In the early hours of December 3, 1984, several tons of lethal methyl isocyanate (MIC) leaked out of Union Carbide's pesticide factory in Bhopal, India. More than 8,000 people died in the first three days. The death toll has since exceeded 20,000 and an estimated 120,000 remain chronically ill.
Warren Anderson, Union Carbide's CEO at the time of the disaster, was charged with culpable homicide (punishable with imprisonment for up to twenty years) and declared a "fugitive from justice" in 1992. Both Union Carbide and Anderson still face criminal charges in India but continue to ignore the Indian courts and also the Manhattan District Court Judge's ruling that Union Carbide "shall consent to submit to the jurisdiction of the courts of India."
Given the poor safety standards at the Bhopal factory, it was a powder keg waiting to explode. In 1982, a confidential safety audit warned of a "potential for the release of toxic materials" and identified 61 hazards, 30 of them major and 11 in the dangerous MIC section of the factory. Corrective measures were taken at Union Carbide's sister-plant in West Virginia, but not in Bhopal. Furthermore, while all the vital systems in the West Virginia plant had back-ups hooked to computerized alarms, even the sole manual alarm in the Bhopal plant had been switched off. Consequently, the sleeping victims were caught completely unaware.
On the night of the disaster, six safety measures designed to prevent a gas leak were either shut down or malfunctioning. A crucial refrigeration unit had been turned off to save $40 a day. This is not all, though. Union Carbide documents declassified last year revealed that the company used unproven technology to keep costs down. [http://www.newscientist.com/news/news.jsp?id=ns99993140]
In February 1989, the Indian Government settled (without consulting the survivors or their representatives) for a paltry $470 million compensation with Union Carbide. About 95 per cent of the survivors received $500 for lifelong injury and loss of livelihood and Union
Carbide was absolved of its civil -- but NOT criminal and environmental -- liabilities.
This much was clear when in 2001 Dow Chemicals bought over Union Carbide. Dow accepted Carbide's asbestos liabilities in the U.S., but has been trying to lie its way through Carbide's Bhopal liabilities in India. To add insult to injury, it claimed "$500 is plenty good for an Indian" and refused to clean up the site, provide safe drinking water or health care, or stand trial in India. Meanwhile, the tons of chemical wastes left behind by Union Carbide have seeped into the local ground water system, so that deaths and deformities (in newborn babies) have now become commonplace in the gas-affected areas of Bhopal.
Soon after the accident, Barry Neuman prophesied in the Wall Street Journal that Indians don't expect compensation for lives lost because "the certainty of reincarnation satisfies the Hindus; for the Muslims, what God wills, God wills" (quoted on ABC NEWS, September 4, 2002). It turned out that not just Indians, but social justice activists everywhere -- be they accident survivors like Rashida Bee and Champa Devi Shukla who lost immediate members of their families to the disaster and themselves suffer from several ailments or Texan fisherwoman Diane Wilson -- do care for justice and will settle for nothing less.
The Bhopal disaster, rightly dubbed the Hiroshima of the chemical industry, epitomizes the worst of corporate globalization. The 19 year-old struggle for justice is one of the longest ever against a transnational corporation and reinforces the need for enforcing corporate accountability. As the survivors' legal counsel Raj Sharma says, "Criminal trial of corporate CEOs is not merely a necessary legal measure for justice in Bhopal" but "an essential prerequisite for tackling the growing crisis of corporate crime." Despite the many hurdles, including the U.S. and Indian Governments and the powerful business interests that control them, an International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal continues to grow in strength.
The Bhopal movement has received the support of AFL-CIO, Corporate Watch, Farm Workers of America, Greenpeace, Jobs With Justice, the Living Wage Campaign, National Association of Working Women and United Steel Workers of America, among others. This July, 18 members of the U.S. Congress (including Dennis Kucinich) accused Dow of being a "party to the ongoing human rights and environmental abuses in Bhopal." They also took Dow and Carbide to task for the companies' "blatant disregard for the law." [http://www.corpwatch.org/bulletins/PBD.jsp?articleid=7669]
In the run up to the 19th anniversary of the disaster, a recent faculty petition for justice in Bhopal (http://www.petitiononline.com/dirtydow ) has gotten more than 300 endorsements, including those of such luminaries as Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, Robert Jensen, Mahmood Mamdani, Biju Mathew, Michael Parenti and Vijay Prashad. And this December 3rd was observed as Global Day of Action Against Corporate Crimes in more than 20 campuses across the United States. Campaign Organizer Ryan Bodanyi has called these the "most sweeping student protests that Dow has faced since the Vietnam War."
As to what lies ahead, Rashida Bee puts it succinctly: "When Governments and Corporations do not live up to their obligations, it is only solidarity among workers, trade unions and people's groups that can carry us forward."
Ra Ravishankar is a doctoral student in Electrical Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and write weekly columns for the student newspaper Daily Illini (http://www.dailyillini.com)
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