NEW DELHI, Dec 4 (IPS) -- After brutal beatings and police detention, environmental activists have been promised free access to the pesticides factory in central Bhopal city which 18 years ago was the scene of the world's worst ever industrial disaster.
The promise was made by Digvijay Singh, chief minister of central Madhya Pradesh state who, according to Pryaag Joshi, Greenpeace International director for political affairs, also said permission would be given for carrying out soil tests and containment work on the site heavily contaminated with toxic chemicals.
Singh has instructed his officers to drop charges against activists of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB) who were violently stopped by police on Nov. 25 from 'containing' some of the hazardous waste lying abandoned at the plant which was sold by the U.S. transnational Union Carbide to the Michigan-based Dow Chemicals in Feb. 2001.
"We appreciate the gesture of the chief minister and see this as a move which will help the campaign to nail Dow and obtain justice for the affected victims and citizens of Bhopal. But we do hope it will be followed up by real and timely action," Joshi said Wednesday.
Greenpeace screened in the capital on Tuesday, footage from the Nov. 25 police action showing activists being clubbed and kicked at the site by police before being flung into vans and taken away and charged with various offences starting with criminal trespass.
"The police also impounded equipment used for containment by ICJB activists, making it impossible for international specialists to pursue their peaceful intentions of bringing the world's attention to the ongoing crime in Bhopal," Joshi said.
The police brutality and the arrests of 56 activists, 13 of them foreign nationals, reeked of the government's anxiety to protect the interests of Dow Chemicals rather than that of the hapless victims or the safety of ordinary people in Bhopal, he said.
On Tuesday, gas-affected victims and supporters led a huge rally through the streets of Bhopal and called upon Dow Chemical, the new owners of Union Carbide to assume liabilities and responsibility for the Dec 3, 1984 Bhopal disaster. A toxic gas leak from the plant resulted in the deaths of 6,500 people and the maiming of 500,000 others.
It has been established by scientists that had refrigeration units at the plant not been shut off as an economy measure to save about 50 dollars a day, the runaway reaction in its storage tanks full of deadly methyl-isocyanate may never have occurred.
Various Indian governments appear to have colluded with Union Carbide in thinly disguised cover-up jobs and also in watering down the original suit filed for 15 billion dollars and which former chairman Warren Andersen had publicly committed to pay in the aftermath of the tragedy.
After arrogating to itself the right to represent the victims, the central government filed a weak claim for three billion dollars and finally collected 470 million dollars in an out-of-court settlement which was never accepted by several of the organisations working for the victims.
Union Carbide came out of it all relatively unscathed. At a time when it had an annual revenue of eight billion dollars it had to cough up just 70 million dollars for the final settlement because more than 200 million dollars had already been collected as insurance while another 200 million dollars had been set aside under court instructions.
Andersen, who was briefly arrested in Bhopal on charges of culpable homicide, criminal conspiracy and other serious offences along with several other Indian company executives, was allowed to fly back to the United States where he quickly "disappeared" ignoring summons to face trial.
In August, Greenpeace traced Andersen to his home in Long Island, New York and served him a 'citizen's arrest warrant.' Said Joshi: "The fact that Greenpeace activists could find Andersen when several intelligence agencies failed speaks for the seriousness of the U.S. government in getting him to face trial," said Joshi.
But the Indian government has not been particularly serious either.
In May, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the country's main sleuthing agency asked the courts in Bhopal for a dilution of charges against Andersen to negligence and let him off criminal culpability.
Greenpeace campaigner Von Hernandez said it did appear that India, as with other developing countries, was eager not to do anything that might discourage foreign investors.
"As far as we know there has been no move on the part of the Indian government to initiate extradition proceedings against Andersen," he said.
Rallies were conducted by the ICJB and its supporters on Tuesday not only in Bhopal but also in the western port city of Mumbai where Dow Chemicals has its country headquarters.
Said Vinod Shetty convenor for the group in Mumbai: "If Dow can accept Carbide's assets they must accept its liabilities as well and these include cleaning up the plant site and its surroundings."
Greenpeace, which has carried out soil sampling and other tests on the site said it is prepared to share technology to help the Madhya Pradesh government clean up the site from where toxic chemical are said to be leaching into the ground and contaminating drinking water.
"We have told the chief minister that while Greenpeace does not have the resources to provide continuous support in financial and other matters, we can give technical and developmental support," said Ruth Stringer, senior scientist at the Greenpeace Research Laboratories in Exeter, U.K.
She described the site as one of the most toxic places she had ever seen with the soil still loaded with chlorinated benzenes, chlorform, carbon tetrachloride and other chemicals that could penetrate the skin and affect the kidneys, liver and the nervous system.
Stringer was part of a team which authored the Greenpeace document entitled 'The Bhopal Legacy', released three years ago which put the number of killed by the traged at "an estimated 16,000" and those injured at 500,000.
Her colleague Hernandez said Greenpeace was determined to carry on with its global campaign to get Dow Chemical to accept responsibility.