Rama Lakshmi, Washington Post, March 29, 2008
Survivors of the 1984 gas leak at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, are in New Delhi to seek redress from Dow Chemical, which bought Union Carbide.
NEW DELHI, March 28 — Twenty-three years after a Union Carbide chemical plant in India spewed poisonous gas in what remains the world’s worst industrial disaster, survivors are demanding a cleanup of toxic chemicals at the abandoned factory site that have contaminated their groundwater.
On Friday, about 70 protesters arrived in New Delhi after marching 500 miles from Bhopal, the city whose name has become synonymous with the catastrophe. Organizers of the march said about 50 more people will arrive by train every day until their demands are met.
The marchers say Michigan-based Dow Chemical Co., which acquired Union Carbide Corp. in 2001, is responsible for cleaning up the site and paying the medical bills incurred after their exposure to the toxic water. They have also asked Dow to produce representatives of Union Carbide who have been charged with culpable homicide in the disaster.
“After 23 years, the neighborhood around the factory still shows a high rate of birth defects, cancer and other disabilities,” said Nafisa Khan, 40, who marched from her home near the factory site to New Delhi. “The toxic chemicals buried in and around the factory have entered groundwater, and we use the contaminated water for drinking, cooking and bathing. First we were hit by the poisonous gas and then by this bad water that gives us skin diseases, chest pain and loss of appetite.”
Khan was among hundreds of thousands of people who ran from the plumes of 40 tons of deadly methyl isocyanate gas that escaped from the Union Carbide pesticide plant shortly after midnight on Dec. 3, 1984. The leak killed at least 3,000 people in the first few days and led to 14,000 deaths overall from illness, according to the government. Survivors contend the toll is 23,000.
More than 100,000 people still suffer from chronic illnesses tied to the incident, including tuberculosis, depression, poor eyesight and gynecological problems. Khan, who was two months pregnant at the time of the disaster, had a miscarriage; three others in her family died.
Union Carbide settled out of court in 1989 and paid the Indian government $470 million. But survivors have been fighting a seemingly endless battle to get help for the 30,000 people who continue to live in shantytowns around the factory.
The cleanup of the site, which contains about 8,000 tons of carcinogenic chemicals, has been blocked by court battles, official indifference and debates over corporate responsibility. Because the factory land now belongs to the Madhya Pradesh government, Dow says the state is responsible for cleaning it up. But the Indian government’s Chemicals and Fertilizers Ministry has said in court that Dow should pay 1 billion rupees, about $25 million at current exchange rates, to clean up the site.
“It is Dow’s duty to clean up. Why should anybody else pay for it?” Khan said. “Until this is done, we will not allow Dow to rest easy and do business in India. We may be poor, but they have to value our lives.”
Although the Chemicals and Fertilizers Ministry has supported the case against Dow, other parts of the Indian government have been more reluctant. Survivors from Bhopal will meet an official from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s office Saturday to renew their long-standing demand for a national commission to provide social and economic rehabilitation and safe drinking water and to pressure Dow to clean up the site and produce Union Carbide representatives in Indian court. Survivors say they believe the government fears that pressuring the company would jeopardize future investment.
In an e-mail response to questions, a Dow official in Midland, Mich., said the firm did not inherit Union Carbide’s liabilities when it acquired the company.
“Anyone who knows of this issue has deep sympathy for the victims of the tragedy in Bhopal. Today, we all ask the same question, ‘Why isn’t this site cleaned up?’ ” said Scot Wheeler, a Dow spokesman. He said Dow had “never owned or operated the former Bhopal plant site and this situation is not Dow’s responsibility, accountability, or liability to bear,” adding that Union Carbide is a separate subsidiary company.
A senior Indian government official familiar with the matter, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, said: “We have not taken any position on the issues before the court. Dow is aware that they have to defend themselves in court as best they can.”
The wall of the Bhopal factory is covered with survivors’ graffiti such as “Dow Chemicals Must End Toxic Terror in Bhopal” and “23 Years Is Enough, Bhopal Justice Now.” Residents say that much of the site is unguarded and that children and animals often wander in. People also sneak in to steal scrap metal and copper coils for resale.
“The factory was a source of jobs for all of us, but it turned into a messenger of death,” said Rashida Bee, 52, who lost six members of her family that night. “The compensation was pittance. When the money was finally distributed among 570,927 survivors in 2005, most of the people got the equivalent of $1,280 each.”
