Guest post on the 30 year struggle for justice in Bhopal

I am very pleased to repost this piece by Thamil Ananthavinayagan, a PhD researcher at the Irish Centre for Human Rights NUI Galway. The post was originally posted on Stand, the Global Development Platform.

On the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal gas tragedy, Thamil Ananthavinayagan, looks at the case and gives an update on what is happening now.

On the morning of the 3rd of December 1984, Bhopal’s population of one million woke up  coughing, their lungs filling with fluid, as a killer gas, 40 tons of poisonous methyl isocyanate (MIC), was released from a pesticide plant. Until today, this gas caused death to approximately 22,000 people and left numerous persons severely sick. The roads were covered with human corpses, creating a ferocious odour of chemicals and the smell of death in the air.  Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), the company that set up this plant in Bhopal, was never held accountable. Instead, it disappeared in the fog of impunity and has since become a subsidiary of the Dow Chemical Company.

Legal aftermath

India had aimed to compete with industrialised nations and push industrialisation further by inviting multinational corporations into the country; but in the end, the country was faced with one of the greatest tragedies of modern industry.

Civil and criminal cases were initiated against UCC and its Indian subsidiary, Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), ushering in an out-of court settlement in 1989 between the Indian Government and UCC. Both parties fixed a sum of US $470 million; a settlement that was also upheld by the Indian Supreme Court, but without any consultation with the victims.

Bhopal is not only a human rights tragedy from yesterday, but perversion of human rights protection today as the struggle for justice continues

This amount thus aimed to provide immediate relief to the victims. However, the sum was calculated on the basis of the assumed number of deaths and injuries of 3,000 and 100,000 respectively.  But later calculations indicate that the number is actually far higher: activists count 22,917 deaths, 508,432 cases of permanent disability and 33,781 cases of severe injury. But
even with this settlement from 1989, victims faced
obstacles: corruption, delays and lack of appeal

Whose responsibility now?

One can retrospectively ascertain that it was a combination of human failure, an ill-funded security system and, finally, a blatant disregard of labour laws. Ethical issues were raised, since this pesticide factory was built in a densely populated residential area. It lacked the environmental safeguards: Union Carbide cut costs to achieve profit maximisation. The work force was reduced, the position of the maintenance supervisor eliminated and the safety training period for workers in methyl isocyanate  (MIC) chemical reduced from six months to fifteen days.

To make things worse, UCC refused to issue the needed medical information and subsequently prolonged the suffering of the victims, as adequate medical care was made impossible. The medical officer at the plant, Dr. Loya, simply stated it is not deadly gas, only a sort of tear gas.

Union Carbide cut costs to achieve profit maximisation

Recent actions by the Modi Government, namely the revision of the victim figures and the swift payment to the victims, aim to achieve accountability. It is certainly an improvement given decades of stalemate.

This recent shift in action was triggered by a hunger strike of five women, who began their action on the 10th of November, ushering in a meeting with Minister of Chemicals and Fertilizers, Ananth Kumar and meeting the demands of the protestors.  However, as Amnesty International has pointed out, there is room for improvement and especially people expect that the Indian Government will hold the perpetrators accountable.

Dow Chemicals refused so far to compel its subsidiary to return to India to face outstanding charges of culpable homicide. It refuses to clean up the site, provide safe drinking water, disclose information about the leak and appropriately compensate the victims. Though charged with culpable homicide not amounting to murder, Warren Anderson, the former CEO of the Union Carbide Corporation, flew out of Bhopal on the official plane of Arjun Singh, the then Chief Minister of the state of Madhya Pradesh. Anderson died – unpunished and unaccountable – in September 2014 in the US state of Florida, aged 92. The US refused to extradite him until his death, citing lack of evidence. Furthermore, Dow Chemicals abstained from two court hearings in Bhopal in the last six months

The Indian and the US governments must take action to bring justice to the victims. Very recent poll results reveal clear public support in both countries, India and the US alike, for US corporation Union Carbide to face an Indian court.  Corporate social responsbility, in the end is an obligation towards the future generations.

Lessons from Bhopal

Bhopal is not only a human rights tragedy from yesterday, but a perversion of human rights protection today as the struggle for justice continues.

Bhopal sparked the international chemicals industry to create potential safety hazards. With the ‘Responsible Care’ programme, the industry adopted a comprehensive certification system.

However the wider context of corporate greed continues to exacerbate human suffering, exploit the environment and deepen the economic divide. Dhaka Tasreen Fashions fire 2012, the Rana Plaza building collapse 2013, the ongoing environmental damage caused by Shell in the Ogoni region of Nigeria and many more are only ill-famed examples  of corporate disasters and gross human rights violations for profit maximisation. Bhopal, unfortunately, is only one ferocious example out of the many.

In the Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis writes: ” (…) Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape. (…) Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded. (…) This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control.”

He concludes: “Money must serve, not rule.”

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