“Despite repeated public requests and protests around the world, Union Carbide has refused to appear before the Bhopal District Court to face the criminal charges pending against it for the disaster,” the letter said. When served with a summons by a Bhopal district court in 1992, Union Carbide publicly refused to comply.
In 1999 Bhopal survivors filed a class action suit in U.S. courts against Union Carbide, asking that the company be held responsible for violations of international human rights law and for cleanup of environmental contamination in Bhopal. The case is one of a handful of international corporate liability cases that test the limits of corporations’ ability to use the laws of one nation to escape responsibility in another.
Congressman Frank Pallone was quoted as saying that, “after 25 years, the human and environmental tragedy of the Bhopal chemical disaster remains with us, while Union Carbide and Dow Chemical are yet to be brought to justice.”
Sarangi thought what may have helped draw support from such a large group of Congressmen was the fact that both India and the U.S. uphold the “polluter pays” principle in which the polluter – rather than public agencies – is made responsible for environmental pollution.
Indicating the double standards followed by Dow Chemicals, Sarangi said that while the company saw fit to set aside 2.2 billion dollars in 2002 against Union Carbide’s asbestos-related liabilities in the U.S., it has continued to evade liabilities in Bhopal.
Dow Chemicals had taken the stand that all liabilities were settled in 1989 when Union Carbide paid 470 million dollars to the Indian government, to be distributed to the survivors.
But NGOs based in Bhopal say the amount was paltry compared to the three billion dollars originally demanded by the government, and also did not take into account the after-effects of the gas leak on the city’s inhabitants – some 15,000 of whom are estimated to have died subsequently of various complications.
It has been estimated that victims ended up receiving less than 350 dollars for injuries, some of them lifelong. Also Union Carbide may have gotten away with costs amounting to 48 cents per share.
In 1991, the Supreme Court ordered Union Carbide to set up a super- speciality 500-bed hospital in Bhopal to look after the long-term needs of the survivors. But the bulk of the funds actually came from the sale of Union Carbide’s Indian shares – confiscated by a district court as penalty after the company ignored summons to appear in the criminal liability case.
According to Dhingra, what became the Bhopal Memorial Hospital Trust facility was quickly ridden with corruption and mismanagement so that the real victims could never actually access any of its facilities.
Syed M. Irfan, who heads the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Purush Sangharsh Morcha (Movement For the Rights of Men and Women Affected by the Bhopal Gas Tragedy), told IPS the state government of Madhya Pradesh was as much to blame for the uncaring attitude towards the victims of the disaster and to residual toxicity.
“If Dow Chemicals does undertake to pay for reparations then it is important to involve the NGOs rather than leave it solely to the government,” Syed told IPS. “The fact is that even the creation of a separate ministry to deal with the gas tragedy has not helped the interests of the victims.”
According to Dhingra a priority for the survivors now is to hold the central government down to a solemn promise it made in August last year to set up an ‘empowered commission’ to look into all aspects of rehabilitation – including medical care of the survivors, income generation, social support and clean-up efforts.
That promise came after a dramatic month-long, 500-mile walk by a group of 50 people from Bhopal to the national capital where they set up camp for 130 days.