The Long Shadow of Bhopal
By Tripti Lahiri
More than 25 years after a deadly cloud of gas escaped from a Union Carbide India Ltd. pesticide factory in Bhopal on a December night in 1984, a district court in that city is expected to decide on Monday whether Indian officials of the company, majority-owned at the time by the U.S.-based Union Carbide Corp., were negligent.
It’s been a hard task for the court with most facts in dispute by either side, down to the toll. A Union Carbide statement puts the deaths at 3,800, citing the Madhya Pradesh state government. Bhopal activists put deaths in the immediate aftermath of the leak at 8,000 to 10,000 and say they total 25,000 now. They also say 100,000 people continue to suffer from chronic illnesses.
Five years after the incident, India and Union Carbide agreed to a $470 million settlement and, as a result, the litigation was stalled. After petitions from victims, legal proceedings started up again. In 2001, meanwhile, Dow Chemical acquired Union Carbide, which had divested itself of its share in UCIL seven years earlier.
In Bhopal, the site and its groundwater remain contaminated. Families there report high rates of birth defects, representatives of the victims say. They also say the compensation agreement underestimated the numbers of the dead and sick and, as a result, the money eventually distributed to families was completely inadequate.
Union Carbide says it behaved responsibly.
“In the wake of the gas release, Union Carbide Corporation, and then chairman Warren Anderson, worked diligently to provide aid to the victims and set up a process to resolve their claims,” says Union Carbide on its Bhopal page, adding that it had concluded that the gas leak was the result of sabotage. “All claims arising out of the release were settled 18 years ago at the explicit direction of and with the approval of the Supreme Court of India.”
The company also said that the court had ordered the government of India “to purchase, out of the settlement fund, a group medical insurance policy to cover 100,000 persons who may later develop symptoms.”
Whatever the Bhopal District Court’s verdict on the conduct of the Indian officials in the criminal case, many Indians will continue to see the Union Carbide case as an object lesson in how powerful American companies have the upper hand in their dealings in developing countries. And now a few American firms are facing the fallout of what happened in Bhopal that day.
Like other industrial disasters, Union Carbide left its scars even on those who were nowhere near Bhopal. What it left many Indians with was a stark sense of how vulnerable they might be if something similar were to happen at a plant near them, in a town where they lived. When the next big industrial disaster takes place, many Indians fear they won’t be able to count on the companies or government involved to quickly step up and say, “We’re so sorry. This should never have happened. We’ll do everything we can to help you.”
So when they hear the government has introduced a piece of legislation in Parliament that is meant to limit the financial liability of nuclear plant operators as well as provide legal immunity from third-party lawsuits to foreign vendors in the case of an accident, those fears deepen.
Karuna Nundy, a lawyer who is representing the Bhopal victims in a separate matter in the Supreme Court, says the government’s sending the wrong message to companies deciding whether or not to set up nuclear reactors in India by telling them, “We’ll set a cap for you and we’ll have the taxpayer pay for it.”
“The government is entering into and skewing the costs-and-benefits towards more dangerous outcomes,” said Ms. Nundy.
In early May, Bhopal survivors filed a right-to-information request to ask the government how it’s deciding on its proposed cap for a nuclear accident, which in the draft caps liability at $100 million for plant operators with the next $400 million to be paid by taxpayers, according to a WSJ op-ed in April.
“It is the polluter who should pay,” said Rachna Dhingra of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action. “There should be no bills coming in this country where polluters can go without any kind of liability.”
Bhopal gas tragedy victims want accused hanged
Over 25 years after the Bhopal gas tragedy when the verdict in the case is to be pronounced on Monday, the victims want capital punishment for the accused but are not too hopeful of getting full justice.
They feel the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has already "weakened" the case.
The accused in the case include senior Indian executives of Union Carbide India Limited and Warren Anderson, former chairman of Union Carbide Corporation, US, which owned the Bhopal plant - who is absconding.
