Last December marked the 30 th anniversary of the worst industrial disaster India has ever known. Three decades after Bhopal, among the survivors and their descendants, the wounds have not yet healed. Above all, these people continue to be haunted by the sense that justice has failed them.
On a hot and hectic street in the Indian city of Bhopal, the flames licked up the two giant corporate logos. The blue of Union Carbide and the red of Dow Chemical Company, with added skulls, were incinerated to nothingness within seconds.
Just a few metres away, across a high security wall, was the cause of the angry effigy-burning: the derelict and overgrown pesticide factory that leaked toxic gas 30 years ago and has killed more than 25 000 people.
The disaster at Union Carbide’s chemical works in Bhopal, in the crowded, poverty-stricken heart of India, on the 3 December 1984 was one of the world’s worst industrial accidents. It has since become one of the world’s grossest examples of environmental injustice.
Union Carbide and the US chemical giant that took it over in 2001, Dow, are fugitives from justice. Over the decades, they have repeatedly refused to appear before Indian courts to answer criminal charges against them. They have never apologised.
It is no wonder that they were targets for the fierce and passionate mass protests that took place in Bhopal on the 30th anniversary of the disaster in December 2014. 'These days a corporation’s image is everything so we wanted to hit them where it hurt most,' said leading Bhopal campaigner, Sathyu Sarangi.
'We thought we would profane their sacred,' he explained, sitting in the busy office of the medical trust he helped set up for disaster survivors. 'We want to give their executives ulcers. They have done huge damage to human health and the planet and have been getting away with it.'
Dow argues that compensation has already been paid to the victims and their families, and that it has no remaining liability for the actions of its predecessor, Union Carbide. But these arguments are angrily dismissed by campaigners.
Sarangi pointed out that the $3.2 billion compensation settlement agreed by a Dow subsidiary in 1998 for health problems caused by silicone breast implants in the US was 100 times more than that given to Bhopal survivors in India. After a court tussle, Dow had also accepted liability for Union Carbide asbestos claims in the US, he argued.
Dow was guilty of 'double-standards' and 'environmental racism' because the value it put on lives in India was much lower than on lives in the US, Sarangi said. He also accused the company of employing 'dirty tricks' to defend its interests.
Fugitive from justice
For three decades the main target of Indian anger and effigy-burning has been the former US chairman of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson. Four days after the accident in 1984, he was arrested when he arrived in Bhopal. But he was then bailed and quickly flown out of the country with the backing of the Indian government, never to return.
In 1989 Bhopal’s Chief Judicial Magistrate issued a warrant of arrest against Anderson for repeatedly ignoring summons. In 1992 the Bhopal court said he had ignored four summonses and was 'absconding from justice'. In 2002, the court demanded the immediate extradition of Anderson from the US to face charges of culpable homicide.
But he ignored all that the Indian judicial system could throw at him, and stayed in his secluded homes in the US. On 29 September 2014, aged 92, he died at a nursing home in Vero Beach, Florida, still a fugitive from justice.
His notoriety, however, will doubtless live on, and could grow because of a new feature film. 'Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain', which stars the well-known West Wing actor, Martin Sheen, as Anderson, opened in the US and India in 2014, and is due in Europe.
In the film Anderson says that Union Carbide had 'plausible deniability' on the Bhopal disaster. Sheen has himself lent support to the campaign for justice for thousands of survivors who are still suffering.
With Anderson gone, Indian campaigners decided to mark the 30th anniversary by pointing out that, hated though he was, he was not the only person responsible for the continuing tragedy in Bhopal. In a loud, long and furious protest, activist groups use drum rolls to name and shame Dow, Union Carbide and more than 70 leading industrialists, officials, judges and others for failing to deliver justice to Bhopal survivors.
Like Anderson, Dow has ignored a series of summons from Indian courts to appear and answer charges. In 2005, the US company was summoned by Bhopal’s Chief Judicial Magistrate to explain why its subsidiary, Union Carbide, had failed to face charges. As recently as 12 November 2014, Dow again failed to appear in court in response to another summons.
