December 3 will mark the 21st anniversary of the worst industrial disaster in
history. Shortly after midnight on that fateful day, a pesticide factory owned
by Union Carbide spewed 27 tons of toxic gas out across the sleeping city of Bhopal,
India. Remembers Aziza Sultan, a survivor:
"At about 12.30 am I woke to the sound of my baby coughing badly. In
the half-light I saw that the room was filled with a white cloud. I heard
a lot of people shouting. They were shouting "run, run." Then I
started coughing with each breath seeming as if I was breathing in fire. My
eyes were burning."
In those apocalyptic moments no one knew what was happening. Some vomited uncontrollably,
others choked to death. People lost control of their bodies, urine and feces
ran down their legs, women lost their unborn children as they ran, their wombs
spontaneously opening in bloody abortion. Many were crushed in the stampedes
through narrow lanes where street lamps burned a dim brown through clouds of
Thousands died that night. How many thousands, no one knows. Carbide says 3,800.
Municipal workers reckon they shifted at least 15,000 bodies. Such body counts
become meaningless when you know that the dying has never stopped. Today, more
than twenty years later, fifteen to thirty people continue to die in Bhopal
each month due to complications from the gas exposure. The death toll is now
well over 20,000. More than 120,000 are still ill, many permanently disabled
and too sick to work. Carbide fled India after the disaster, leaving behind
a site so contaminated that its chemicals have seeped into the groundwater,
poisoning the same victims over and over again. Lead and mercury have been found
in women?s breast milk, putting future generations in peril.
Carbide's greed had doomed the Bhopalis from the start. They experimented with
unproven and untested technologies and systematically cut costs by compromising
on safety. Despite early warnings about major safety concerns, they failed to
devise any emergency plan or even warn local communities. These decisions contributed
directly to the disaster: On the night of the gas leak, not one of six safety
systems was functional. The company however, blamed the disaster first on Sikh
terrorists and then an unnamed saboteur in an attempt to shield itself from
public outrage. Carbide and its former CEO, Warren Anderson, face charges of
"culpable homicide" or manslaughter in India. With an Interpol arrest
warrant issued against him, Anderson is an international fugitive.
Ignoring global protests, the Dow Chemical Company acquired Carbide in 2001.
This was hardly a surprise. From Napalm and Agent Orange in Vietnam to DBCP
in California, victims can testify that Dow's lethal reach spares none. Even
the soil around its headquarters in Midland, Michigan, is heavily contaminated
with Dioxin. Dow has refused to address Carbide's liabilities in Bhopal, though
it promptly settled with Carbide's asbestos victims in Texas. A Dow CEO had
once openly spoken about his dream "of buying an island owned by no nation
and of establishing the world headquarters of the Dow company on the truly neutral
ground of such an island, beholden to no nation or society." Dow and Carbide
need no such island. The impotency of the international law enforcement infrastructure
is the perfect safe haven that they have been seeking for so long.
For the past two decades, some of the poorest people on earth have been struggling
against two of the world's biggest and richest corporations. Even their own
government abandoned them. Keen on projecting an investor-friendly image, the
Indian government secretly negotiated a $470 million settlement with Carbide.
This is a travesty of justice as most survivors get less than $500, a pittance
even by Indian standards. More money was spent on individual seagulls and seals
after the Exxon Valdez spill. Even so, with only about 20% of the money distributed
so far, most people are yet to see a single paisa.
Yet the quest for justice continues. And as the campaign prepares to mark its
21st anniversary, it can celebrate more victories in the last few years than
ever before. Legal proceedings in the courts of India and the U.S. have sprung
back to life. Forced by a Supreme Court directive, the Indian government has
started distributing the remaining compensation monies. Rashida Bee and Champa
Devi Shukla, two leaders of the campaign, have been awarded the prestigious
Goldman Environmental Prize, known as the "Nobel Prize for the environment."
The European Parliament has adopted a resolution calling for international involvement
under the auspices of the UN Human Rights Commission. U.S. Representative Frank
Pallone (D-NJ) and 16 of his House colleagues have introduced a bill expressing
Congress' commitment to ensure that Carbide is held responsible for its actions.
Much remains to be done. Demands of Dow and Carbide include a comprehensive
cleanup of the site, medical treatment and alternative employment for those
who need it and justice -- Carbide and Anderson should answer the summons of
the Indian Government and stand trial. The Bhopal campaign is one of the longest-running
and most important struggles against corporate crime in the world. The outcome
will have lasting implications for the future of globalization, the labor and
environmental movements, and the health and well being of the people of Bhopal.
The Bhopal campaign has awakened a profound sense of human interconnectivity,
a feeling that somewhere deep inside we all live in Bhopal. Thousands of people
are coming together in schools, factories and communities throughout the world
on the 21st anniversary to remind the Bhopalis that they are not forgotten.
The only memorial ever built in Bhopal was privately funded, designed by a survivor
of the Holocaust. In bold letters, the inscription reads, "No Hiroshima,
No Bhopal, We Want To Live." That dream is still alive. The justice that
has been so long delayed in Bhopal cannot be denied.
Somnath Baidya Roy is a Research Associate at Duke University.
He is active in the Bhopal campaign. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Ryan Bodanyi is the International Coordinator of Students for Bhopal. He can
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information go to the website of Students for Bhopal (www.studentsforbhopal.org)
or the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (www.bhopal.org
and www.bhopal.net ).