By DINESH C SHARMA in the Bangkok Post
Bhopal : The infamous Union Carbide gas tragedy keeps haunting the central Indian city of Bhopal. The issue this time is the cleaning up of toxic chemical stockpiles decaying in the closed pesticide-making plant for the past 21 years. Normally this should have brought some cheer to survivors, but it has not.
All these years, residues of deadly chemicals at the factory have percolated into the soil as well as groundwater, polluting them a great deal. Chemical residues have been found in groundwater to a depth of 500 feet at some spots near the factory.
An estimated 20,000 people in nearby settlements have been drinking contaminated water. Chemicals have entered the food chain and traces of pesticide have been found in human breast milk.
Scientifically speaking, a remediation plan should cover treatment of chemical stockpiles, buildings and other structures in the factory as well as treatment of contaminated soil including solar evaporation ponds located outside the factory and groundwater.
This process could take several years and cost billions of dollars.
The continuation of this toxic legacy is a direct result of governmental inaction. The central or state governments never asked Union Carbide to decontaminate soil and remediate the site, despite persistent demands from survivor organisations.
In March 2004, while hearing a petition from survivors, an appeals court in the United States ruled that it could consider remediation if the request comes from the Indian or Madhya Pradesh government.
Despite this opportunity, they did not act. It was only after a 19-day hunger strike by activists that the Indian government relented and sent a letter to the US court in June 2004, saying that pursuant to the polluter pays principle recognised by both the US and India, Union Carbide should bear all the financial burden and cost for the purpose of environmental cleanup and remediation.
The Union of India and the state government of Madhya Pradesh shall not bear any financial burden for this purpose.
While the liability case was still being heard in the US, the Madhya Pradesh High Court allowed a petition asking the state government to clean up the site. It fixed June 2005 as the deadline for the first stage of the cleanup.
Curiously, the government did not tell the court that if it cleaned up, it would vitiate the liability proceedings in the US court.
On the other hand, it started the process in right earnest and finished the first stage of cleaning up and even paid for it.
This action has thrown the polluter pays principle to the wind and sent clear signals to multinational corporations pollute and escape, the taxpayer will pay up for your mess. Though the government says it will extract the cost of cleaning up from Dow Chemicals, the present owners of Union Carbide, the fact is that the High Court issued the cleanup order after hearing Dow’s refusal to bear any liability or be dragged into the case.
Dow Chemicals, with which Union Carbide merged in 2000, has maintained it has no liability for remediation of the site and decommissioning of the Bhopal plant, though it did pay asbestos exposure claims against Union Carbide dating back to 1972.
The cleanup begun by Madhya Pradesh government will further strengthen Dow’s position on Bhopal.
The present cleanup will make India’s central and state governments appear not only inconsistent, but ridiculous in the eyes of the US court and others who have been following this case as an important precedent for the future, notes H Rajan Sharma, lead counsel for gas victims in US federal class action against Union Carbide.
Within India also, the hasty cleanup process has exposed double standards adopted by Indian authorities on the polluter pays principle.
In May 2003, Hindustan Lever was forced to ship to the United States 290 tonnes of mercury waste from its closed thermometer factory in India. Now it is being asked to pay for remediation of mercury-contaminated soil outside the factory as well. Several Indian companies have been served notices to pay remediation costs.
Surprisingly, the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee on hazardous waste _ which issued some of these notices _ agreed to the Bhopal cleanup without insisting on polluter pays or realising the implications on pending cases of liability against Union Carbide.
Legal aspects apart, the way the operation was carried out last week has raised the hackles of gas victims.
Satinath Sarangi of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, said several hundred people have been affected due to the toxic dust that flew due to crude and unsafe methods deployed in cleaning up.
MIC-exposed people were the worst hit because they are hypersensitive to any new chemical exposure, he said. The alacrity with which the state pollution control board has acted smacks of a clear design to protect Dow Chemicals, said Rashida Bi, another survivor-activist.
All these years, the Bhopal gas tragedy has come to symbolise the total lack of political will, suppression of information, denial of basic human rights and a government-corporate nexus to protect business interests.
The first betrayal was the Indian government’s nod for an inadequate compensation package, then the delay in disbursing the money (victims are getting the compensation now).
Medical research data has been suppressed. The first official report was published only last year. Long-term medical follow up has been sloppy _ this year the medical facilities meant for gas victims have been thrown open to the general public.
Survivors are forced to drink contaminated water as the government has failed to provide them safe supplies.
Successive governments have never pursued court orders to extradite former Union Carbide chief, Warren Anderson.
On top of all this, the government continues to do business with Dow Chemicals and powerful people are shielding it.
Recently a spokesperson for the ruling party, an eminent lawyer, appeared in the court to defend Dow.
As Nityanand Jayaraman, a member of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, puts it, survivors of the world’s worst industrial disaster remain at the mercy of a corrupt government and an impotent judicial system.