Thursday, December 03, 2009

Bhopal: No end to the suffering, no beginning for justice

TWENTY FIVE years after an industrial catastrophe that caused death and suffering on the scale of a major natural disaster, people are still being affected, and survivors are still waiting to see justice. Trade unionists and environmental campaigners joined local people in a demonstration through the north Indian city of Bhopal early today to mark the anniversary of the Union Carbide disaster, also known as the Bhopal disaster.

It was just after midnight on the morning of December 3, 1984, that the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal released clouds of methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas and other toxins, which spread through the shanty towns near the factory, gassing and blinding people. Eventually some half a million people were exposed to the poisons. The official death toll immediately after the calamity was 2,259, and the government of Madhya Pradesh later confirmed 3,787 deaths caused by the gas release. But others put the deaths as high as 10,000 within 72 hours, and say as many as 25,000 people have since died from gas-related diseases.

Bhopal was once called the lake city, because of the lakes around it, and known for its greenery. The state authorities have tried to assure people that it was becoming safe. But reports now say 390 tonnes of toxic chemicals abandoned at the Union Carbide plant continue to leak and pollute the ground water in the region and affect thousands of Bhopal residents. Toxins have been found in the milk of animals grazing in the area, and of local mothers. Many local people have developed cancers, and experts say children conceived in Bhopal have ten times the chance of being born with defects as those from other areas.

Children were given pride of place on the demonstration in Bhopal. Campaigners are demanding that the government of India set up a commission to deal with all the problems caused by the disaster. They also demand more adequate compensation for victims and their families, and more effort to bring those responsible to justice.

Union Carbide tried at first to deny responsibility for the disaster, and adding insult to injury, blamed worker sabotage, though no evidence was found. What was found was that management had tried to cut corners in production at the Bhopal plant, neglected maintenance, failed to take safety precautions that would have been standard in its US operations, ignored warnings of danger from workers. "By 1984, only six of the original twelve operators were still working with MIC and the number of supervisory personnel was also cut in half. No maintenance supervisor was placed on the night shift and instrument readings were taken every two hours, rather than the previous and required one-hour readings.[16][26]Workers made complaints about the cuts through their union but were ignored. One employee was fired after going on a 15-day hunger strike. 70% of the plant's employees were fined before the disaster for refusing to deviate from the proper safety regulations under pressure from management.[16][26]"

In addition, nothing was done to warn local people or advise them what to in a chemical mishap.

There are currently civil and criminal cases related to the disaster ongoing in the United States District Court, Manhattan and the District Court of Bhopal, India against Union Carbide, now owned by Dow Chemical, and arrest warrants pending against Warren Anderson, the American who was Chief Executive Officer of Union Carbide at the time of the disaster. Despite moves going back to 1993, India has still not managed to extradite Anderson. A fresh arrest warrant was issued in July this year, and the Ministry of External Affairs says it is still pursuing the matter with US officials.

The Dow Chemical Company purchased Union Carbide in 2001 for $10.3 billion in stock and debt. Dow has publicly stated several times that the Union Carbide settlement payments have already fulfilled Dow's financial responsibility for the disaster. Dow took over Union Carbide’s liabilities in at least three US cases but when it came to the Indian victims of Bhopal, Dow said it did not owe anything. Dow’s CEO Michael Parker insisted that compensation money intended for the Bhopal gas survivors - some of the poorest people in the world - should pay for the clean up of the site.

In 2002 there were hunger strikes around the world, including the United States, to demand that Dow meet its obligations. Satinath Sarangi, an Indian engineer who had gone to help Bhopal people and founded a free clinic, spent 19 days outside the Indian parliament, where he was joined by some Bhopal women. Some 94 percent of the Bhopal survivors - 150,000 of them seriously and chronically ill - had received all of $500 for their lifetime loss of health and livelihood. Satinath Sarangi said that “because an exemplary punishment of Carbide/Dow would set limits on the conduct of other multi-national corporations, and so affect their profits, the United States administration has openly and blatantly pressured the Indian government to hinder the course of justice in Bhopal.”

In June last year a group including women and children who walked from Bhopal to Delhi to stage a peaceful protest were set upon savagely by police. "To teach the Bhopalis a lesson, more than 15 policepersons, including one woman cop and two plainclothesmen, strip-searched, whipped and slapped Bhopali youth and children who were in police custody last night. Suresh Pal was stripped, beaten and locked up. 11-year old Yasmin, who walked from Bhopal to Delhi, and six-year old Nagma were beaten up by the police, while 19-year old Imran was whipped with a belt and hurt in the eye for intervening when policemen began abusing and dragging Rachna into the lock-up. Mahendra Singh, a plainclothesman who masterminded the operation, said "In saaliyon ke kapde fado." (Tear the clothes off these bitches). "
Maybe the forces of law and order behaved in this brutal way towards the victims in an attempt to overcome their shame at the law's impotence in bringing the criminals to book.

A year after the Delhi protest and hunger strike a fresh extradition move was begun. But Nityanand Jayaraman, a social activist working for the victims, said not a single accused had been sentenced so far. "The judiciary is moving at an astonishing slow pace. All the Indian accused are out on bail and Anderson does not appear before the court. He is enjoying the government's protection as India does not want to upset the US."

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