A Soft Verdict For Corporate Polluters


Last Monday, victims of the world’s worst industrial disaster stood outside the local court in Bhopal, India in a state of apprehension. Just metres away, inside the courtroom, seven former executives of the pesticide giant Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL) awaited the verdict. They were reminded how, on 3 December 1984, nearly 40 tonnes of poisonous gas leaked from the local factory and swept across the city, killing the loved ones of those waiting outside. 

The seven men stood accused of criminal negligence that led to the death of more than 15,000 people — and continues to affect the health of more than 500,000. 

They were sentenced to two years in prison. Two hours later they were released on bail.

When news of the verdict broke, US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs Robert Blake spoke to reporters. He said, "Obviously this was one of the greatest industrial tragedies and industrial accidents in human history. We hope that this verdict helps to bring some closure to the victims and their families."

Meanwhile in the US, President Obama was vowing to make executives at BP pay. Those responsible for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico would be held responsible for the estimated 89 million gallons of oil that was spewing into the oceans. He would not rest until the oil was cleaned up and people could go back to their lives.

The difference between the responses to the BP leak and the Bhopal disaster, argues Rachna Dhingra, from the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, demonstrates that when it comes to companies polluting the environment and endangering citizens, there’s one rule for the West and another for the developing world.

"Obama cannot have double standards on this issue. He is holding BP accountable and is going to ‘kick their ass’ and get every cent. He cannot have a double standard for companies operating in India," Dhingra insists. "As to our Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, he also needs to take a cue from Obama and stand up for his own people."

Last week’s verdict in Bhopal whipped the Indian media into a frenzy. Print and broadcast media dedicated themselves to condemning the outcome of the trial. "Rich people always get away," headlines proclaimed. "Justice was buried!"

But as Dhingra points out, justice for the Bhopal victims and their families was pushed six feet under more than a decade ago.

In 1996 the Supreme Court of India watered down the charges against UCIL executives, placing the blame instead with its American-based parent Union Carbide Corporation (UCC). Bhopal’s local court issued the maximum sentence possible last week. "No one is saying that it’s not an injustice, but this court couldn’t have done anything else," says Dhingra.

The ongoing injustice, according to Dhingra, is the lack of political will from both the Indian and the US governments to hold UCC and its former chairman Warren Anderson to account.

When the disaster in Bhopal occurred, UCC was the majority shareholder of UCIL. In February 1989, India’s Supreme Court ordered UCC to pay $470 million in compensation to the Bhopal gas victims.

UCC did so, and claims that in paying the compensation, it washed its hands of any responsibility in Bhopal. All claims, it states, were settled 18 years ago. In 1994 UCC stepped further away from responsibility, by selling its majority share of UCIL and becoming a subsidiary of Dow Chemicals. Soon after, the Indian government took control of the UCC site in Bhopal. UCC now says it has "no interest in or liability for the Bhopal site".

Despite this, Anderson still faces criminal charges in India and last week’s verdict only served to renew calls for his extradition to India.

But activists are sceptical. There might be ample evidence to support Anderson’s extradition, Dhingra says but there’s no political will. "The problem is that the Indian Government is more concerned about foreign investment than its people."

This attitude has left the people of Bhopal with a continuing legacy of pollution and crippling health problems. I visited the dusty city last year to report for newmatilda.com on how its people were coping 25 years after the disaster.

Those I met had all, in one way or another, been affected. Some had parents battling manageable respiratory problems and others, like Kumru Nisha, who lived a kilometre away from the factory, faced larger challenges. Her two sisters died from gas-related illnesses and she suffers from depression and tuberculosis. Others I spoke with had their whole families wiped out in a single night.

And the effects of the disaster have not ceased. Hundreds of tonnes of toxic waste remain at the factory site and people continue to drink contaminated ground water. Two generations of babies have inherited this toxic legacy. Thousands have been born with twisted limbs, abnormal brain development and respiratory disorders.

25 years on, activists, victims and health workers are still fighting for proper compensation and a cleanup of the factory site. No comprehensive testing of the factory and the surrounding area has been completed, so no one knows just how far the contamination has spread. Activists continue to call on UCC to provide genuine research, monitoring and long term medical care of the victims, as well as to release the medical information on the leaked gases.

"One of the biggest challenges survivors and these new generations face has been the lack of information both with regard to the composition of the leaked gases and the chemicals people are being exposed to in a routine manner because of ground water contamination. We also do not have information on the health effects of these chemicals because UCC continues to withhold it as trade secrets," Satinath Sarangi, the managing trustee of the Sambhavna Clinic in Bhopal, told newmatilda.com last year.

Dhingra says it’s vital that the US and Indian governments force UCC and UCIL to bear the full responsibility for what happened in Bhopal more than 25 years ago not just for victims but for the development of India. "It’s very important that we get justice in Bhopal so it doesn’t set a precedent that overseas companies can come, kill, pollute and leave without any consequences."

Just to make their position clear, on 7 June UCC released a statement to remind the people of Bhopal how far they now stand from the tragedy: "Union Carbide and its officials are not subject to the jurisdiction of the Indian court since they did not have any involvement in the operation of the plant, which was owned and operated by UCIL."

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