Cleaning Up After Bhopal Gas Tragedy - Not Begun

10 September 2007
A generation after the world’s worst ever industrial disaster occurred at a U.S. multinational-owned pesticide plant in Bhopal, central India, responsibility continues to be evaded on cleaning up thousands of tons of toxic chemicals that have contaminated the soil and water in the vicinity.

NEW DELHI, Sep 10 (IPS) - A generation after the world’s worst ever industrial disaster occurred at a U.S. multinational-owned pesticide plant in Bhopal, central India, responsibility continues to be evaded on cleaning up thousands of tonnes of toxic chemicals that have contaminated the soil and water in the vicinity.

The U.S. multinational, Dow Chemical, has now offered to partially bear the cost of cleaning the site of the plant that infamously leaked poisonous cyanide gases into the city in December 1984 causing some 4,000 immediate deaths. In return, Dow wants to be freed of legal liability inherited from Union Carbide Corp., which it bought in 2001.

By natural law Dow takes over all its liabilities as well as assets. But Dow has been lobbying hard, both directly and through the U.S. government, to influence senior officials of the Indian government to obtain a ruling in its favour.

If it succeeds, Dow can walk away from its responsibility of clearing the mess left behind by Carbide, which includes over 9,000 tonnes of poisonous chemicals which have contaminated soil and water and affected over 25,000 people living in the plant’s vicinity. Dow is holding out the lure of large-scale investments in India if it is let off the liability hook.

Dow’s latest offer follows numerous pleadings on its behalf by powerful Indian officials in the Planning Commission, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram and Commerce Minister Kamal Nath, as well as the U.S.-India Business Council composed of top-notch business leaders from both countries.

Apart from the deadly leakage of methyl isocyanate and other toxic gases that, activists believe killed at least 8,000 people in the first week there was enormous chemical damage that affected more than 200,000. This may have caused a further 15,000 deaths and continued disabilities and suffering among the survivors, including grievous damage to their lungs and other organs.

Carbide managed to escape civil liability for the faulty plant design and gross negligence which led to the accident by paying the paltry sum of 470 million US dollars in what was regarded as a collusive and unfair settlement in 1989. But its criminal liability still survives.

However, both Union Carbide and its directors refused to stand trial in a Bhopal criminal court and have proved absconders from the law. Dow has, in fact, been sheltering a fugitive from Indian law and selling Carbide’s products, technologies and services in India.

"Dow’s offer confronts the Indian government with a critical choice," says Satinath Sarangi, of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, which first discovered and established the toxic contamination of the soil and groundwater in 1990. "Either it collaborates and cuts a deal with a multinational corporation in a mercenary fashion; or it sides with the victims, who have been affected by chemicals leaching from the industrial waste include some that cause birth defects and cancers and damage to the lungs, kidneys and the liver."

The Indian government is sharply divided over the issue. Its Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers has held Dow legally liable for cleaning the site of the wastes, and demanded in court that the company deposit Rupees one billion (25 million dollars) as initial payment for the cost of the remediation (decontamination) pending adjudication of the matter.

But the Ministry of Law opposes this and says the determination of liability would depend on the terms of the 2001 merger between Dow and Carbide, whose fine print would have to be studied.

According to the organisations of the Bhopal victims, Carbide made a misrepresentation by claiming that it has no liabilities on account of the gas leak disaster. In fact, Union Carbide, some of its directors, including former chairman Warren Anderson, and its Indian subsidiary, stand charged before an Indian court with causing death by a negligent act.

Dow maintains that being a U.S. company, it is not subject to the jurisdiction of the Indian courts. The courts have not yet made a ruling on Dow's liability, but only asked that a part of the overground wastes, some 386 tonnes secured in a warehouse, be removed to a town in Gujarat to be incinerated.

The Madhya Pradesh High Court is however silent on what should be done with the 8,000 tonnes of chemical waste that lies underground at the plant site and also with the hundreds of tonnes that is strewn all over the compound. Victims’ organisations argue that incineration is an unsafe and improper method of disposing of the waste, and that India does not have the right technology to detoxify it.

As an alternative method, they cite the example of Unilever Corp., which was ordered in 2003 by the Madras High Court to take 230 tonnes of mercury waste it had dumped in Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu all the way to the U.S. for detoxification.

Two years ago, the victims’ groups, including the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karamchari Sangh, Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Purush Sangarsh Morcha, along with the BGIA, succeeded in getting a contract between Dow Chemical and the public sector Indianoil Corporation annulled. This involved the licensing of a proprietary technology of Union Carbide, which is a 100 percent-owned subsidiary of Dow.

Dow is negotiating the sale of petrochemicals technologies with Reliance Industries Ltd, one of India's largest private sector companies, which belongs to the Mukesh Ambani group.

"Evidently, all manner of entrenched interests are at work to help Dow duck its legal liability and obligation to clean up the site," says Nityanandan Jayaraman, of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal. "It’s truly appalling that the Indian government is bowing to their pressure, and that too at a time when large volumes of foreign direct investment, exceeding ten billion dollars this year, are flowing into the country."

Jayaraman added that this showed up the ‘’utter servility on the part of the government towards the U.S. and giant transnational corporations, a phenomenon that has been in evidence ever since 1984. Clearly, high rates of GDP growth and India’s claim to be an emerging economic superpower have not prevented it from acting like a Fourth World country, which puts corporate investment above the life and well-being of its citizens."

If the Indian government succumbs to pressure from Dow, from powerful Indian industrialists like Ratan Tata (who lobbied on the company's behalf), and from some of its own pro-neoliberal ministers, that will only add further insult to the colossal injury the victims have suffered, say activists.

Most of the Bhopal victims received less than 150 dollars for extensive injuries and prolonged suffering. Even families of the dead got as little as 5,000 dollars. A good deal of the compensation was alleged to have been siphoned off by corrupt officials, politicians and middlemen.

About the authors

Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a political columnist, social science researcher, and activist on issues of human rights, the environment, global justice and peace. He currently holds the Durgabai Deshmukh Chair in Social Development, Equity and Human Security at the Council for Social Development, Delhi, affiliated to the Indian Council for Social Science Research. 

A former Senior Editor of The Times of India, Bidwai is one of South Asia’s most widely published columnists, whose articles appear in more than 25 newspapers and magazines. He is also frequently published by The Guardian, Le Monde Diplomatique and Il Manifesto.

Bidwai is a founder-member of the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (India). He received the Sean MacBride International Peace Prize, 2000 of the International Peace Bureau, Geneva & London. 

He was a Senior Fellow, Centre for Contemporary Studies, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. Bidwai is the co-author, with Achin Vanaik, of South Asia on a Short Fuse: Nuclear Politics and the Future of Global Disarmament, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999, a radical critique of the nuclearisation of India and Pakistan and of reliance on nuclear weapons for security.