Bhopal's Legacy

Shortly before the December 3rd anniversary of the world's largest industrial disaster at Union Carbide's pesticide factory in Bhopal, survivors in the central Indian city celebrated a legal victory.

Survivors' organisations believe that a November 15, 2001, decision of the US Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirms their claims of environmental damages due to Union Carbide's routine pollution in Bhopal. This, they say, is likely to have far-reaching consequences for Dow Chemical, which took over Union Carbide earlier this year. Himanshu Rajan Sharma, their lawyer, calls the decision "an unqualified victory with regard to seven out of 15 complaints." Sharma is optimistic that the ruling will allow him and his clients to gain access to corporate documents from Union Carbide regarding the company's control and environmental safety guidelines for the Bhopal factory 17 years after the devastating disaster.

On the night of December 2-3, 1984, over 40 tonnes of poisonous gases leaked from a pesticide factory in Bhopal belonging to US-based multinational Union Carbide Corporation, killing more than 20,000 residents. The management's cost cutting measures had effectively disabled safety procedures essential to prevent or alert employees of such disasters.

More than 120,000 of the city's residents suffer from chronic gas-related disorders today and 10 to 15 continue to die every month. Additionally, Union Carbide's routine pollution even prior to the gas disaster had led to the accumulation of several thousand tonnes of toxic waste which now lie abandoned in and around the factory. Soil and groundwater in and around the factory remain contaminated in what the environmental group Greenpeace has called a "global toxic hotspot."

Union Carbide managed to resist a barrage of legal actions all these years. Following Union Carbide's merger with Dow Chemical Company in February, survivors feared they would no longer be able to hold the firm accountable for criminal liability in the world's worst industrial accident. Dow officials reiterated in May that Dow had ''no responsibility in the Bhopal case.''

Still no clear information for survivors

17 years after the gas leak, neither the government nor Union Carbide nor today, Dow Chemicals, has released medical information on the toxic mixture of chemicals released on that night, and their effects on the thousands who were exposed to them. In the absence of the government or the company providing comprehensive treatment for exposure-related illness, community-based organisations must struggle independently to develop a treatment protocol for the thousands of people chronically ill from the gas exposure.

The company's refusal to take responsibility for the victims goes back to the night of the gas release in 1984. At that time, Union Carbide denied doctors treating gas victims crucial information regarding the toxicity of the poisonous gases -- information that could have saved lives. After the gas leak, the government's Indian Council of Medical Research initiated 24 research projects on survivors, based on samples collected from 80,000 people exposed to the gas, and 20,000 people who were not exposed.

However, the ICMR studies did not look at the chemical's effect on gynecologic, musculoskeletal, renal, gastrointestinal and endocrinal consequences, though survivors' organisations have found extensive evidence of such damage. Moreover, the studies were wound up by 1994. None of the findings were made public, and no monitoring of the chemical's long-term effects is ongoing. Even worse, the official agency for monitoring deaths was closed in 1992.

A survey carried out by the International Medical Commission on Bhopal, composed of 14 medical specialists from 11 different countries, reported significant multi-organ symptoms persistent among the exposed population 10 years after the disaster. These included a range of neuro-toxic injuries not studied by the Indian Council of Medical Research. As a result, information towards a treatment protocol for the various illnesses faced by gas victims is being collected by small voluntary organisations with limited resources.

As for Union Carbide's own research, it is incredible that as of December 1984, hardly anything had been published on methyl isocyanate the major component of the gas leak -- though this highly toxic chemical was being manufactured in a congested urban area. Union Carbide had been experimenting with the chemical since the 1930s. However, medical information continues to be withheld by the corporation until today as a "trade secret."

Is Dow liable?

A 1989 settlement of 470 million U.S. dollars ($ 350 per victim) -- negotiated between the Indian government and Union Carbide without consulting the Bhopal victims -- was paltry even by Indian standards. At first the settlement included absolving Union Carbide from criminal liability, but following protests and a review petition, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that the firm could not escape criminality.

Following Union Carbide's merger with Dow Chemicals, public protests calling on Dow to assume responsibility for Carbide's liabilities led to discussions in early May between representatives of India's Dow Chemicals International Pvt Ltd and the National Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (NCJB), a coalition of Bhopal survivors and other groups working to hold Carbide -- and now Dow -- accountable.

