More than 23 years after the world’s worst ever chemical industry accident at the Union Carbide Corp. pesticides plant in Bhopal, its victims are struggling to get a modicum of justice — and to reaffirm their human dignity and the fundamental principles of any civilized social compact.
Fifty of them have trudged the 800km distance from Bhopal to Delhi to demand that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh abide by his April 2006 promise to rehabilitate them fully, get the plant site cleansed of the 9,000 tonnes of chemical residues which continue to poison people, and take the long-overdue legal action against Carbide and its successor, Dow Chemical Co., incorporated in the US. It is on that assurance that the survivors had called off their 21-day dharna, including a six-day hunger strike in 2006.
In place of a high-level commission, the survivors had asked Singh to set up a “coordination committee”. That committee has not taken a single decision. Instead of affirming the rule of law against Dow, the government is under pressure to let it walk away from its responsibility to clean up the Bhopal mess. Meanwhile, more than 100,000 Bhopalis exposed to the 1984 gas leak suffer from severe disabilities and disorders, and 25,000 are forced to consume groundwater contaminated with chemicals, which cause birth defects, cancers and other health damage.
Involved here is not just natural justice and the rule of law, but a litmus test for “emerging economic giant” India’s claim that it can deal with globalization without sacrificing some of its most vulnerable citizens at the altar of corporate profit. The Bhopal disaster killed more than 3,000 people within a week and inflicted grievous chemical damage upon more than 200,000. This has since caused a further estimated 18,000-20,000 deaths.
Photographer: Manan Vatsyayana / AP
Dow fully bought Carbide in 2001, and by natural law, takes over all its liabilities and assets. Yet, it has offered to bear the cost of (partially) cleaning the Bhopal site — but only on condition that it’s freed of all legal liabilities, including criminal liability on charges of culpable homicide.
Dow has been strenuously lobbying Indian officials while holding out the lure of large-scale investments — if it’s let off the liability hook. Between 2005 and 2007, numerous influential people pleaded on its behalf, including Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia, finance minister P. Chidambaram and commerce minister Kamal Nath, besides top-notch US-India Business Council office-bearers such as Ratan Tata and Dow chief Andrew N. Liveris.
Dow has been illegally selling Carbide’s technologies in India through front companies such as Mega Vista Marketing Solutions and Mega Vista Global Services — in defiance of a 1992 court order, which directs the government to confiscate all of Carbide’s assets in India because Carbide is a proclaimed absconder from Indian law. Dow stands implicated in a series of legal infringements and violations of due process, including misrepresentation and attempts to bribe agriculture ministry officials to register pesticides.
In 1989, Carbide escaped civil liability for the faulty plant design and gross negligence, which caused the accident, by paying a paltry $470 million in a collusive and grossly unjust settlement. But its criminal liability still survives.
However, Carbide and its directors have refused to stand trial in a Bhopal criminal court. Meanwhile, Dow has been sheltering these fugitives from the law and selling Carbide’s products, technologies and services in India.
Dow’s offer confronts the government with a critical choice. Either it cuts a deal with this multinational in a mercenary fashion; or it sides with the survivors.
The government is sharply divided. The ministry of chemicals and fertilizers has held Dow legally liable for cleaning the site, and demanded in court that it deposit Rs100 crore as initial payment. But the ministry of law has a questionably lenient interpretation of Dow’s liability.
There’s evidence that Carbide misrepresented the truth by claiming it has no liabilities on account of the gas disaster. In fact, Carbide, some of its directors, including former chairman Warren Anderson, and its Indian subsidiary stand charged in India with causing death by a negligent act. The Indian government has failed to prosecute them. It claims it cannot trace Anderson (whose address in a New York suburb has been widely publicized).
Dow maintains that being an American company, it’s not subject to Indian jurisdiction. The courts have not yet ruled on this, but only asked that a part of the overground waste, 386 tonnes secured in a warehouse, be removed and incinerated. The courts are silent on what should be done with the 8,000 tonnes of underground waste, and also with the hundreds of tonnes strewn all over the plant site.
In 2005, the victims’ groups succeeded in getting a contract between Dow and the public sector Indian Oil Corp. annulled. This involved the licensing of a proprietary Carbide technology. Dow is now negotiating the sale of petrochemicals technologies with Reliance Industries. All manner of entrenched interests are helping Dow duck its legal obligations. The Indian government seems inclined to bow to their pressure by putting corporate investment above the life and well-being of its citizens.
Bhopal’s second tragedy — the gas leak was the first — was the terrible 1989 settlement under which most victims received less than Rs7,000 each for grave injuries and a lifetime of suffering, although a few with better access to physicians and judges got 10 times more. Families of the dead got as little as Rs2 lakh. Much of this was siphoned off by judges, bureaucrats and middlemen. Now, a third tragedy may unfold, through Dow, unless Manmohan Singh listens to the survivors — and his own conscience and promises.
Praful Bidwai is an independent columnist and environmentalist. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org