Bhopal Survivors Confront Dow

They Say Dow Execs Lied to Shareholders

Rashida Bee and Champi Devi Shukla have come a long way from their home in Bhopal, India to attend Dow Chemical Corporation's annual shareholder meeting. But that's nothing compared to their ordeal over the last 19 years. Survivors of the 1984 Union Carbide disaster, the two women are in the US to confront Carbide's new owner, Dow Chemical, and demand justice. Eight days into an indefinite hunger strike Bee and Shukla showed up at Dow's May 8th Annual General Meeting in Midland, Michigan. But, instead of offers for relief and rehabilitation, they say that Dow executives openly lied to shareholders about the company's legal liabilities in Bhopal.

In a question-answer session at the annual shareholder meeting Bee asked company chairman, William Stavropoulos, why Dow accepted Union Carbide's asbestos liabilities in the US while refusing responsibility for Bhopal.

"His response was misleading to the shareholders," said Bee referring to Stavropoulos' claim that that Carbide's asbestos liabilities were pending but that there were no such pending liabilities against Union Carbide in Bhopal. Since 1986 both the Union Carbide Corporation and its former CEO, Warren Anderson, have been wanted in India on criminal charges. Neither Carbide nor Anderson have appeared in India to face trial.

"Actually, our chairman did misspeak," said Dow spokesperson John Musser. "We are fully aware that Union Carbide and Anderson were both named in the criminal charges in India. It wasn't said with malice, it was a mistake." According to Musser Dow has not yet made any formal statement to its shareholders about Stavropoulos's erroneous statement.


An Unreasonable Woman

Chronology of Bhopal Disaster

Since its 2001 purchase of Union Carbide, Bhopal courts have directed India's Central Bureau of Investigation to include Dow as a defendant in its criminal case. With fines determined by the magnitude of the crime and the defendant's ability to pay, if found guilty, there would be no upper limits to the penalties that Dow could face.

The World's Worst Industrial Disaster

Dubbed the "Hiroshima of the Chemical Industry" the 1984 gas leak at the Union Carbide pesticide factory in Bhopal released forty tons of poisonous methyl isocyanate (MIC) gasses into a residential community of over half a million. An estimated eight thousand people died within the first week of the disaster. For years residents continued to die from injuries at a rate of one per day and Bhopal activists say the death toll has risen to 20,000. An additional 120,000 survivors live with chronic and debilitating, multi-systemic gas related ailments.

Bee lost nine members of her family to the gases and suffers from semi-blindness, breathing difficulties and a gas related psychiatric condition for which she has to take constant medication. Shukla lost her health and her husband. Both women have grandchildren born with deformities, a condition common to babies born to gas-affected parents.

International Hunger Strike

Bee and Shulka, representatives of a trade union made up of women's gas survivors, began their hunger strike in New York City a week before Dow's Annual Meeting on May 1st -- International Workers' Day.

In India, hunger strikes are a well-known and revered form of non-violent protest, known as satyagraha, "insisting on the Truth."

"The hunger strike is a demonstration of how firmly we believe our version of the truth," said Nityanand Jayaraman, of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal. The Campaign has called on supporters to join its Worldwide Relay Hunger Strike to keep the fast alive until the 19th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster on Dec. 3, 2003. To date over 200 people have joined the fast.

Though disappointed with Dow's response, and physically weakened from their fast, Bee and Shulka remain strong in spirit. "We have been fighting for many years now," Shulka explained, "everyday more and more people are lending support to our struggle. Now a lot of unions are joining in support. We are sure that we will soon have the support we need to bring Dow to its knees."

Shame on Dow

The hunger strike is part of an ongoing campaign of shame that survivors and their supporters have launched against Dow. On Dec. 2, 2002, in commemoration of the 18th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, hundreds of women survivors marched to Dow's Mumbai (Bombay) headquarters. They brought with them contaminated soil and water from the abandoned pesticide factory site, 4000 jhadoos (brooms) and the message: "Dow clean up your mess."

"In India, the broom is a woman's symbol of power. Being struck by a jhadoo is the ultimate insult," Shukla told those gathered last December. "By delivering jhadoos to Dow, we're telling the company to clean up its mess in Bhopal."

Dow's response to the Mumbai protest was to file a lawsuit against the survivors. The suit, filed by Dow's Indian subsidiary seeks $10,000 in "loss of work" damages for the two-hour protest.

"It's completely ridiculous," said G. Krishnaveni, U.S. coordinator of the Justice for Bhopal Campaign. "Dow is suing penniless survivors for a non-violent demonstration instead of facing its criminal liabilities in India."

Company spokesperson Musser denied that Dow is trying to "get money" from the Bhopal survivors. "Dow is simply looking to provide safety and sanity for everyone involved, " he said. To get an injunction against demonstrations on company property, Musser explained, the Indian court requires proof of financial or other adverse impacts. The $10,000, "loss of work" sum was reached, "because demonstrators stopped people's comings and goings and had employees at the windows instead of doing their jobs."

Since the launch of the Jhadoo Maro Dow Ko, or "Hit Dow With a Broom" campaign, women around the world have been symbolically hitting Dow by presenting its executives with jhadoos from Bhopal.

Here in the US, Dow's former CEO Michael Parker got a surprise "hit" at a fundraiser for the Nature Conservancy where he was to receive an award for "Dow's contributions to the environment." While addressing 500 guests at the $75-a-plate event in Houston, Texas, Parker was interrupted by environmental justice activist Diane Wilson. Wilson told Parker he had no business accepting an environmental award when his company had yet to clean up its toxic mess in Bhopal. While Wilson spoke Krishnaveni approached the podium and presented Parker with a jhadoo from Bhopal.

