By Binu Mathew
03 December, 2004
20th anniversary of Bhopal gas tragedy, the worst industrial disaster
in history was a day of embarassment for Dow chemicals, the present
owner of Union Carbide and the major news media around the world.
It all began with
a cruel joke the BBC played on the hapless victims of the tragedy and
their familes. In an embarassing goof up BBC awarded $ 12 billion compensation
for the victims and an unbelievable announcement from Dow chemicals
that they are "taking full responsibility" for the tragedy.
At 9 GMT, (and at)
10 GMT, BBC World ran an interview with a man called Jude Finisterra,
who claimed that he was a spoke person for Dow chemicals. What he said
in the interview was more than anything the victims ever dreamt in their
wildest dreams. He said Dow will own up the responsibility of the disaster,
clean up the area of the disaster which is still threateningly toxic,
and will immediately pay out a compensation of $12 billion. As soon
as the BBC broke the story satellite channels in India were running
this big news break as the top story and there was cheer in the streets
of Bhopal. Even the reuters carried the story quoting BBC.
The cheer in Bhopal
was short lived. Soon Dow was out on the street doing some emergency
fire fighting. Dow's spoke person Marina Ashanin was quick to clarify
"Dow confirms there was no basis whatsoever for this report ".
"We also confirm Jude Finisterra is neither an employee nor a spokesperson
for Dow." Ashanin stressed that there was no change in Dow's position
Dow, which bought
Union Carbide three years ago, has always maintained it "has no
responsibility" for the Bhopal tragedy on December 3, 1984, in
which nearly 40 tonnes of highly toxic methyl isocyanate escaped from
a storage vat of the Union Carbide factory, and killed at least 15,000
men, women and children and ruined the lives of half a million more.
Even on the tragedy's
sensitive 20th anniversary, and with a public vigil vilifying Dow and
Union Carbide underway on the faraway streets of Bhopal, the company
continued to remind the world it "never owned or operated the Bhopal
plant". And it refused to bend even slightly to demands by many,
including most recently, Amnesty International, that it show a little
compassion for the victims.
Over a telephonic
interview with Rashmee Z Ahmed of Times Of India Dow's spoke person
said it had "philanthropic initiatives in India," but these
were just the same as "elsewhere around the world in communities
where we live and work."
are not specific to Bhopal as we do not own or operate a facility there,"
But the company
said even though it was not responsible for the disaster, it still remembered
that "day (December 3, 1984) well and the following days, when
several thousand people died."
It said the only
good to come out of Bhopal was that "the chemical industry learned
and grew - creating Responsible Care (a code of conduct and practice
for chemical producers) with its strengthened focus on process safety
standards, emergency preparedness, and community awareness."
bold subversion of the media on the 20th anniversary of Bhopal disaster
once again forced Dow to announce to the world the gross injustice it
is committing to the victims and reiterate that it will not change it's
position in the near future. It was a game that was played out by the
rules of the corporate press. Whoever Jude Finiesterra is, it was a
game that the world loved, it helped to bring to the world's notice
corporate irresponsibility in the face of public opinion.
amount of $12 billion is a reminder to the shameless sell out government
of India made with Union Carbide. In an out of court damage settlement
reached between Government of India and UCC on December 14, 1989, both
parties agreed to an amount of $ 470 million as damages to the disaster.The
first suit filed by Melvin Belli, an American lawyer, claimed damages
upto $15 billion. Later the Indian Government arrogating itself the
sole power to represent all the victims, filed a suit for $3.3 billion.
Four years after filing the suit and without informing the victims,
the government settled for nearly one-seventh of the original claim.
Of the $470 million settlement $200 million was covered by UCC's insurance
and another $200 million had already been put aside. Out of an annual
revenue of $8 billion a year, the corporation had to find just $70 million
to close the books.
The settlement clearly
shows a double standard in treating victims of industrial disasters
in India and elsewhere. Union Carbide and eight other companies paid
US $ 4.2 billion as potential damages for Silicone Breast Implants to
650,000 claimants. This amount was 9 times more than what the Bhopal
victims were given and less than a 10th of the $5 billion court award
against Exon Valdez for polluting the Alaskan coast. Approximately US
$ 40,000 was spent on the rehabilitation of every sea otter affected
by the Alaska oil spill. Each sea otter was given rations of lobsters
costing US $ 500 per day. Thus the life of an Indian citizen in Bhopal
was clearly much cheaper than that of a sea otter in America. If the
award amount of $470 million where distributed equally among all the
victims of Bhopal disaster each would get around only $200.
Many of the people did not get even that much relief. More than 250,000
claims were never documented or classified, making it hard for these
victims to obtain compensation. The largest amount paid for death was
around $ 2,000. Many of the victims in the gas trgedy were poor, illiterate
people. They had no idea of compensation or the importance of keeping
records. When the government agencies demanded documents, they had nothing
to provide. And some who had documents lost it in the 1992 Hindu - Muslim
riot. There is no provision for providing compensation for severly affected
children who are born after the disaster.
Finisterra also takes our attention to another important issue, the
renponsibility of Dow to clean up the disaster site. Amesty international
in a recent report said toxic material continued to contaminate water
supplies around the plant site. "The site has not been cleaned
up so toxic wastes continue to pollute the water which the surrounding
communities rely on." There are reports that mercury is lying on
the ground inside the site.
Twenty years ago this day, dead bodies were beeing piled up on the streets
of Bhopal, or were piled up on funeral pyres. Today Hundreds of thousands
of the survivors are suffering breathing problems, eye diseases, damaged
immune systems, nerve damage, memory loss, cancer, miscarriages, gynaecological
problems, impaired mental health and social exclusion. Families are
plunged into debt because of the inability of the breadwinner to work
full time due to health damage from the leak, and families who had since
moved into the area were reporting health problems from drinking the
water. Now we need the likes of Jude Finisterra to remind the world
the lessons of corporate responsibility and natural justice.
Binu Mathew is
the editor of Countercurrents.org