SPECIAL REPORT Bhopal's sad anniversary

Posted: 23 November 2004

Author: Darryl d'Monte

Twenty years ago, on the night of December 2, 1984, the world was shaken to hear of the world's worst industrial accident, when a terrible explosion poured toxic gas from the Union Carbide plant in the Indian city of Bhopal. Thousands were killed, and many thousands injured. Here, in an exclusive report, Darryl D'Monte says many still await proper compensation.

Survivors of the Union Carbide disaster petition for compensation.  Photo: Raghu Rai/Greenpeace
Survivors of the Union Carbide disaster petition for compensation. Photo: Raghu Rai/Greenpeace
Survivors of the Union Carbide disaster petition for compensation. Victims of the world's worst industrial accident in Bhopal, in central India, have still not received proper compensation after 20 years.© Raghu Rai/Greenpeace
The very fact that the victims of the world's worst industrial accident in Bhopal, in central India, have still not been properly compensated 20 years later speaks for itself.

The sordid saga that enfolded after the toxic gas leaked out of the Union Carbide India Ltd pesticide plant in the capital of Madhya Pradesh state late at night on December 2, 1984 has shown up all those involved - the Indian subsidiary of the US multinational and the parent company, the state and central governments, US lawyers ("ambulance chasers") and their Indian counterparts.

child victim of the Union Carbide disaster. Photo: Raghu Rai/Greenpeace
child victim of the Union Carbide disaster. Photo: Raghu Rai/Greenpeace
A child victim of the Union Carbide disaster. Around 13,000 people have died as a result of poisoning from toxic gas.© Raghu Rai/Greenpeace
But it is the condition of the survivors that is the most shocking part of the story. Some 1,750 people died immediately after the leak and around 2,500 within a week. Since then, some 10,000 are estimated to have died due to poisoning by the gas. In the days that followed the tragedy, there was tremendous confusion over the nature of the gas, later diagnosed as methyl isocyanate, and its antidotes, if any. Then began a tortuous legal process, where their hopes faded even as respiratory and eye ailments persisted.

Stillborn babies

The damage to the respiratory system has led to the prevalence of pulmonary TB, making it difficult for survivors to breathe. There have been acute problems with babies born after the accident: the stillbirth rate was three times the national average. According to a study by Dr. Daya Varma of McGill University in Canada, 40 per cent of the women pregnant at the time of the disaster aborted. Those with psychological problems - this writer had met several orphans in a government shelter in January 1985 - have hardly been attended to.

In October, 2,000 survivors, mainly widows, travelled to Delhi to protest against the central government's lethargy in disbursing relief by squatting outside Parliament.

"We are poor and in terrible health. It is exhausting for us to travel all the way here to talk about how we have not received a rupee of the compensation money promised to us," 72-year-old Ram Pyari told ABC. "I am a cancer patient. I have dragged myself here because I can't get over how Union Carbide robbed me of my husband and my grandson. The government is now taking us for a royal ride ... people should know."

Within days of the accident, the central government enacted a farce over the arrest of Warren Anderson, the Chairperson of Union Carbide in the US, soon after he arrived in Bhopal, along with two Indian Carbide officials. They were whisked away to the company guesthouse but charged with a series of offences, several of which were punishable with life imprisonment. However, as a senior American diplomat several years later revealed to this writer, within six hours, there was a call from the White House to New Delhi, following which he was released on bail, flown to Delhi and later out of the country.

Legal wrangle

After a protracted legal wrangle over where the cases against Union Carbide should be held, it was eventually decided to hold the trial in India. While some experts claimed this was a vindication of the Indian legal process, it actually exonerated the American and Indian company executives because the legal precedents for awarding damages in case of industrial accidents and environmental catastrophes are obviously far more advanced in the US.

Eventually, the Indian government came to a secret, out-of-court settlement with Carbide for $470 million instead of the $3 billion being negotiated. This amounted to approximately $1,170 for death and $520 for lifelong injury for those who actually got any compensation, which is abysmal even by Indian standards. Only $190 million was disbursed, but the remainder has grown due to an appreciation in the dollar exchange rate.

As the website Countercurrents.org has argued, "Union Carbide and eight other companies paid $4.2 billion as potential damages for silicone breast implants to 650,000 claimants. This amount was nine times more than what the Bhopal victims were given and less than a tenth of the $5 billion court award against Exon Valdez for polluting the Alaskan coast. Approximately $40,000 was spent on the rehabilitation of every sea otter affected by the Alaska oil spill. Each sea otter was given rations of lobsters costing $500 per day. Thus the life of an Indian citizen in Bhopal was clearly much cheaper than that of a sea otter in America. If the award amount of $470 million where distributed equally among all the victims of Bhopal disaster each would get around only $200."

