Posted by: Mehul Srivastava on December 3, 2009
25 years ago today, some 4000 people were killed in the worst industrial accident in history, when a Union Carbide plant in central India leaked out a poisonous gas called Methyl Isocyanate.
Protestors all across India, and especially in Bhopal, gathered today to lament the fact that that was just the beginning of the nightmare. Another 15,000 people have died since then – maybe 30,000, if you consider some estimates – and close to half a million people have had some sort of health defect caused by the leak that December night.
But even though Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said in a statement Dec. 2 that “the enormity of that tragedy of neglect still gnaws at our collective conscience,” it’s still unclear what exactly is going to be done for the survivors.
More egregious, though, for the protestors, is the fact that Union Carbide officials were never brought to trial over the leak. The company, which was later sold to Dow Chemicals, paid a $470 million settlement in 1989, and its then CEO, Warren Anderson, who faces an international arrest warrant, never gave himself up to the authorities in India. Anderson now lives in the Hamptons, but has consistently denied allegations that lax safety standards led to the leak that night. Instead, Union Carbide has blamed a disgruntled employee. Dow Chemicals, meanwhile, has said that since it bought Union Carbide 16 years after the incident, never operated or owned the original chemical plant, and since no court has ever held it responsible for the clean-up costs, the Indian government should drop a claim for decontaminating the area, as should protestors. Dow’s position is that the Union Carbide payment in 1989 settled all claims.
In the years since, the trickle down of that settlement has been a meager $500 or so for injured survivors, and as little as $2000 for the next of kin, according to two different studies.
What if the situation were reversed? Suketu Mehta, an India-born author now living in the U.S., points out in an op-ed in the New York Times, how unlikely it is that an Indian CEO whose company was involved in the deaths of thousands of Americans would be able to avoid all responsibility.
Perhaps the worst part is that these survivors and the next of kin are caught in this nexus between politics and foreign investment. The site could have been cleaned up, but hasn’t been. The government could have vigorously pursued Union Carbide, but didn’t. People could have been moved out of the contaminated areas, but haven’t either. Instead, a quarter of a century after the tragedy, they still join protests chanting for some variation of justice - an apology, a criminal trial or even some financial compensation for the hardships they have endured.