30.12.2014 Author: Natalia Rogozhina

Tragedy in Bhopal – Thirty Years Later

3007680320_dec31d3eed_oThe thirtieth anniversary of the terrible tragedy in Bhopal did not pass unnoticed in India. MPs paid tribute to the victims in this largest-ever industrial accident with a moment of silence. And in the centre of Bhopal at the memorial meeting, thousands of people came together to not only pay tribute to the victims of the disaster of December 1984, but also to recognize the responsibility of its perpetrators. Despite the formal resolution of this problem, the victims of this accident still have a lot of questions for the American company Dow Chemical, which acquired the culprit – the transnational company Union Carbide Corporation, as well as for the Indian authorities. Their demands can be summarized as follows: increase the amount of compensation, improve the quality of medical services, bring those responsible to justice.

The emission of a poisonous gas (its composition is still unknown) at a pesticide plant, the majority of shares to which were owned by the Union Carbide Corporation at the time, caused the immediate death of 4 thousand people, and another 15 thousand people, according to official data, died from fatal poisoning over the next few years. In total, the number of victims of the disaster reached 500 thousand people. And their number will only increase, because the consequences of the explosion at the chemical plant still affect the health of the population, primarily infants. There have been frequent cases of congenital mental retardation and physical defects in children whose parents were breathing poisonous gas and drinking poisoned water. The city has witnessed sharply increased levels of cancer, in a book recently published by the Indian Centre for Science and the Environment, “Bhopal, the gas tragedy thirty years later”, the fact that so far there is no proven data on the actual number of victims of the disaster is discussed.

The accident in Bhopal has become a textbook example of the use of double standards by transnational companies in developing countries. And although the company Union Carbide Corporation justified its involvement in the environmental disaster as “sabotage” by “disgruntled” plant personnel, nevertheless the evidence suggests that safety standards were not respected in the first place. Of course, we can say that the company was not at fault in this, as in India at that time there were no laws regulating the environmental activities of hazardous industries. But relevant standards had been adopted in the United States. This gives rise to accusations of foreign capital operating in developing countries of conducting a policy of double standards. Salil Shetty, Secretary General of Amnesty International, said that if a tragedy of this kind occurred at an Indian company located in the United States, the response of the US authorities would be decidedly firm. Suffice it to recall how the US acted against the company BP, which was responsible for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The agreement between the company Union Carbide Corporation and the Indian authorities had, in their opinion, to resolve the conflict of interest. The company recognized its share of responsibility for the accident and in 1989 paid the Indian government 470 million dollars as compensation. – approximately 2,200 dollars to each family of the deceased. – and 550 dollars to each family of the injured. And then it “washed its hands” of the matter, arguing that it had fulfilled its social obligation. Bhopal residents who still have not recovered from the terrible tragedy that befell them consider this agreement to be “offensive”.

Warren Anderson, the former head of the corporation, managed until his death in September 2014 at the age of 92 years to avoid the constant attempts by the authorities of India to bring him to justice for the killings of these people. In turn, 8 Indian corporate executives of lower rank (one had already died) were charged with negligence in Indian court in 2010. Although they were sentenced to two years in prison, they were nevertheless released from the courtroom on bail. Dow Chemical, which bought Union Carbide in 2001, refuses to take any responsibility for its past “deeds” and believes that the only defendant in all disputed issues is currently the state government of Madhya Pradesh, whose capital is Bhopal.

The fact that the perpetrators of the tragedy did not suffer the full penalty has outraged the Indian public. And the object of its criticism is not only the American company, but the Indian authorities, who are recognized as responsible for the tragedy. No less to blame for the loss of life is the local government, which did not monitor compliance with the norms of labour and environmental safety in the workplace and the activities of the American company. It was aware of emerging issues in the enterprise regarding production safety, but refused to put them in front of the company’s management, fearing to worsen relations with the city’s largest employer. The large number of accident victims is due to the fact that migrants from rural areas, which accounted for the bulk of cheap labour used in the plant, could only settle in the vicinity of the dangerous object, where the price of land was low.

Now, when there are no legal grounds to prosecute the American company, the Indian government has been forced to deal with resolving the dispute. For example, there is still the acute problem of compensating the victims. However, their appeals to local authorities to provide them with financial assistance are not met by a positive reaction. On the contrary, they are accused of greed. And only after their hunger strike in November 2014 in New Delhi was Ananth Kumar, Minister of the Chemical Industry of India, forced to announce the readiness of the Indian authorities to provide additional financial assistance to the victims of the disaster. However, the real number is still unknown.

Although after the explosion the plant was closed, nevertheless the area adjacent to it continues to pose a threat to people living nearby. The 350 tons of hazardous waste that were not removed from the plant are a source of contamination of the soil and groundwater. Bhopal residents are demanding that the authorities undertake emergency measures to decontaminate the area. However, until now the question has not been clarified as to who should bear the costs for cleaning it up – the American or Indian side.

Some human rights activists are pinning their hopes on the fact that during the forthcoming visit of Barack Obama to India in January 2015, Prime Minister Modi will seize the diplomatic opportunity to attract the American side to participate in addressing the environmental consequences of the disaster in Bhopal. According to Salil Shetty, this kind of agreement is in the interest of the implementation of Modi’s declared “Clean India” program.

As for the US, it will be able to demonstrate its willingness to defend human rights, regardless of whether one is talking about a poor Muslim woman from Bhopal or a US citizen.

Natalia Rogozhina, PhD in Political Science, Head Research, Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.