New poll backs calls for US corporation to face court over Bhopal disaster

New poll results published today show clear public support, in both India and the USA, for US corporation Union Carbide to face an Indian court over the Bhopal gas leak disaster which left more than 20,000 people dead and poisoned more than half a million in 1984. 

Marking the 30th anniversary of the disaster, the poll, carried out by YouGov for Amnesty International, finds that a massive 82 per cent of Indians surveyed want to see Union Carbide attend the Indian courts about its role in the gas leak at the Bhopal plant. While fewer US respondents expressed a view, of those who did, almost two thirds (62%) agreed with that call. 

The corporation has consistently refused to answer charges of culpable homicide in the Indian courts. 

“This poll shows that the verdict in the court of public opinion is clear. Justice has not been delivered for Bhopal, and people will not stand for it,” said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General, speaking from Bhopal after a visit to the site of the leak. 

“It is an ongoing outrage against the people of this city that a foreign company charged with serious crimes has never faced justice in an Indian court.” 

Union Carbide faces outstanding charges of culpable homicide in India over the gas leak. In 1992 a Bhopal criminal court declared Union Carbide an “absconder from justice”, after it failed to appear to answer the charges. 

It was the first of many attempts to evade justice. Dow Chemicals, which has owned Union Carbide since 2001, has failed to show up for two court hearings in Bhopal in the last six months. 

Calls for US government action

The poll of 1,011 Indians living in urban areas and 1,000 US adults reveals strong support in both countries for the US and Indian governments to ensure that Union Carbide is held to account for the Bhopal disaster. 

Seventy per cent of Indians and 45 per cent of US nationals surveyed believed that the US government should play a role in holding the corporation to account, against 24% and 30% respectively who disagreed. 

“This result should act as a wake-up call to the US government, which has until now effectively provided a safe haven for Union Carbide,” said Salil Shetty. 

“While the USA would never stand for a foreign-owned company evading accountability after wreaking havoc on its soil, it seems to be less concerned when the tables are turned.”

Clean-up of the site 

Sixty-six per cent of Indian and 45 per cent of US respondents believe that the companies who owned and operated the Bhopal site should pay for the clean-up of the contamination. 

Pollution from the abandoned site has contaminated the local water supply, posing a serious ongoing threat to the health of surrounding communities. Union Carbide and Dow Chemicals refuse to pay for a clean-up. 

Paltry compensation for victims and survivors 

The only area of disagreement between Indian and American respondents came over compensation for the disaster. 

Union Carbide agreed to pay US$470 million (equivalent to around $900 million in today’s money) in 1989, around 14 per cent of the US$3.3 billion figure that the Indian government had initially demanded. The Government of India is now seeking additional compensation from the company. 

Half of Indians surveyed said that the compensation package should be reopened, with only 27 per cent believing it to be a just settlement. In the US sample, by contrast, only 21% believed the 1989 settlement should be reassessed, with nearly half – 47 per cent – believing it should stay as it is. 

“The terms of the 1989 agreement were completely egregious and almost completely in Union Carbide’s favour,” said Salil Shetty. 

“It has been a major disappointment that legal technicalities have obstructed basic justice. The law has to be an instrument in service of justice for victims, not a web of processes that shields the perpetrator.” 

“$470 million amounted to around $1000 per person affected by the disaster, including people who lost their livelihoods completely. Compare that to the $20 billion that British oil giant BP was made to pay in compensation for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the southern US coast in 2010.” 

In a significant development last month the Indian government bowed to pressure from campaigners and promised to rely on scientific data, medical research and hospital records and accordingly revise the numbers of deaths and injuries for which it is seeking compensation. The move was widely welcomed by Bhopal survivors and prompted five women campaigners to end a nil-by-mouth hunger strike.

“We salute the determination of the Bhopal survivors who have bravely and stubbornly continued to fight when the decks have been completely stacked against them,” said Salil Shetty. 

YouGov / Amnesty Survey 

The survey was conducted online between 13 and 24 November amongst a representative sample of Urban Indian adults (1,011) and a nationally representative sample of US adults (1,000)  Full survey questions below

In December 1984, there was an industrial disaster at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India. 

Before today, were you aware of this? 

Yes, I was

No, I was not

The Indian government estimates that around 5,000 people died as a result of the disaster, while non-governmental organizations estimate the total death toll as approximately 20,000. An estimated 500,000 people were also injured. 

Critics of Union Carbide claim that poor maintenance and management were responsible for the gas leak. Union Carbide claims that the disaster was as a result of sabotage by a disgruntled employee.

The Bhopal plant was owned and operated by a company called Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), which was a subsidiary of Union Carbide (UCC) head-quartered in the USA. 

Which of these comes closer to your view?

The US parent company had a responsibility for the plant

The US parent company did not have a responsibility for the plant

Don’t know

In 1989, Union Carbide paid US$470 million as compensation in a legal settlement. 

The Government of India is seeking additional compensation from Union Carbide, as it claims the numbers of people who died or were injured are now estimated to be higher than the figures used in 1989. 

Union Carbide says that as it has already agreed to a legal settlement and paid compensation, it has no further obligations. The Indian Supreme Court rejected objections from non-government organizations (NGOs) on two occasions (1991 and 2007) following its initial validation of the settlement in 1989. 

Which of these statements comes closer to your view? 

Any claims for compensation were resolved by the 1989 settlement

The 1989 compensation settlement should be reassessed


Don’t know

In 1987 criminal charges were filed in India against Union Carbide in relation to the gas leak as Union Carbide had overall ownership of Union Carbide India Limited. 

Union Carbide says it has not appeared in the criminal proceedings because it is not subject to the jurisdiction of the Indian courts, since it did not operate the factory directly. 

Do you think Union Carbide should or should not attend the Indian courts about its role in the gas leak at the Bhopal plant?

Should attend the Indian courts about its role in the gas leak at the Bhopal plant

Should not attend the Indian courts about its role in the gas leak at the Bhopal plant

Don’t know

Who should play a role in ensuring accountability for the Bhopal disaster, including with relation to US companies involved? 

The Indian and US governments and courts

Only the Indian government and courts

Only the US government and courts

None of these

Don’t know

In 1998, the lease on the Bhopal factory site was surrendered to the State Government of Madhya Pradesh. At the time, the State Government said “the civil and criminal liabilities of Union Carbide will remain unchanged”.  Union Carbide Corporation says that the State Government assumed “all accountability for the site”.

A number of scientific studies have shown that there is pollution at the former factory site in Bhopal, linked to operations at the factory before the gas leak. This is recognised by the Indian courts. Union Carbide says that any ongoing contamination is not its responsibility.

Who do you think should pay to clean up the pollution? 

The companies that operated and designed the factory

The Madhya Pradesh State Government which now owns the site


Don’t know

[Asked only to Indian respondents] How well or badly do you think the Indian Government since 1984 has responded to the gas leak at the Bhopal site? 

Very well

Fairly well

Neither well nor badly

Fairly badly

Very badly

Don’t know