Women survivors traveled to Mumbai (Bombay) and with other members of NJCB stormed Dow's office there, demanding that Dow accept the criminal and environmental liabilities relating to Bhopal. At the May 2 discussions, NCJB officials were reported to have presented a set of minimum demands: the release of medical data on the Bhopal gases to enable proper treatment of survivors, and the clean-up of contaminated soil and groundwater in the area, on which more than 5,000 families depend for drinking water.

Meanwhile, Dow continues to manufacture and market for extensive use in India another pesticide, chlorpyrifos. Ironically, Dow was forced to withdraw this chemical from domestic use in the US last year because of its health risks, particularly to children. Dow acknowledges that its pesticide, Dursban, which was banned in the US, is manufactured and sold in India. The company notes that the US EPA recently issued "interim re-registration" eligibility papers for the chemical. In its response, Dow still fails to mention that the interim registration still bans domestic use of the pesticide.

The chemical industry measures the importance of a chemical's health risks in terms of its costs: "Conducting cost-benefit analyses of health and safety regulations requires placing a dollar value on reductions in health risks, including the risk of death," notes a 1999 World Bank working paper. "Mortality rates are often valued using compensating-wage differentials (which) measure what a worker would have to be paid to accept a small increase in his risk of death -- which is assumed to equal what the worker would pay to achieve a small reduction in his risk of death."

Holding corporations accountable

Since corporations are driven by profit, and restricted only by the pressures of activists and strong regulatory bodies, they must hide the true risks of chemicals to the environment and to people's health, from the workers, from the public at large. Little research is done on such risks -- because there is nothing to force them to carry it out. When it is done, the findings are not made public. Safety measures are instituted only when they are forced to by public demand.

The Indian government has welcomed polluting industries, partly because of the pressure to attract foreign investment. Industries often use out-dated plant equipment and processes banned in the West for their environmental and health damage. For example, 65 per cent of industries constituting the 170-km Golden Corridor between Vapi and Mehsana in the western state of Gujarat are highly polluting.

In one case, Hema Chemicals, which manufactures chromium-related chemicals primarily for export, blatantly violated environmental laws and dumped 73,000 tonnes of this hazardous solid waste on open lands in the industrial estate where it is located. Hema also dumped toxic waste in the housing colonies and slums that surround the industrial park.

Hema's political connections have protected it from liability for its actions. Fifty-two workers with nasal perforation -- a dead giveaway of chromium poisoning -- were refused compensation by the Employees' State Insurance Scheme. The justification: that they had not been disabled by such perforation. Chromium is a deadly toxin that causes deep ulcers and perforation of the nasal septum.

Despite an obvious absence of any infrastructure to protect public health or the environment, the Indian government continues to solicit more investment in polluting industries. In Gujarat, with the backing of the World Bank and other international Agencies, the government has launched a programme to attract $ 12 billion in the chemical sector.

Vijay Kanhere of the Mumbai-based Occupational Health and Safety Centre points out that Indian legislation post-Bhopal actually requires industries to inform both workers and the general population of the chemicals they are being exposed to. Manufacturers must make public all possible side-effects, both acute and chronic, of the chemicals they use and action to be taken in the event of accidents, all in the local language. As for disaster management plans, both the local doctors and authorities are to be kept informed of treatment protocols.

The Environment Protection Act contains detailed rules on the manufacture, storage and import of hazardous chemicals. However, every such environmental and health scandal that we read about has come to the public eye not by the regulatory agencies but by activist organisations with the support of the press. On the contrary, such incidents demonstrate how ineffective the regulatory agencies are.

In India, industry has no stake in conducting research on the safety of chemicals it manufactures and releases into the environment. Any research done is for purposes other than workers' and the public's health. In any case, such research is top secret, and is allowed to remain so since no one is going to force them to make their data public. Some basic ethical requirements for medical research: that the research be in the interest of the community being studied, that participants give their voluntary informed consent, and that the findings go back to the community for its benefit, are ignored.

Both the working population and the general public is kept in the dark about the risks posed by the thousands of chemicals they are exposed to in modern industrial life. Kanhere explains, "People are not aware of their rights, that they can demand information, that they can put pressure."

Sandhya Srinivasan is a Mumbai-based journalist.

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