Thirty years on from Bhopal disaster: Still fighting for justice

By Salil Shetty, Secretary General, Amnesty International.

There are certain moments in your life you never forget. I was in my early twenties, living in Bangalore, when I heard the news.

On the night of 2nd December, 1984, toxic gas had leaked from a factory run by Union Carbide India Ltd spreading fumes over a large residential area in Bhopal.

Bangalore is a long way from Bhopal but the images were so shocking and gruesome, it felt like next door.

Between 7,000 and 10,000 people died within just three days of the leak, our researchers at Amnesty International have since estimated. Hundreds of thousands more were poisoned.

Despite the deaths, the many years gone by, and the numbers of people who today still suffer from chronic health conditions as a result of the leak; justice is yet to be served.

Today marks the 30th anniversary of one of the world’s worst industrial disasters.

Those who survived have faced a three-decade-long marathon campaign having to fight every step of the way for the few reparations which have been offered; the most basic medical treatment, insufficient clean water and so little financial compensation it is insulting.

Sadly, several of those who have fought so hard for so long are aware they may now die without ever seeing justice. But the fight is being picked up by new generations – their children, and their children’s children – who have been born with illnesses and exposed to ongoing contamination from the abandoned factory site.

As generations of survivors continue their fight for accountability, they have had to battle corporate spin to prove this was not a tragic accident but a disaster which could have been avoided.

Union Carbide failed to take critical safety measures at the Bhopal factory, and in 1989 negotiated an out-of-court settlement with the Indian Government to pay compensation which was just 14% of what was asked for.

It paid just US$470 million for the deaths of thousands and the damage inflicted on hundreds of thousands in Bhopal. Averaging less than a thousand dollars per person affected this was a woefully inadequate amount which, I think, exposes a shocking level of indifference and contempt towards the victims in India.

This settlement secured such egregious terms in Union Carbide’s favour – in return for a paltry financial settlement – that the Indian Supreme Court later overturned the corporation’s immunity from criminal prosecution.

Then Union Carbide simply walked away, leaving the ticking time bomb that was the polluted factory site behind them, poisoning drinking water for many miles around.

Thirty years on, those who failed to prevent the horror of Bhopal must be held to account. But the central actor, a US corporation, is an absconder from justice.

Facing charges of culpable homicide in India, Union Carbide Corporation – the majority-owners of Union Carbide India Ltd at the time of the leak, and now a wholly owned subsidiary of The Dow Chemical Company – has found a safe haven in the USA, where it has been able to ignore all court orders from India.

In an effort to move the criminal trial forward, the Bhopal criminal court has summoned Dow to appear and explain why it has not ordered its wholly owned subsidiary to appear before the courts. Dow, displaying the same arrogant contempt for the Indian judicial system as Union Carbide, has not bothered to show up.

The people of the USA and their political representatives would never accept the situation if the tables were turned. Had oil giant BP tried to hide out behind the skirts of UK jurisdiction after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, it is inconceivable that the USA – or the UK, for that matter – would have tolerated it.

In 2010, finally, seven former employees of Union Carbide India Ltd were found guilty of causing death by negligence; but while the Indian employees have been convicted, the foreign accused – Union Carbide Corporation and its then CEO – were able to evade justice simply by remaining abroad.

Both the US and the Indian authorities have failed the people of Bhopal for too long.

Successive Indian governments have failed to vigorously pursue justice in relation to the foreign corporation or clean-up the site.

They have often appeared unmoved by the courageous – and heroically patient – fight for justice of the survivors.

President Obama should urgently compel Union Carbide to appear in the Indian court; and Prime Minister Modi should vigorously pursue a full and fair compensation settlement for every victim.

In September Modi and Obama made a joint statement saying the ties between the USA and India are rooted in their shared desire for justice and equality.

It is neither justice nor equality when a US company can evade accountability for the deaths of thousands of people in India.