Will India sacrifice its own people to attract U.S. chemical companies?

After George Bush visited India last month, two different groups of people converged on New Delhi to press their case. The first group included CEOs of major U.S. companies wanting to take advantage of India’s expanding economy and build their business in the subcontinent. The cast of luminaries included leaders of Dow Chemical, JP Morgan, Chase, Honeywell International, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, and Pfizer Pharmaceutical. The other caravan included 60 people from Bhopal, survivors of the Union Carbide gas disaster, widely regarded as the world’s worst industrial disaster. The corporate CEOs arrived in Delhi in a chartered jet. The gas survivors walked 800 kilometres (500 miles) from Bhopal.
The corporate executives were hoping to win the support of the Indian government to ease trade rules and protect intellectual property rights as they build their operations in the country. The Bhopal survivors were looking for the government to clean up the abandoned and leaking Union Carbide factory, provide clean drinking water to residents and bring Carbide officials to Bhopal to stand trial in the ongoing criminal case.
The common denominator in both groups is Dow Chemical, which stands at the center of the moral dilemma facing India as it rushes forward with its industrial development agenda. Dow bought Union Carbide five years ago, including the karma and ongoing liability for the Bhopal disaster. Dow would like to build its business in India while at the same time bury the memory and responsibilty for Bhopal. The Bhopal survivors have essentially said to Dow “over our dead bodies” and are now on an indefinite hunger fast in Delhi to push the point.
The key question is whether the Indian government will sell its own people out to cut a sweetheart deal with a company like Dow Chemical. Will the Manmohan Singh sacrifice his own people so he can bring more toxic chemicals to them? The answer to this question may well foretell the kind of path India takes in these next crucial decades of its development.
On the face of it, the Bhopalis demands are those that any citizen in the United States or any other country might expect. The factory that killed twenty thousand people in Bhopal twenty one years ago has still not been cleaned up. So the Bhopalis want the sprawling factory site cleaned up. If the factory was located in the United States, it would have been cleaned up more than 15 years ago.
Second, the toxic chemicals left behind by Union Carbide have leaked into the groundwater and polluted the neighboring wells. So the survivors want clean water. The United Nations Human Rights Commission recognizes clean water as a basic human right. All this seems pretty reasonable so far.
Third, the criminal charges against Union Carbide have still not been addressed. The Indian government even issued an extradition request to the Bush administration for Carbide’s former CEO Warren Anderson, which was denied. Anderson has been a fugitive from justice for more than a decade.
Understandably, the Bhopal survivors would like to see those responsible for the destruction of their lives and the deaths of their loved ones brought to justice. This position has also been upheld by the Indian Supreme Court. And finally, until the Bhopal situation has been resolved, the survivors are asking the Indian government to restrict Union Carbide technology from being used in India. Otherwise, it sends a message to Dow, its subsidiary Union Carbide and other transnational companies that it is acceptable to poison an entire city, leave a toxic mess behind and get away with murder.
So why is the Prime Minister unwilling to meet these basic demands? Is the Singh government so timid that it can only imagine courting U.S. corporations if there are no conditions, even when those companies violate Indians’ basic human rights? Does the expansion of Dow’s toxic chemical business in India necessarily have to mean abandoning the survivors of Bhopal and their basic needs for health and justice?
A larger question is why India needs Dow Chemical in the first place. Dow has a notorious record of poisoning people around the globe with its chemicals. Dow is responsible for Agent Orange poisoning in Vietnam, sterility among farmworkers in Latin America and a major dioxin contamination mess in Michigan. Amnesty International has singled out Dow’s handling of its Bhopal liabilities as a global case study highlighting the need for human rights norms for corporations.
Of the two groups that converged on Delhi in the last month, the Prime Minister should listen to his own people more and to Dow Chemical less.
By Gary Cohen
Executive Director
Environmental Health Fund (Boston, USA)
The author is also on the International Advisory Board of the Sambhavna Clinic, which provides free medical care to the survivors of the Union Carbide chemical disaster.
Gary Cohen
Executive Director, Environmental Health Fund
Co-Executive Director, Health Care Without Harm
41 Oakview Terrace
Jamaica Plain, MA 02130
Ph: 617-524-6018
Fax: 617-524-7021

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