Bhopal – still waiting for justice

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In the early hours of the morning on 3 December 1984, methyl isocyanate (MIC), a lethal toxic gas, leaked from a chemical plant in Bhopal, India. Within the next 24 hours 8,000 people had died. A further 15,000 were to die over the next few years with an estimated 500,000 left with chronic and debilitating injuries. Twenty years on and a person still dies every single day from the effects of the accident.

It was quite possibly the biggest industrial accident in history. An avoidable accident, resulting from the relentless pursuit of profit that capitalism has spread around the world. Throughout the 1970s India increased its exposure to the free-market and sought more foreign direct investment. A lot of it was found through the transformation of world agriculture labelled as the ‘Green Revolution’, which brought to India agricultural multinationals such as a company called Union Carbide.

Within the conditions created by capitalism individual corporations can take full advantage of the cheap labour and lax safety laws that exist within poor countries, this is exactly what Union Carbide did in India. Union Carbide, now owned by the US chemical giant Dow Chemical, created in Bhopal a plant that was lacking in the most basic of safety procedures. This was not because the expertise did not exist for the correct and safe handling of dangerous chemicals, but because the finance was not injected to enforce such standards. The Bhopal factory was designed as a copy of a Union Carbide plant in West Virginia, but without the same computerised safety equipment and levels of training. Many of those working in the plant expressed concern about safety but their words fell on deaf ears amongst the management, situated safely away in the US. Even in the summer of 1984, a Bhopal-based journalist wrote an article on the dangers of the plant for a leading Indian newspaper entitled: ‘Bhopal on the brink of disaster,’ yet the article spurred no action from Union Carbide or the Indian government alike. In fact, despite the warnings and anxieties, it has become clear that a refrigeration unit, which could have prevented the accident, was turned off in order to save a mere $40 a day.

If Union Carbide’s actions before this horrific accident weren’t bad enough, their actions afterwards eclipsed them in their inhumanity. As soon as news of the accident broke, Union Carbide withheld key medical information on the leaked gas and dispensed unsound medical advice in order to keep to their official line that MIC was ‘nothing more than a potent tear gas.’ The President of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson, under international pressure, went to Bhopal to see the devastation caused. He was arrested by the local police but after four hours of pressure from the US government was released on bail and fled straight back to the US. He now lives in luxury in New York and Florida, safe in the knowledge that he’ll probably never be extradited to India for his part in this crime. Union Carbide (now Dow) has yet to take responsibility for the accident, claiming that they only part-owned the plant with an Indian subsidiary and can’t accept responsibility, this is a lie. They finally conceded a paltry compensation deal worth $470m with the Indian government in 1989, washing their hands of the poison they have left behind. The compensation package is worth a meagre $500 per victim over a 20-year period, which even in the cash-starved slums of Bhopal is nothing more than a cruel insult.

Furthermore, the plant has still to be dismantled despite continuing to pollute the water supply and even though it would only cost a mere $30m to decommission, according to a Greenpeace report. Surely Dow’s yearly sales of $32.6bn should stretch to cover the pollution that is debilitating and killing to this day, causing children to be born with hideous and painful disfigurements? We should compare this to another scene of death and destruction, the World Trade Centre, and see the double standards in rebuilding after tragedy, or after the Lockerbie bombing, in which victims’ families received £4m.

To add further insult to injury, the Indian government retains almost half the compensation money in the Indian national bank. It is the Indian government, along with Union Carbide and their imperialist US cohorts who should be held responsible for the continuing and unnecessary suffering in Bhopal. Perhaps it is because the Indian ruling classes know little of the debilitating pain, breathing difficulties, neurological disorders, depression and poverty of the victims near the plant. But then, why would a government that propagates an economic system that condemns 5,000 of its citizens to death every day from malnutrition and preventable diseases care about the victims of a tragedy that occurred 20 years ago?

Imperialism ties the interests of the ruling classes in the oppressed nations with the oppressor nations, and it is the poor who end up trampled upon by both. Twenty years on and justice is still being awaited by the people of Bhopal. Unless there is any radical shift in the political system in India, they may well have to wait even longer.
Andrew Alexander

FRFI 183 February / March 2005