"This award is for you from the women of Bhopal," announced Krishnaveni. She told Parker his claim that Dow had no liabilities in Bhopal was a lie. "The women living near the abandoned factory have mercury and other toxins in their breast milk," she said, "We demand that Dow take immediate action to clean up its mess."

Keeping the Struggle Alive

Demanding justice in front of Dow, May 2003
Demanding justice in front of Dow, May 2003

Photo: Bhopal.Net

For over 18 years the women of Bhopal have kept the gas-survivor's struggle for justice alive. Last summer, when India's Criminal Bureau of Investigation recommended that charges against Union Carbide's former Chairman, Warren Anderson be reduced from culpable homicide to negligence, the women immediately mobilized.

Bee together with survivor Tara Bai and longtime Bhopal activist Satinath Sarangi, went to the steps of the Indian Supreme Court in New Delhi and staged a 19 day hunger strike demanding that the court reverse its decision to dilute the charges. Their action sparked the renewal of a smoldering international movement. Over 1000 people from ten countries participated in what became the first global relay hunger strike in solidarity with the gas survivors. The Indian court rejected the motion to reduce the charges against Anderson.

"This mobilization in support of justice for the people of Bhopal is a triumph of memory over forgetting," said Gary Cohen of the Environmental Health Fund in the US. "Local people negotiating and confronting corporate crime and abuse is a very hopeful sign because governments are more and more abdicating their responsibilities."

Justice for Bhopal activists have five demands:

  • the release of medical studies on the effects of MIC on humans
  • the clean up the former Union Carbide site and the surrounding area
  • medical relief and long term medical monitoring
  • economic rehabilitation for survivors
  • the extradition of former Carbide CEO Anderson

But since its 2001 purchase of Union Carbide, Dow has steadfastly refused responsibility for Bhopal. In a private conference after the shareholder meeting, Stavropoulos told a small delegation of Bhopal supporters that as far as Dow is concerned the government of India and Union Carbide settled in 1989. He instructed Bee and Shulka to, "speak to your government."

Bhopal activists call the $470 million, 1989 out-of-court settlement between Union Carbide and the government of India a "backroom deal" designed more to maintain a desirable investment environment for multinational corporations than to provide justice for the survivors of the gas leak. They note that it was a far cry from the Indian government's initial claim of $3.3 billion. The day the settlement was announced shares in Union Carbide rose two dollars.

"The settlement had nothing to do with science, or health," said Cohen, "if it did it wouldn't have been so low and it would have included ongoing research."

Slow Motion Disaster

Almost two decades after Union Carbide's deadly leak, a report "Surviving Bhopal: Toxics Present, Toxics Future," found that soil, water, vegetables and breast milk in Bhopal are contaminated with volatile organic compounds and heavy metals, including nickel, chromium, mercury and lead.

"The gas leak was fast, the contamination is just as deadly but it's happening in slow motion," said Cassey Harrell, of Greenpeace. According to Harrell, long-term exposure to contaminated water and soil in Bhopal has resulted in increased rates of chronic illness, high rates of birth defects and respiratory ailments.

"Our message is simple," said Harrell, who participated in a four-and-a-half-hour blockade of Dow's Texas headquarters last March. "The people of Bhopal have lived with a contaminated environment for over 18 years. Dow needs to clean it up and accept full responsibility for Bhopal."

The Next Generation

While babies in Bhopal are born with defects and drink breast milk laced with toxins, in the US a new generation has just begun to learn of the gas leak, the ongoing contamination, and their effects.

"Many of the students I talk to are finding out about it for the first time," said student activist and co-director of the University of Michigan's Friends of Bhopal, Ryan Bodanyi. "They're shocked to find out its scale. It inspires a lot of outrage."

Of the half dozen Justice for Bhopal student groups that have emerged on campuses across the U.S. in the past two years, Friends of Bhopal at the University of Michigan have so far been the most active and creative. This academic year alone they've hosted an impressive list of actions that include a "3K Race for Human Rights, Corporate Decency." Part guerilla theater and part education the race began with a dry ice "gas leak." Runners were chased by the Grim Reaper, asked to sign away their rights by a "Dow representative" sporting a Pinocchio nose, turned away from the University hospital and given death certificates and stickers that read "I died, ask me how."

The Bottom Line

The work of Bee and Shukla and the thousands of gas survivors and Bhopal activists has not been in vain. Though Anderson continues to live his "on the lam" life of luxury at his Long Island estate, the effect of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal has placed Dow Chemical under increasing public scrutiny. It may even be impacting Dow's bottom line. Two years after its purchase of Union Carbide, Dow stocks are down 13%.

Dow's Musser acknowledges that chemical giant has been experiencing financial difficulties, but he attributes it to general economic conditions. "There is no evidence in my view that any of this controversy has had an impact on the company financially."

But Forbes magazine writer, Phyllis Berman cites "Indian-bred tort litigation," the "ruckus" raised by Indian citizens, and "a series of demonstrations staged in 2002-2003" as contributing factors in the decline of Dow stock. "There is no telling what [Dow] might have to cough up to buy peace," observes Berman.

"Peace isn't only a matter of dollars and cents," said Krishnaveni, "Some of the survivors demands, like the extradition of Anderson and the release of medical studies, would cost the company nothing."

"Until the women of Bhopal can sleep peacefully in the knowledge that they are not nursing their babies on lead and mercury, and that their grandchildren will not be born deformed, until then, I can assure you, Dow will have no peace."

[Editor's Note: At press time, 72 people are signed up to fast in solidarity with the people of Bhopal. To learn more about this disaster and to support them, visit]

Helene Vosters is a San Francisco Bay Area teacher, activist and journalist.

AMP Section Name:Human Rights
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