Bhopal gas victims stage rally in Mumbai
The Times of India News Service, Friday 2 March 2001

MUMBAI: Three hundred of the women who survived the Bhopal gas tragedy 17 years ago have come all the way to Mumbai to demonstrate outside the offices of the multinational firm Dow Chemicals and demand that it accepts the criminal liabilities of Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), with which it merged on February 6 this year. UCC was responsible for the leak of the lethal methyl isocyanate in Bhopal in 1984, which claimed thousands of lives and whose after effects are apparent even now.

The victims on Thursday submitted a memorandum to Dow Chemicals' country manager Ravi Muthukrishnan demanding it accept UCC's pending liabilities and pay for longterm medical care, research and monitoring of victims.

They have asked Dow Chemicals to pay for the economic rehabilitation of families impoverished by the tragedy and clean up the town's contaminated soil and ground water.

The merger makes UCC a subsidiary of Dow Chemicals. Dow, however, has stated it is not accountable for UCC's liabilities.

"With the merger, UCC is trying to run away from its guilt,'' said 45-year-old Rashidabi of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Karamchari Sangh. "Even now, the after effects of the gas leak are in evidence, with residents suffering from a host of ailments,'' she added. In the last 17 years, five members of Rashidabi's family have succumbed to cancer.

"Though UCC wound up operations in Bhopal, it left behind a concoction of deadly chemicals which have contaminated ground water,'' said Sathinath Sarangi of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action. He cited a 1990 study by the Citizen's Environmental Laboratory, Boston, which says Bhopal's ground water is contaminated with seven chemicals of which at least two are carcinogenic.

Although UCC, in a settlement with the Indian government, paid a compensation of $470 million which is being disbursed to victims through the Supreme Court, there is still a criminal case pending against the firm and its erstwhile chairperson Warren Anderson who has gone into hiding.

"The monetary compensation was for the immediate victims. But there is an entire generation which is struggling in the aftermath. Cancer and tuberculosis are proved to be three times higher here than in normal populations. Many women have been rendered infertile while children are still being born with congenital defects,'' Mr Sarangi said. A ten-year-long study by the Indian Institute of Medical Research has found that the gas crossed the pulmonary barrier and affected the respiratory, gastric, reproductive, neuromuscular, skeletal and immune systems.

Champadevi Shukla is one such affected person. Her two-month-old grandchild was born with a cleft lip. "There is a family in our locality where three children have been born deaf-mute,'' she said, adding, "The first son, born a year before the gas leak is normal.''

The victims feel these liabilities cannot be shrugged off that easily. "We have been demanding that this aspect be considered since we first heard of the impending merger in 1999,'' added Balakrishna Namdeo of Bhopal's Nirashrit Pension Bhogi Sangharsh Morcha.

"We have no idea of how long these after effects will linger or what other problems can arise in the coming years. The least Dow Chemicals can do is make public the medical data on the gases which the UCC has guarded as a trade secret for years,'' added Mr Sarangi.

Mr Muthukrishnan said he was not authorised to speak on the subject. However, the company's Michigan-based spokesperson John Musser said, "The matter ended with UCC paying compensation to the victims. Though we will never forget the tragedy, there is nothing really that Dow Chemicals can do now. This point was carefully considered before the merger. We have no responsibility in the Bhopal case.''

When pointed out that there was still a criminal case pending against UCC, he said, "That is not a matter for Dow Chemicals. It is for the UCC to respond.'' This, even after UCC is now part of Dow Chemicals.