In 1999, Dow Chemical, the giant US chemical multinational, bought all of Union Carbide and thus assumes any liabilities for future law suits. This July, India's Supreme Court ordered that that $333 million be paid out of the remaining funds to the survivors within 90 days. The judge expressed regret that 20 years had elapsed since the catastrophe and the people had still not received what was their due. There are 500,000 victims and their dependants. There have still been wrangles between the Madhya Pradesh government and the Centre over who had the right to disburse the relief, which has continued to deny the victims justice, prompting them to protest before Parliament last month.

Safety norms

After the 1989 settlement, charges of "culpable homicide", which falls far short of criminal liability, were brought against Warren Anderson, the company and nine Indian officials. While the Indian executives continue to appear in court, Anderson jumped bail and has not presented himself despite repeated summons. Some months ago, Greenpeace traced Anderson living in retirement in a posh area of New York state. There have been class action suits in New York by the survivors, seeking environmental damages from the company for observing dual standards in safety norms in the design and maintenance of the pesticide factory between Bhopal and in the United States. It has been dismissed and appealed against repeatedly and does not appear to have much chance of obtaining redress.

Meanwhile, sensing that some substantial relief being will be paid out to thousands in the not-too-distant future, many unscrupulous agents have visions of Bhopal, which now epitomizes disaster, becoming a "boom town". Real estate agents, dealers in vehicles and merchandisers of other white goods are rubbing their hands in anticipation of large scale sales. Abdul Jabbar, who has run NGOs for medical and other relief for the victims of Bhopal, admits that this is one area where he and his fellow activists can exercise no influence over the actions of the victims. This may be a strange denouement to a tragedy which has dragged on for so many years.

Darryl D'Monte is founder President of the International Federation of Environmental Journalists and Contributing Editor of www.peopleandplanet.net in South Asia.

Amnesty calls for tougher rulesIn a report this week, Amnesty International said the Bhopal tragedy illustrates the need for "a universal human rights framework that can be applied directly to companies." "A generation on, survivors are still waiting for just compensation and adequate medical care," said Benedict Southworth, campaigns director at Amnesty International. "Union Carbide Corporation - and Dow who merged with UCC in 2001 - have still not cleaned up the site or stopped pollution that started when the plant opened in the 1970s, meaning local residents are continuing to fall ill from drinking contaminated water." Both Dow and Union Carbide deny legal responsibility. Union Carbide Corporation has refused to appear before Indian courts to face trial. Amnesty International says the company also withheld information critical to the medical treatment of the victims. "UCC was responsible for a litany of failures in the period leading up to the gas leak," Southworth said. "Bhopal shows how readily some companies can evade their human rights responsibilities." That evasion would not be possible without the tacit approval of governments, says the Amnesty, which alleges that Indian authorities failed to adequately protect their citizens both before and after the disaster.Amnesty also criticises the 1989 settlement reached with UCC by the Indian government."As well as excluding the victims from the process, the settlement capped UCC's liability at $470 million before the claims had been categorized and the full extent of damages estimated," the report said. Independent estimates determined that the claims connected to the leak total more than $3 billion. Bureaucratic barriers and corruption have precluded many victims from receiving any compensation, the report said, and two-thirds of the settlement money "still has to be disbursed by the Indian government." Amnesty International is urging the Indian government to ensure that Dow cleans up the site and fully compensates the victims. The international organization is calling for a full assessment of the health and environmental impacts by the Indian government. The report also says that the failures at Bhopal highlights the need for global human rights standards for corporations and the need to come to grips with the scope and power of transnational companies. "Voluntary codes of conduct, while a welcome sign of corporate commitment, have proved insufficient," the report said. "It is imperative to have enforceable standards that guarantee redress for victims,"Southworth said. See: Amnesty International reportRecomended reading:The revised paperback edition of Five Minutes Past Midnight in Bhopal by Dominique Lapierre and Javier Moro (Scribner,UK,2003, £7.99) tells the story of the Bhopal tragedy, from its hopeful beginnings, to its sad aftermath.Carefully researched, grippingly written and deeply moving, this book has been widely praised. In the words of Indra Sinha, author of The Death of Mr Love: "This is not just another book, it's a crucial weapon in what will be the most important struggle of the century...the struggle of ordinary people to assert their fundamental rights in the face of the greed, power, cynicism and tuthlessness of huge corporations."