Bhopal Gas Tragedy
By Scott Baldauf
05 May, 2004
The Christian Science Monitor
20 years after an accident at a Union Carbide chemical plant killed
thousands here, there are signs that a second tragedy is in the making.
New environmental studies indicate that tons of toxic material
dumped at the old plant have now seeped into the groundwater, affecting
a new generation of Bhopal citizens.
The Indian government
- long criticized for its lax regulation of Union Carbide and reluctance
to pursue legal claims - now says it's ready to hold parent company
Dow Chemical liable for the ground contamination.
For many, the Bhopal
litigation serves as a test case for India's relationship with foreign
businesses and investors. But for the victims of Bhopal, the gas tragedy
is a matter of justice, compensation, and safety - all of which, they
say, has been a long time in coming.
While Union Carbide
settled a civil suit in 1989 by agreeing to pay victims a lump sum of
$470 million, a criminal trial against the company and its top officials
is entering its 15th year, with less than half of the few hundred witnesses
having testified. And the compensation process has taken so long that
the settlement fund has nearly doubled in value; Officials haven't
decided how to dole out nearly $333 million in unplanned interest.
In the meantime,
government inaction on water contamination may be affecting untold thousands
who were seemingly left untouched by the poisonous gas accident of Dec.
pollution control board in December filed a report that confirms that
there is contamination of the groundwater, and we will give this to
the Supreme Court to settle," says Babu Lal Gaur, state minister
of the Bhopal gas victims, in an interview with the Monitor.
He notes that these
studies were kept under wraps by the previous Congress Party government,
but that the new state government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party,
will pursue the case with vigor. "The Dow company, they are responsible
for this, and the state government wants Dow to clean up, after the
decision of our Supreme Court."
A Union Carbide
spokesman says that the company and its sole shareholder, the Dow Chemical
Company, cannot be held liable for any waste cleanup at the plant or
any contamination of the ground water. "There is no legal foundation
for application of liability," says John Musser, the Union Carbide
spokesman, speaking from Midland, Mich., headquarters.
Union Carbide took
"moral responsibility" for the tragedy, says Mr. Musser, but
never had legal responsibility for the Bhopal plant, since that plant
was operated by a separate Indian subsidiary, Union Carbide India Limited
At the time of the
accident, Union Carbide owned 50.9 percent of UCIL's shares, but severed
its relationship with UCIL in 1994. UCIL did some cleanup at the site,
Musser says, "but did not complete the work," and the plant
site was later bought by another Indian company, Everready Industries
India Limited. Today, the plant site has been transferred to the legal
responsibility of the state government itself, he says. "The chain
of responsibility is very clear and Union Carbide has not been a party
For Abdul Jabbar,
a community activist here, a case establishing clear responsibility
has been a long time in coming. Mr. Jabbar has been involved
in the Bhopal gas victims' cause since that first night on Dec. 3, 1984,
when he woke up to the sounds of screams on the street, and gathered
up his family to flee.
is living on," says Jabbar, who runs a seamstress workshop for
widows of gas victims. "The groundwater for 3 to 5 kilometers from
the site is contaminated, and this comes 20 years after the fact. The
state public health
agency has conducted two studies proving the water is unfit for drinking,
but still people use the hand pumps."
Jabbar says he believes
that the previous Congress government withheld information about water
contamination at the Union Carbide site because it was the Congress
government that welcomed Union Carbide to Bhopal in 1969, and Congress
led governments that regulated it thereafter. The current government's
hands are not dirty, he adds, so they are happy to blame Congress and
move on with the issue. Officials with the Congress Party did not return
calls for this report.
The scientific evidence
of water contamination is mounting. By 2002, a number of environmental
and public interest groups had collected samples from the soil, groundwater,
fruits, and vegetables, finding high levels of heavy metals such as
nickel, chromium, mercury, and lead, along with other toxic materials
such as dichlorobenzines, all of which were used at the Union Carbide
in soil and water samples at the plant were more than 10 times higher
than in surrounding areas, indicating that the plant was the source
of the contamination. Mercury and lead contamination have even found
their way into samples of breast milk.
There is one more
cruel twist. Back in 1984, the wind direction carried the methyl isocyanate
gas toward the south. But now, the contaminated groundwater is heading
north, carrying the poisons to a completely new population.
Holding Dow Chemical
responsible has its risks, of course. India's central government, led
by the BJP, has opened its doors to foreign business,
including dozens of new chemical factories scattered along the Arabian
Sea coast, from Bombay to the southern tip of Kerala and up the east
coast of Tamil Nadu.
Any new legal action
in the 20-year-old Bhopal case could scare off foreign investors who
might fear an unending barrage of litigation in the case of an accident.
Some survivors here say that Indian regulations on industry remain lax
and sporadic, and that a future Bhopal-style tragedy is still possible.
Down at Shahjahani
Park - a small patch of grass from which tall mango trees grow - a meeting
of old men and women promises to keep the struggle going.
Among them is Raisa
Bi, one of more than 500,000 Bhopal residents who survived that night
but continues to suffer from its effects. She works six days a week
stitching clothes at the workshop run by Jabbar's group. Her disabled
husband, himself a gas victim, cries every day she goes to work, she
says. "He asks, 'How do I go on living my life like this?'"
While she is encouraged
that the state government is now showing interest in water contamination,
she believes that the only people who truly care about the Bhopal gas
tragedy are those who have survived it.
are living out the consequences of the tragedy, they are the only ones
who remember it," she says.
Courtesy/Harsh Kapoor, SACW