In 2001, when Dow purchased Union Carbide, Bee led the residents to Mumbai, where the group covered the walls of the Dow office with red paint, calling it “the blood of Bhopal.”
Dow has operated in India for more than 50 years and manufactures pesticides, polymers and industrial adhesives. In the past six months, students at India’s premier engineering school, the Indian Institutes of Technology, have resisted Dow’s efforts to conduct job interviews on campuses and called for action on the Bhopal site.
An activist at the march Friday said that Dow has civil and criminal liability in India.
“We are not saying Dow is responsible for the gas tragedy in 1984,” said Nityanand Jayaraman, a volunteer for the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal. “But Union Carbide is a wholly owned subsidiary of Dow, so it has a criminal liability to produce Union Carbide representatives in Indian court. By not doing so, it is sheltering a fugitive. The responsibility to clean up the deadly factory site is Dow’s civil liability.”
Then he added, “Instead of a cleanup, all we get is coverup.”
Comments about the article The sharp eared may hear the drone of a public relations professional somewhere within the following. Ed.
thanks for your article by rama lakshmi. it comes at a time when dow is putting a lot of energy in starting business and research in india. for past 25 years gas affected victims have drained themselves by running from one post to other while governments at centre and state and DOW have kept passing the buck from one party to other. its extreamly insensitive of these governments to still underplay the situation which victims are in and permit dow to come in india without accepting responcibility of what has happened and is happening to people of bhopal.its more unfortunate that corporations such as DOW treat developing nations and its citizens as guinea pigs and leave a scar on our souls without feeling any guilt.while people keep suffering in that chemical deathbed we keep debating in our AC rooms on who should take up the liability.
let international community be united in pressurising DOW and Indian government to meet the demands of gas victims and ensure that people from any part of globe arent treated with such irresponcibility.
4/1/2008 5:35:44 AM
There has been no restriction by the Indian Government on entry/exit of Carbide’s engineers. Indeed, Carbide’s own engineers from the US had reported on the major safety lapses at the Bhopal plant. These include shutting down of refrigeration for MIC plant, firing of safety personnel, turning off alarm systems. These were done by Union Carbide, upon instruction and with the knowledge of the controlling parent corporation Union Carbide Corporation. In any case, if the case is strong for Union Carbide, it should appear to face trial in the Bhopal court and let the court decide. After all, when the issue of compensation was brought to the US by Indian plaintiffs, Union Carbide argued that India had a robust and fair legal system that would deliver a just compensation package to them. The case was moved out of New York to New Delhi. If Carbide considered the legal system to be robust and just, it should subject itself to the process by showing up in India. In 1992, it was declared a fugitive from justice. However, that has not stopped the company from continuing to profit from business in India — first, through front companies such as MegaVista and MM Global, and now through Dow Chemical. However, it is true that successive Indian prime ministers, and Mr. Manmohan Singh in particular, have displayed a deplorable lack of spine, when it comes to holding the corporations to account. Shame on you Dow. Shame on you Carbide. And shame on the Government of India that does not have the courage to take on American corporations.
3/30/2008 11:04:23 AM
… and so it continues; since Union Carbide took it’s process to Bhopal then poisoned so many of the indigenous population we are left with the quandary of why the application of cash flow is suitable for one aspect of the enterprise but not suitable for the remainder. This is the nature of luring foreign investment. You get the bad along with the good. To reap the benefits you must assume the risk. The funeral pyres having extinguished long ago I fear the funeral is far from over for those people and their home. The wages of production diminish in comparison to the wages of responsibility and reparations.
3/29/2008 9:35:50 AM
The article fails to report on why the problem occurred in the first place. The Indian government systematically made it harder for Union Carbide engineers to get in to run the plant. Indeed, it had reached the point where there were none in-country when the explosion took place. There was no manager to enforce the necessary procedural discipline. The Indian government’s own reports indicate that the production process was started and then the workers went to tea. The process was left unmonitored. How does any U.S. company bear responsibility when India’s own actions set up the chain of events? The crime lies not with the company but with the bureaucracy of the Indian government. Very little of the aid that Union Carbide provided actually reached the people who needed it most.
3/29/2008 7:53:56 AM
Coverup instead of cleanup. Not a whole lot different from what was done north of Williamsburg, at the Wolf Creek Impoundment.
3/29/2008 7:19:27 AM
American business loves personal responsibility for you but NONE for itself.
And yet, corporations are deemed “persons” by the Supreme Court. This is criminal.
3/29/2008 5:11:37 AM