New Internationalist

The blood of Bhopal

Issue 408

Survivors of the Bhopal gas explosion.

Relevant rights: Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that ‘Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.’ Article 8 states ‘Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him [sic] by the constitution or by law.’ In the Gabcikovo-Nagymaros Case, Judge Weeramantry, then Vice-President of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, articulated the customary law view that ‘damage to the environment can impair and undermine all the human rights spoken of in the Universal Declaration and other human rights instruments’.

Astonishingly, not all the violations resulting from Union Carbide’s business in Bhopal, India, stem from the release of 27 tonnes of methyl isocyanate gas that killed an estimated 8,000 people in 1984 alone. The right to life and security, the right to the highest attainable standard of health and an adequate standard of living, the right to adequate food and clean water and the right to a safe environment have all been violated subsequent to the world’s worst industrial disaster.

One violation underpins all the others: denial of effective legal remedy. In the year following the massacre, Union Carbide’s legal counsel, Bud Holman, developed his own view of this right: ‘If we’re going to defend ourselves – and we are – if there are 200,000 claimants, the 200,000 claimants are going to have to appear in court.’ One commentator estimated that litigation conducted on this basis could only have ended before each of the half-million ailing survivors finally died if it had begun around 500 AD.

If Union Carbide saw its shareholders’ salvation in the delay of the law, the Indian Government saw its own in a paltry deal for all civil claims that caused Carbide’s share price to leap $2 and made 1989 its best financial year ever. The multinational’s clout, mystifying use of the corporate veil and energetic ‘forum hopping’ had secured it a knock-down. Not only were gas survivors kept out of the ring, they were left to wait 15 years for their 13 cents per day compensation.

Nonetheless, there was also the matter of a criminal trial, wherein Union Carbide faced charges of culpable homicide and other serious offences. Union Carbide’s continued non-appearance in these 16 year-old proceedings highlights the difficulty in enforcing international law against that multi-headed Hydra, the multinational.

In 2001 the Dow Chemical Company swallowed the ‘fugitive from justice’ Union Carbide in an $11 billion takeover. Dow aims to carry on the tradition of impunity by doing considerable business in India. Bhopal’s survivors refuse to let it. Victims of government repression, treachery and neglect, bedevilled by multi-systemic ill health from gas exposure, suffering an epidemic of cancers, mental health problems and growth retardation amongst children, the Bhopalis have maintained a tenacious fight for justice and restitution over 23 years.

Two years ago members of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal stopped a deal between Dow and Indian Oil when they found proof that Dow was touting Union Carbide technology as its own.

Direct action has been another weapon. Within days of Dow’s takeover of Carbide, hundreds of gas-affected women fare-dodged their way to Mumbai to lay siege to Dow’s Indian headquarters with the slogan ‘Dow now has the blood of Bhopal on its hands’. Another two-hour protest to deliver contaminated water samples brought a typical response: a $10,000 lawsuit for ‘loss of earnings’.

Dow’s ‘safety’ policy extends to the extensive contamination Union Carbide left at its death-factory. Called a ‘world toxic hotspot’ by Greenpeace, a lawsuit brought by survivors in New York discovered that 18 years ago Carbide made tests on soil and water that caused 100 per cent mortality to fish. Another internal report suggested that lethal toxins were travelling towards local water wells that served 20,000 people. Instead of warning local agencies, Carbide ducked out of the site. Dow continued the policy of denial until the evidence proved undeniable. Today, visiting doctors are bewildered by the number of brain-damaged and malformed children in affected communities.

Predictably, Dow maintains the clean-up is somebody else’s problem, even while it spends $30 million on a PR campaign promoting its work to bring clean water to the world. However, in yet another lawsuit a ministry of the Indian Government has made Dow notionally liable by requesting it pay $22 million toward the cost of remediation. Right to Information work by survivors’ groups reveals that Dow is secretly negotiating with the Prime Minister’s office to make investment in the Indian economy dependent on an end to all its Bhopal-related liabilities. A powerful phalanx of industrialists and ministers, including the Law Ministry, is trying to ensure Dow gets its way. As ever, Bhopal’s redoubtable survivors and their friends are all that stand against it.

Tim Edwards

Medals:

The International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, an umbrella organization that marries individual NGOs outside India with grassroots survivors’ campaigns. www.bhopal.net

The Sambhavna Trust, supported by the British charity The Bhopal Medical Appeal, runs an award-winning free clinic for survivors and affected people. www.bhopal.org

Students for Bhopal, international student campaign to hold Dow accountable for the toxic spill. www.studentsforbhopal.org

The Chingari Trust, created by Goldman Award winning survivors Rashida Bee and Champa Devi, seeks to provide medical care for children born with malformations and brain damage, and income-earning opportunities for families impoverished by the disaster and the subsequent water contamination. www.chingaritrust.org

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