Rachna Dhingra of the Bhopal Group of Information and Action told IANS: "The folly committed by the accused should fetch no less than capital punishment for all of them. They should be hanged in public."
"We are being deceived since the beginning. The case, based on a charge sheet filed by the CBI Dec 1, 1987, against 12 parties, was originally to be tried under Section 304 Part II (culpable homicide not amounting to murder leading up to 10 years imprisonment) of the Indian Penal Code," Sadhna Karnik of Bhopal Gas Peedit Sangharsh Sehayog Samiti, who is also a victim, said Sunday.
"This, however, was challenged by the accused in the Supreme Court which, in a September 1996 order, diluted the charges against the Indian accused to Section 304 A - causing death by negligence with maximum imprisonment up to two years," she added.
"Now, even if the judgment pronounces them guilty, what does two years' punishment mean and that too with the liberty to appeal in higher courts?" Karnik asked.
Another activist, Abdul Jabbar of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sanghathan (BGPMUS), accused the CBI of preparing and presenting a "weak" charge sheet in the case.
"More than 178 witnesses, belonging to weaker sections of society, were registered but several important witnesses were left out," he said.
"A judgment such as this one, with a high-profile accused, has the potential to shape the future of how big business operates in the country," Jabbar said.
Activists also question the CBI's role as it has not been able to produce Andersen, the prime accused in the case, even after two arrest warrants were issued against him, the last one in July 2009.
Dow Chemical Company, which took over the US-based Union Carbide Corporation in 1999, says all the liabilities were settled when the company paid $470 million compensation in a settlement brokered by the Indian Supreme Court.
The verdict will be pronounced Monday by Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM) Mohan P. Tiwari in the case, arguments for which closed May 13.
Four of the organisations representing victims Saturday accused the Indian government of criminal negligence in the prosecution of the accused in the case.
GETTY IMAGES 1 MONTH AGO
Survivors of 1984's Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal hold placards as they gather outside the Indian Prime Minister's office to file a Right To Information (RTI) petition in New Delhi on May 4, 2010. The filed the RTI) to get access to all documents concerning the Nuclear Civil Liability Bill that mention, discuss, concern or otherwise referenced the 1984 Union Carbide disaster in the central Indian town. Government figures put the death toll at 3,500 within the first three days but independent data by the state-run Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) puts the figure at between 8,000 and 10,000 for the same period.
REUTERS PICTURES 6 MONTHS AGO
A local activist attends a demonstration to mark the 25th anniversary of the Bhopal gas disaster in Bhopal December 3, 2009. The Union Carbide plant in the central city of Bhopal, now owned by Dow Chemical, left a potent legacy when it accidentally released toxic gases into the air, killing thousands of people and causing many more to suffer in the world's most deadly industrial disaster. In the early hours of December 3, 1984, around 40 metric tonnes of toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas leaked into the atmosphere and was carried by the wind to the surrounding slums. The government says around 3,500 died as a result of the disaster. Activists however calculate that 25,000 people died in the immediate aftermath and the years that followed.
REUTERS PICTURES 6 MONTHS AGO
Local activists shout slogans during a torch rally to mark the 25th anniversary of the Bhopal gas disaster in Bhopal December 2, 2009. In December 1984, the Union Carbide Corp pesticide plant developed a toxic gas leak resulting in thousands of people dying in the aftermath, in what is called one of the world's worst industrial disasters. Bhopalis and environmental groups say many more people have been harmed since then by pollutants seeping out of the plant site into ground water, which they contend have caused health problems for nearby residents including cancer, growth retardation and dizziness.
REUTERS PICTURES 6 MONTHS AGO
Mothers wait with their children for treatment in a rehabilitation centre for children who were born with mental and physical disabilities in Bhopal December 2, 2009. Bhopalis and environmental groups say many more people have been harmed since Union Carbide Corp, now part of Dow Chemical Co. , developed a toxic gas leak in 1984 resulting in thousands of people dying in the aftermath, in what is called one of the world's worst industrial disaster.