Bhopal, the capital city of Madhya Pradesh, is also known as the centre of the ‘biggest industrial disaster’ or the ‘Hiroshima of chemical industry’. On December 3, 1984, a union carbide pesticide producing plant leaked highly toxic cloud of methyl isocyanate into the air of a densely populated region of Bhopal. Of the 800,000 people living in Bhopal at that time, 2,000 died immediately, 300,000 were injured and as many as 8,000 have died since.
Due to the accident, many people suffered various diseases and disorders even till many years later. The worst part is that people living near the premises of the site still continue to suffer. People living around the Union Carbide plant site have two options when it comes to drinking water. Either they are forced to drink the contaminated groundwater, which continues to be affected by toxic wastes dumped in the plant premises, or the municipal water is supplied from the nearby Raslakhedi village, known for a huge sewer. The water from both sources has been officially declared unfit for drinking.
The Bhopal gas tragedy is a catastrophe that has no parallel in industrial history. Yet, the people who have suffered are awaiting justice, even after more than 23 years. A few days ago in New Delhi, victims of the tragedy protested against the inaction on the part of the government to nail the culprits. The fight that the survivors of the tragedy are leading is now not restricted to them. In 2001, Dow Chemical bought Union Carbide for $9.3 billion. Despite this, Dow has refused to accept moral responsibility and does not take accountability for the Bhopal gas tragedy. Even our Commerce Minister thinks that ‘Dow cannot be held accountable for Union Carbide’s liabilities’.
Union Carbide and its former chairperson, Warren Anderson, both of whom face charges of culpable homicide and grievous assault, are absconding from Indian courts since 1992. By virtue of its acquisition of Union Carbide, Dow Chemical has inherited Carbide’s civil liabilities – of clean-up and compensation for water to the affected people.
The government went a step ahead and in the year 2006, it approved the collaboration between Reliance and Dow for the transfer of Union Carbide-owned patented technology. But according to the activists, this is illegal as Union Carbide’s assets in India are subject to confiscation as per the 1992 order of the Bhopal magistrate.
Instead of showing some sympathy and the will to fight for the victims, the government is worried about losing the investment in the country. They feel any overtures to hold Dow liable for Bhopal-related issues will scare away Dow’s promised $1 billion investment in India and also discourage other American investors. Dow even admitted paying $22,000 (Rs 88 lakhs) as bribe to Agriculture Ministry officials to expedite registration of the three pesticides, namely Dursban, Nurelle and Pride.
The company had to pay a fine of $ 325,000 (Rs 1.43 crores) to the Securities Exchange Commission for violating the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act last year. Dow tried to wash its hands off the controversy but there was substantial evidence against them. Dursban pesticide is banned in the US, as it is a neuro-toxin that can cause permanent damage to children’s brains but we are registering such pesticides so that we don’t lose investment. After all, who cares about the people when we have the population of over 1.1 billion?
In May 2007, Sharad Pawar said that the enquiry in this matter was still being undertaken by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The probe is concluded. But the report is gathering dust. Meanwhile, the pesticides continue to poison children and the culprits are roaming free. A good way for us to extend our support is by visiting the site Students For Bhopal, http://www.studentsforbhopal.org.
Dow Chemicals should not be allowed to expand its operation in India until justice is meted out to the victims. Indian state’s unwillingness to discourage foreign private investment has been a crucial factor in the continuing injustice in Bhopal!
[Image Source: http://flickr.com/photos/ascanio/28868638/]