Compensation ‘woefully inadequate’
Dow’s behaviour has been lambasted by the human rights organisation, Amnesty International. The $470 million compensation granted in 1989 was just 14 per cent what was asked for and averaged less than a thousand dollars per person, according to the group’s secretary general, Salil Shetty.
'This was a woefully inadequate amount which, I think, exposes a shocking level of indifference and contempt towards the victims in India,' he said. Union Carbide and Dow had been given a haven from justice in the US and displayed an 'arrogant contempt' for the Indian judicial system. 'Those who have survived have faced a three-decade-long marathon campaign having to fight every step of the way for the few reparations which have been offered; the most basic medical treatment, insufficient clean water and so little financial compensation it is insulting,' Shetty declared.
'Sadly, several of those who have fought so hard for so long are aware they may now die without ever seeing justice. But the fight is being picked up by new generations – their children, and their children’s children – who have been born with illnesses and exposed to ongoing contamination from the abandoned factory site,' he said.
Shetty accused Union Carbide of failing to take critical safety precautions at the Bhopal plant before the accident. 'As generations of survivors continue their fight for accountability, they have had to battle corporate spin to prove this was not a tragic accident but a disaster which could have been avoided,' he said.
History of leaks
According to campaigners, there was a leak of toxic gas at the plant in December 1981, which killed a worker. In January 1982 another leak put 25 workers in hospital, followed by another leak in March and another in October, which caused hundreds of local residents to go to hospital.
A Bhopal journalist, Rajkumar Keswani wrote a series of articles in the local press about alleged dangers at the plant, and an audit by US company experts was said to have found 61 hazards, 30 of which were regarded as major. In 1983 a local lawyer served a legal notice on the plant saying it posed a serious risk to health and safety.
The December 1984 accident started when a lethal gas used for making insecticides, methyl isocyanate, escaped from a tank at the plant. The regional government put the immediate death toll at 3 787, but survivors say the real number was more like 8 000.
The gas seared the lungs, and burnt the eyes of anyone exposed. In the three decades since, campaigners say the death toll has reached 25 000 'and counting' because of an epidemic of diseases caused by lingering water and soil contamination around the plant.
As many as 150 000 are still battling chronic illnesses, with tuberculosis and cancers 'rampant', they say. There are estimated to be 50 000 still living in the vicinity of the plant whose groundwater is contaminated by toxic chemicals and metals that have leached from hazardous waste dumps.
The campaign against Dow has been backed by trade unionists in India and from across the globe. A delegation of six trade unions from the UK was in Bhopal for the 30th anniversary to show solidarity with the survivors, along with activists from many other countries.
According to Eurig Scandrett from University and College Union in Edinburgh, if trade union concerns about safety and corner-cutting had been listened to, the accident would never have happened. 'Instead companies blame the workers and put their profits above the health of workers and the safety of the environment,' he said.
The Scottish Hazards Campaign, which aims to improve health and safety at work, described what happened in Bhopal as 'the worst industrial disaster of our time'. The campaign’s spokeswoman, Kathy Jenkins, said: 'The commitment, strength and endurance of the people of Bhopal provide inspiration to all of us to continue our struggles for safe workplaces.'
In a prepared statement, Dow described the 1984 gas release as a 'terrible tragedy' which should never be forgotten. 'Let’s also not forget the facts or rewrite history,' said a company spokesman Scot Wheeler.
'The facts are that Dow was never in Bhopal nor is there any assumed liability as misrepresented by some groups. It is important to note that Dow never owned or operated the plant,' he said.
'Dow acquired the shares of Union Carbide Corporation more than 16 years after the tragedy, and 10 years after the $470 million settlement agreement – paid by Union Carbide Corporation and Union Carbide India, Limited – was approved after review by the Indian Supreme Court in 1991.'
Wheeler added: 'As Dow never owned or operated the Bhopal facility, any efforts to directly involve Dow in legal proceedings in India concerning the 1984 Bhopal tragedy are inappropriate, misguided and without merit.'•