After Three Decades, Quest for Justice Remains Elusive in Bhopal

At a protest rally and effigy burning to mark the 28th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster. (Photo: Bhopal Medical Appeal/flickr/cc)

After Three Decades, Quest for Justice Remains Elusive in Bhopal

'My community is yet to be compensated for what it has suffered,' says one survivor of the deadly gas leak

Wednesday marks the 30-year anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, in which at least 30 tons of the toxic gas methyl isocyanate leaked from the Union Carbide India Limited pesticide manufacturing plant, killing at least 3,000 people immediately and leaving hundreds of thousands more to grapple with the aftermath: cancer, tuberculosis, birth defects, and myriad other health problems due to contaminated water and soil.

At a rally in the central Indian city Tuesday night, survivors, victims, and supporters demanded justice for those who continue to suffer three decades on.

"We are here to demand our rights from both the Indian government and Union Carbide," Kamla Bhai, 70, toldReuters as she marched down Bhopal's bustling streets to the abandoned factory site. "We lost our children, we lost our husbands, we lost our mothers, we lost our fathers, yet we have been ignored by the government and cheated by the corporate [system] for the last thirty years. Their treatment has been shameful."

Writing at Al Jazeera English, Indian activist and Bhopal survivor Sanjay Verma echoed that sentiment.

"My community is yet to be compensated for what it has suffered," he said. "We are sad that the CEO of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson, who was arrested by Indian authorities but fled to the US, died unpunished. He was one of the individuals responsible for the disaster, and the Indian and US governments (which did not deport him to India) were equally responsible for his escape from India."

"I do not think that there would ever be enough compensation for Bhopal victims, as money cannot bring back what they have lost and suffered since the disaster. But, in order to for them to have a life of dignity and good health, they need financial compensation."

According to Al Jazeera America:

Union Carbide Corp., now a wholly owned subsidiary of Dow Chemical Co., says it has provided sufficient compensation and relief to the victims and survivors of the gas leak. In 1985, a year after the disaster, Union Carbide identified 94 percent of the approximately 500,000 victims as "being temporarily injured" and gave them roughly $415 each.

Four years later, as part of a settlement, the company agreed to pay $470 million to the Indian government. Union Carbide has said that, under the terms of the settlement, the government assumed responsibility for distributing the money and providing medical coverage to Bhopal residents in the event of future illnesses. Protesters, meanwhile, say that money was insufficient--just 15 percent of what the government initially sought--and only half of what the Indian Council for Medical Research, a public-health organization, said is necessary to rehabilitate survivors.

In the wake of the leak, Union Carbide essentially abandoned the site, allowing toxins to leach into the local drinking water supply. According to EarthRights International, which is serving as co-counsel in a suit seeking redress for the pollution, "the corporation has steadfastly refused to act to prevent further contamination or to compensate those whose drinking water has been poisoned."

The entire episode illustrates the stranglehold that global biotechnology corporations have on governments, argued environmentalist Vandana Shiva.

The Bhopal tragedy "was a political, economic, legal watershed for India and the planet," she wrote. "It was a toxic tragedy at two levels: the leakage of a toxic gas from a plant producing toxic pesticides, the continued presence of 350 metric tonnes of hazardous toxic waste from the now-defunct Union Carbide India Ltd's plant in Bhopal, combined with a toxic influence of corporations on courts and successive governments. Legally, Union Carbide and the US courts escaped liability and responsibility for the damage, setting a precedent of governments shrugging their duty to protect their citizens, taking away citizens' rights and sovereignty in order to make settlements with corporations, letting them off lightly."

She continued: "This pattern of double standards, of privatizing profits and socializing disaster runs through the pattern of corporate rule being institutionalized since the Bhopal tragedy."

The disaster is the subject of a film released last month, Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain, featuring Martin Sheen as Warren Anderson, then-CEO of Union Carbide, who victims claim died without being held responsible for his crime.

In fact, holding any entity accountable for the 1984 incident has proved difficult.

On November 12, Dow Chemical refused to comply with an Indian court summons to explain why its subsidiary, Union Carbide, did not submit itself to court of law for trial in the disaster. The summons was re-issued and the hearing has been rescheduled for March 2015.

According to a new poll carried out by YouGov for Amnesty International, 82 percent of Indians surveyed want to see Union Carbide prosecuted in Indian courts for its role in the gas leak at the Bhopal plant. While fewer U.S. respondents expressed a view, of those who did, almost two-thirds agreed.

"This result should act as a wake-up call to the U.S. government, which has until now effectively provided a safe haven for Union Carbide," said Amnesty International's Secretary General Salil Shetty in response to the poll.

Or, as former Indian additional solicitor general Indira Jaising--who also represented victims of the gas leak in court--wrote at the Indian Express: "Perhaps one needs a permanent international tribunal to prosecute transnational corporate crime, so that no parent company can trade or do business in foreign countries without accepting liability for the consequences of their actions. The device of corporate personality through subsidiaries should not be allowed to cover up crime."

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