PAMELA TIMMS AND PRABAL KR DAS, The Scotsman, November 22 2007
CAMPAIGNERS last night accused the Indian government of betrayal as it prepared to welcome the company behind the Bhopal chemical disaster back to the country.
In the early hours of 3 December, 1984, 5,000 people died when a leak at Union Carbide’s pesticide plant caused a 40-tonne cloud of toxic gas to descend on the city. It is claimed 20,000 others have since died as a result of continuing pollution from the plant.
Activists say there is a new death every day linked to the disaster and that, for 23 years, Union Carbide and its parent company, Dow Chemical, have failed to take responsibility for cleaning up.
In 2004, the Indian government brought a court case, demanding Dow pay £10.5 million to clean up the 8,000 tonnes of toxic waste still in the factory and surrounding area.
But victims’ groups have obtained documents from the office of the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, which they claim show that senior ministers are advocating an out-of-court settlement with Dow that would allow the company to walk away from its responsibilities in Bhopal in return for a proposed £500 million investment in India.
The government has signed an agreement with Dow, allowing the firm to establish new research and development bases in Pune, Chennai and Mumbai.
Dow has been waging a ferocious lobbying war against the victims’ groups, recruiting some of India’s most influential tycoons, including Ratan Tata, head of the Tata conglomerate, to lobby ministers on its behalf. Earlier this year, Mr Tata wrote to the government, proposing that a “remediation fund” be established to clean up the site, in order to relieve Dow of its liabilities and allow the company to invest in India.
Rachna Dhingra, of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, said: “In 23 years since the disaster in Bhopal, the government has learned nothing. For 23 years, they have betrayed the people of Bhopal. They are bowing to Dow in the interest of commercial investment in India.”
Mr Dhingra believes that Dow should not be allowed to do business in India until it cleans up the toxic waste in and around the factory, which, he says, has left local residents suffering from liver and kidney diseases and nervous system disorders.
Studies show the rates of cancer and other diseases have risen dramatically in the area since the disaster.
Mr Dhingra went on: “25,000 people in the Bhopal area continue to this day to drink contaminated water. They suffer all sorts of serious medical conditions, including respiratory diseases, cancer, blindness and babies born with congenital birth defects.
“[Dow] have to pay compensation to the people who continue to live with the effects of the disaster. It’s simple: no justice, no business.”
The victims’ campaign was given a boost this year when Indra Sinha’s novel Animal’s People, which tells of a young man horribly maimed by the disaster, was shortlisted for the Booker prize. The Edinburgh-based author Meaghan Delahunt is also due to publish a novel set in Bhopal.
FIRM BELIEVES FINANCIAL RESPONSIBILITY FULFILLED
DOW Chemical has consistently maintained that it accepts no responsibility for the 1984 disaster. Dow purchased Union Carbide in 2001 for $10.3 billion in stock and debt.
Dow has publicly stated several times that earlier compensation payments by Union Carbide to the families of those who died on the night have already fulfilled Dow’s financial responsibility for the disaster. In reality very little of the money Union Carbide agreed to pay in the immediate aftermath of the disaster found its way to the victims’ families.
Union Carbide paid on average $500 to the families, but campaigners complain this amount barely covered the immediate costs to the relatives, like funerals.
Campaigners see in Dow’s return a government’s willingness to forget the plight of its own people when tempted by the prospect of major investment. Speaking to The Scotsman, Greenpeace’s executive director in India, Ananth Padmanabhan, said: “It is immoral, unethical and shameful that the government of India has favoured foreign direct investment over justice. It is shocking that the government is actually willing to scuttle existing legal cases to facilitate Dow’s entry into India.” He expressed his confidence that public opinion and the “indomitable will” of the Bhopal victims will succeed in making a difference.
People and the environment will face new threats
PRABUL KR DAS, Assam Tribune staff reporter on placement with The Scotsman, was a communications adviser for Greenpeace during its campaign for victims of Bhopal
IN THE race to rapid economic gains, India could well be entering its most dangerous phase of environmental degradation and decay. Significant instances like the Bhopal gas disaster of 1984 make world headlines, but there are similar events in smaller scale happening every day across India; the more remote the place, the more dangerous the situation. Bhopal was the wake-up call for the Indian government, but it did precious little to put pressure on Union Carbide and later Dow Chemical to compensate the victims and to clean up the place.
Years later, the government is now keen to invite Dow Chemical to operate in India. Among the journalists who have spent time with the victims of Bhopal, it appears to me as a travesty of justice. But such incidents of the government favouring industry and trade over human and environmental concerns are actually growing more common.
In different parts of the country, the industrial juggernaut is making its presence felt more than ever. In the state of West Bengal, a place called Singur witnessed ugly incidents after land was requisitioned from farmers for a car factory. A large number of people lost their traditional means of livelihood. In my state of Assam, inside the famous Kaziranga National Park, which is also a world heritage site, the state government allowed a stone quarry to operate. It raised a huge hue and cry, and along with fellow scribes I produced reports featuring maps and co-ordinates. For a few days the machines stopped … only to start again.
After reporting from around India, I think the interests of human beings and the natural environment are deeply threatened. The smallest of elites have derived benefits while the vulnerable and the marginalised have remained voiceless.
One might be compelled to call it the rape of the conscience or of common sense, depending how one looks at it.