LATHA JISHNU, ASSOCIATE EDITOR, BUSINESSWORLD, JUNE 2007
Anger against Union Carbide/Dow Chemical spills on to the Tatas as Bhopal gas survivors demand justice
The pavement around Jantar Mantar, just off Delhi’s Parliament Street, is the last hope of the wretched. It is strewn with makeshift camps of the dispossessed, the victims of atrocities and of countless others who have been at the receiving end of an unjust, uncaring system.
The protesters come and ago; the camps are not allowed to be permanent. Some catch the media spotlight—if a Medha Patkar is in the vanguard, or if the TV channels spy a celebrity presence (Arundhati Roy, perhaps, or a Nandita Das). Then the outdoor broadcast vans land up in droves. For the most part, however, they are ignored since the pavement of lost causes has limited appeal in a world of multiplying protests.
Protests in Bhopal against Ratan Tata, chairman of the Tata group, for his offer to clear the path for Dow Chemicals’ investments in India
Business and industry, however, should not ignore at least one of these groups—the survivors of the Bhopal gas disaster. These are dogged campaigners for justice who have stayed the course for 22 years now, the only activists here who have taken on a global corporation, fighting them through the labyrinths of the US legal system, at the company headquarters and in variety of forums despite the most dispiriting of setbacks.
Last year, they had come back with a fresh reminder of their decades long campaign for justice. Around 50-odd men and women had marched into Delhi after more than a month on the road, having trudged 800 km from Bhopal behind a dusty banner that proclaimed their struggle. These were the survivors of the world’s worst industrial disaster, the Bhopal gas leak that killed several thousand people on the night of December 3, 1984, and injured another 150,000.
These men and women, many of them old and ailing, were on a hunger strike when I met them, drawn by their singing late one evening when the buzz around the Narmada Bachao Andolan camp on the opposite pavement had died down, after the union ministers, sundry politicians and high-profile activists had come and gone. The Bhopal victims rarely grab media attention, but they fight on regardless. At the core of their struggle is a steely determination to secure reparation for one of the worst assaults on a civilian population after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And they were not in the midst of any war.
“We will fight to the end to force Union Carbide/Dow Chemical to clean up Bhopal. We simply will not give up. Their negligence killed so many of us 22 years ago, and their refusal to clean up the contamination is killing so many more every year, ” declares Champa Devi Shukla, a gentle, worn woman who has been a driving force in the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB). It is not until one of her group prods her that she lets on that she is the 2004 winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize. Champa Devi, who lost her husband in the disaster, is not in good health herself. Neither are her fellow campaigners.
Champa Devi Shukla, secretary, Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmachari Sangh
How could they be? More than 27 tonnes of methyl-iso-cyanide and other deadly gases leaked from Union Carbide’s pesticide factory and enveloped Bhopal, turning parts of the city into a gas chamber. According to figures put out by ICJB, around half a million people were exposed to the gas and over 20,000 have died till date as a result of their exposure. Among the 150,000 seriously affected by exposure to the gases, at least 50,000 are too sick to work for a living. Worse, children born to gas-affected people suffer from serious congenital defects. Some have no lips, ears or noses, others no hands or feet. For Bhopalis, the nightmare never ends.
Some like Rashida Bee, who lost six of her family to cancer in the aftermath of the leak, have put their personal tragedy behind them to campaign for a larger cause. Rashida, who is the co-winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize, made international headlines a couple of years ago when she along with Champa Devi staged a hunger strike in front of Dow Chemical’s headquarters in Midland, Michigan. That had serious repercussions on the giant’s share prices—and public opinion in the US —although she says Dow executives misled its shareholders about the company’s legal liabilities in Bhopal. Rashida Bee and Champa Devi met as workers in a stationery shop and founded the union that they head as president and secretary respectively.
The Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karamchari Sangh may be a humble little union representing a clutch of women workers, but its courage is known worldwide. For them Union Carbide/Dow Chemical will remain Enemy No. 1 and friends of Dow are viewed as inimical to their demands (see What They Want). That’s why the Tata group is now the focus of the survivors’ anger and the Tata group chairman Ratan Tata has joined their pantheon of corporate exploiters.
