The Bhopal Ruling: An Important Victory in an Ongoing Struggle


SARID, July 2004

by Jasmin Mehovic, mehovic@sarid.net

 

On July 19, India’s Supreme Court ordered the Indian government to distribute $330 million to the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy that took place in 1984 at Union Carbide pesticide plant in central India. Although Union Carbide already paid $470 million in damages fifteen years ago, most of the money was locked in the central bank due to complicated legal and bureaucratic wrangling. This year’s decision of the Supreme Court was the outcome of a class action suit initiated by 36 victims on behalf of 566,876 tragedy survivors and the victims’ relatives. While this decision represents a major victory for Bhopal victims, it also represents a stepping stone in their fight for the fulfillment of demands that
were ignored for two decades.

The gas leak at Union Carbide’s plant was one of the worst industrial accidents in history. On the night of December 2 1984, some 27 tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC) and other poisonous gases rolled out of the plant into the shanty neighborhood nearby. The poisonous clouds spread out over a 20 mile
radius, quickly moving into Bhopal, a city of 90,000 people. The streets were crammed with those trying to evade death, while the screams of those dying in agony echoed through the night. Nearly 2,000 died within hours, and another 8,000 died within three days. A million local residents were poisoned.

The company officials argue that the leak was caused by sabotage, refusing to take responsibility for the catastrophe. So does the management of Dow Chemical, which bought Union Carbide three years ago. Bhopali activists dismiss their arguments as fictitious, claiming that the tragedy was the outcome of an irresponsible long-term business policy. Union Carbide, they point out, not only had built a highly hazardous facility in a crowded neighborhood, but it had also stored reckless quantities of gas without regard for safety rules and regulations. Seeking to reduce the cost of production, the plant’s management cut down security measures, ignoring repeated warnings by the factory engineers and staff. On the night of the tragedy the plant’s alarm system failed to activate for a number of hours, leaving the local residents bewildered in their agony and without knowledge of how to cope with the emergency.

The effects of the tragedy are still omnipresent. More than 100,000 people remain chronically ill and tens die each month from the long-term repercussions of the poisoning. Thousands of survivors suffer from a variety of ailments, such as eye irritation, poor vision, fever attacks, lethargy, and memory lapse. Cancer, infertility, tuberculosis and other respiratory problems are many times higher among the people living in the area than in the rest of the country. Children are still being born with deformities and mothers' breast milk has been found to contain high levels of poisonous substances. Greenpeace activists and Indian students have held numerous demonstrations demanding that the Indian government and Dow Chemical take responsibility for the rehabilitation of Bhopal’s victims. Their requests are still unanswered.

Along with the health issues, economic and social problems present a growing burden to the lives of Bhopal’s victims. Death of livestock and contamination of the land deprived many Bhopalis of their sources of income. Most of the victims had earned their living doing manual labor – pulling loads or carrying things, barely supporting their families from the money they earned. Loss of the ability to continue with manual jobs meant loss of the income for the victims and their families. Many survivors have not received a single cent in compensation or any support neither from the government nor the company owners. Those who received some money, less than $500, have already spent it on basic medications for their family members who still suffer from acute health problems.

The area surrounding the factory complex continues to bear the marks of the disaster. Environmental groups warn that the soil and the water are still contaminated with toxic pollutants. The factory alone contains some 5,000 tons of chemicals and pesticides, which continue to leak into the soil and
groundwater supplies. Experts argue that the basic clean up of the immediate surroundings of the now-closed plant will cost $500 million. Union Carbide not only refuses to come forward with a plan to clean the toxic wastes, but it also refuses to share data on the MIC gas hazard with the medical and environmental institutions struggling to clean up the site, calling it a “trade secret.”

The victims continue to lobby for the extradition of Warren Anderson, the chairman of Union Carbide at the time of the accident. Initially, the Indian government tried to reduce an eleven-year-old charge against him from "culpable homicide" to the much lesser offence of a "rash and negligent act." In 2002, Bhopali chief judicial magistrate concluded that there were no grounds for reducing the charge against Mr. Anderson, who currently lives in the United States. Greenpeace has called on the United States and India to began extradition proceedings against him.

Although Bhopali activists are aware that the fight for a fair resolution will be a long one, they realize that the ruling by the Supreme Court represents a significant step in that struggle. Nonetheless, they note that the amount they have been offered is not only insufficient, but that it also illuminates a double
standard in treating victims of industrial disasters: if the tragedy took place in the West, the resolution would be much quicker, and the retribution far bigger. Times of India notes that when 11 million gallons of the oil spill is from Exxon Valdez tanker polluted more than 700 miles of Alaska’s shoreline on March 24, 1989, the ship's owner, Exxon (now ExxonMobil) had to pay $1 billion in civil damages and criminal restitution.

Fulfillment of Bhopal victims’ demands will set, from a legal standpoint, a precedent in dealing with multinational corporations in the years to come. Further victories of Bhopal’s victims would be a catalyst of positive changes not only in India but throughout the Third World. In an era when multinational companies are becoming larger, more influential, and more numerous, a successful resolution of Bhopal victims’ demands would bring forth a whole new way of dealing with these powerful companies, limiting their dominance over the leadership and elites of poor countries. A partial settlement would encourage those who carry on their dubious practices to continue to do so, and will
stimulate companies facing lawsuits to ignore the rights and dignity of people hurt by their wrongdoings.

 


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