By Nilofar Suhrawardy, MMNS India Correspondent
NEW DELHI: Twenty-six years have passed since the Bhopal gas tragedy. The victims continue suffering. They have yet to receive adequate compensation. Justice still eludes them. The center and the state government still seem engaged in deliberating over the actions that should be taken, politically and diplomatically as well as in interest of the victims. The survivors have now chosen to turn to United States President Barack Obama. They have their specific reasons to do so, irrespective of whether their case gets considered by the White House or not.
Tragedy began with leakage of toxic methyl isocyanate gas from Union Carbide India Ltdâ€™s (UCIL) pesticide plant in Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh) on December 3, 1984. More than 15,000 people died immediately and millions continue to suffer the harmful effects of gas. Though Warren Anderson, chairman of Union Carbide was arrested the next day, he was freed on bail of $2,000. Litigations took several turns, including claims for $3.3. billion being filed by Indian government from Union Carbide in a US court in February, 1985. The US court, however, transferred Bhopal litigation to India. A non-bailable warrant of arrest was issued against Anderson in February 1989 for continuously ignoring summons. The same month through an out-of-court deal, Union Carbide gave Indian government a compensation of $470 million. Bhopal victims displayed their opposition to this settlement by organizing protest movements and filing review and writ petitions in the Supreme Court. The apex court, however, allowed Union Carbide to sell stake in UCIL to McLeod Russell (India) Ltd of Calcutta in November, 1994.
Even though the victims secured virtually no relief or compensation, the Supreme Court diluted charges against Indian officials of UCIL in September 1996. Union Carbide merged with US-based Dow Chemicals in August 1999. Charging Carbide of violating international human rights law, environmental law and international economic law, several organizations linked to Bhopal tragedy filed an action suit against Union Carbide and Anderson in federal court of New York in November 1999. As per the tests conducted then by international environment watchdog Greenpeace, the soil in groundwater and wells in and around the Carbide factory were found to contain 12 volatile organic chemicals and mercury around six million times more than was presumed.
Litigations took a new turn with several developments. Union Carbide openly refused in February 2001 to take responsibility for UCILâ€™s liabilities in India. Reports of Indian governmentâ€™s plans to drop charges against Anderson agitated the tragedyâ€™s survivors in June 2002. Protests increased, legally as well as through media, demanding Andersonâ€™s extradition to face trial in India. Activists also strongly demanded cleaning up the factory site off its toxic waste.
It took nine years after the gas-tragedy for the Indian government to formally request to US for extradition of Anderson (May 2003). A year later, the US rejected Indiaâ€™s request saying that it did not meet â€œrequirements of certain provisionsâ€ of bilateral extradition treaty. Meanwhile, Indian government issued a no objection certificate demanded by US court to allow Dow Chemicals to clean soil and ground water at the factory site (March 2004).
As Bhopal victims protested against the failure of government to pay them compensation, the Supreme Court set the deadline of November 15, 2004 for the government to do so (October 26, 2004). Though a Bhopal court convicted all the eight accused this year on June 7, people were outraged. The accused were given only two yearsâ€™ imprisonment and were granted bail immediately. Describing the judgment as â€œjudicial disaster,â€ Satinath Sarangi, convener of a Bhopal victimsâ€™ NGO (non-government organization) said: â€œIt is a travesty of justice. Insult has been heaped on the gas victims. Entire families were wiped out and the accused walk away after paying personal bonds of Rs 25,000?â€ â€œThe verdict is too little, too late,â€ Abdul Jabbar said. Jabbar, convener of a Bhopal victimâ€™s organization, described the verdict as â€œintentionalâ€ for he feels the government was â€œnever interested in justice for Bhopal gas victims.â€ Taking a similar stand, activist Balkrishna Namdeo said: â€œThere was mass murder of citizens and the government let the case hang in the lower court for 23 years.â€
Feeling dejected, victim Champa Devi said: â€œFor 25 years, I protested on streets. I had three boys, today I am left with just one.â€ â€œWe feel enormously let down yet again. Nobody knows how we suffer experiencing death so closely everyday. Those who died that night were more fortunate. At least they didnâ€™t live to get insulted. The rich and influential have wronged us. We lost our lives and they canâ€™t spend a day in jail,â€ cried Hamida Bi.
Alarmed by the peopleâ€™s outrage, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reconstituted a high-level ministerial group to look into various aspects of the Bhopal-case. Irrespective of whether the Indian government pays adequate attention or not, the victims have addressed a letter to President Obama demanding justice. The letter begins by complimenting Obama for his â€œtough stand against British Petroleum (BP) for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.â€ The letter states, â€œYour demand for corporate accountability for causing huge environmental damages is worthy of emulation by other governments around the world.â€
Drawing Obamaâ€™s attention to â€œa bigger disaster that took place in the city of Bhopal in India in December 1984 that has officially killed over 15,000 people (about 25,000 people unofficially) and seriously injured nearly half a million people by now,â€ the letter points out this was caused by â€œanother mega corporate entity called Union Carbide, headquartered in the United States of America, unlike BP whose parent company resides in Great Britain.â€
The letter refers to activists having fought on several fronts, â€œthe US and Indian administrations, corporations and judicial systems, for over a quarter of century.â€ It points out the â€œdiscriminatory legal functioning of the US that puts a higher cost to a US life than that of in Bhopal.â€ The letter poses the question, whether it was â€œtoo much to expect that you use the same yardsticks of accountability you are using for BP for the terrible oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, for corporations basedâ€ elsewhere (in India).
The point made by the letter is simple. The activists and victims expect US to apply the same rules and obligations in the Bhopal-case that are being exercised against the BP regarding the oil spill in Gulf of Mexico. They want US to use same yardsticks for Indians and territory affected by Bhopal-case as for those affected by BPâ€™s oil-spill.