What They Want
* Union Carbide/Dow Chemical to clean up the site or provide just compensation for those who have been injured or made ill by this poison;
* Fund medical care and research while providing all the information it has on the leaked gases and their medical consequences;
* Provide alternate livelihood to victims who cannot pursue their usual trade because of their debilitating illness;
* Stand trial in Bhopal, where Union Carbide faces criminal charges of culpable homicide (manslaughter), and has been absconding these many years
Some history will explain Dow’s legacy in the Bhopal case. In 2001, Dow Chemical (rank 36 in Fortune 500) bought Union Carbide Corp, which is now its fully owned subsidiary. Although through such a purchase under the US law, Dow would assume Union Carbide’s assets and liabilities, the global giant maintains that it has no liabilities. It says the 1989 settlement with the Indian government that was brokered by the Supreme Court of India—the settlement was for a paltry $470 million against the $3.5 originally sought by Delhi —had resolved its liabilities. Under this settlement, the heirs of the dead were given $2,000.
Incensed survivors who have got no more than $500 per head for their horrific suffering—there were 574, 273 claimants in all—say they will settle for nothing short of a cleanup of the highly contaminated site where abandoned chemicals have been seeping into the ground since that disastrous night in 1984. The principle of polluter pays does not seem to hold in the case of Dow whose 2005 revenues crossed $46 billion. What is particularly galling for them is the different standards it uses to measure compensation. In 2002, Dow settled with Union Carbide workers in the US who had sought huge damages for exposure to asbestos in the workplace. Although the case was filed before Dow’s acquisition of Carbide, Dow was forced to arrive at a settlement. It has also set aside $2.2 billion to address future liabilities.
In Bhopal, on the contrary, they have set their face against reparation. They have refused to clean up the site, or to make arrangements to provide safe drinking water. Nor will they compensate. Worst of all, say the survivors, is their stubborn refusal to disclose information about the health effects of the leaked gases, which doctors could use to treat the victims more effectively.
That’s why the four major organisations fighting for the Bhopal gas survivors are determined to make their campaign against Dow Chemical more high-pitched. In April this year, after weeks of camping out in Jantar Mantar, the ICJB won a partial victory. They got to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who promised to provide them with clean drinking water and to clean up the toxic wastes that have made the groundwater too deadly to consume. In fact, this is the worst problem for the Bhopal survivors: the water is poisoning a whole new generation along with the breast milk of those who drink the poison-laced ground water. The milk of nursing mothers has been found to contain lead, mercury and organochlorines.
Rashida Bee, president, Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmachari Sangh
In fact, many of those in Jantar Mantar were people who had settled in Bhopal after the gas leak. One woman who looked a couple of decades older than her stated 45 years said the people she knew suffered either nausea and dizziness or rash, fever and eruptions on the skin. All of them were constantly exhausted.
It is people like this that the government and corporate India should meet to understand the intensity of feeling against big companies. It is said that a large segment of Indians harbour a pathological dislike of MNCs and large industry in general as a hangover of the socialist indoctrination of the early decades of independence. Bhopal has turned this dislike into seething rage against the corporate world.
The Tata group got the first taste of it when demonstrators blackened posters and hoardings of its telecom service. A portrait of Ratan Tata was paraded in Bhopal for “facilitating the expansion of Dow Chemical in India”, according to the organisations of the survivors. A boycott of Tata products is also underway, starting with a mass consumption item like Tata Salt.
Ratan Tata has been singled out for several reasons. For one, he is co-chair of the Indo-US CEO Forum that also includes Andrew Liveris, president and CEO, of Dow Chemical. The Tatas have just now offered to lead a remediation effort at the site. Another reason is that Keshub Mahindra, former chairman of the Union Carbide India and one of the accused in the gas disaster, has been on the boards of various Tata companies.
Ratan Tata’s clean-up offer was a response to Liveris’s publicly stated reluctance in October last year to making further investments in India after the ministry of chemicals and fertilisers filed an application in a district court asking Dow to contribute Rs 100 crore for remediation of the site. Liveris had reiterated the chemical giant’s legal position on the disaster at the India-US CEO Forum meeting. He wants the claim withdrawn.
But as the government allows it to make fresh investments in India, in Reliance’s Jamnagar complex, for instance, questions about social responsibility will continue to haunt Dow. Rashida Bee and Champa Devi will not allow the global giant to forget Bhopal’s nightmare.