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INDIA: Bhopal Nightmare Lingers On with Few Lessons Learnt

Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI, Dec 3 2004 (IPS) - Twenty years after the world’s worst industrial disaster at a pesticides plant in the central Indian city of Bhopal, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are in agreement that tragedies of such magnitude teach no lessons in a world driven by corporate profit.

Twenty years after the world’s worst industrial disaster at a pesticides plant in the central Indian city of Bhopal, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are in agreement that tragedies of such magnitude teach no lessons in a world driven by corporate profit.

When 40 tonnes of lethal methyl isocyanate gas leaked out of Union Carbide Corporation’s plant on the night of Dec 3, 1984 it instantly killed 2,000 people and by the third day 6,000 more were dead while at least 500,000 were left blind, maimed or affected in some way.

Today, 20 years on, some 150,000 of the survivors still need medical attention and a second generation of children face health problems from the chemical industry’s toxic legacy, according to the international environment group Greenpeace.

Far from helping to alleviate the sufferings of the survivors, Union Carbide tried to absolve its liabilities by selling its assets to another United States-based transnational corporation, Dow Chemical which is now busy fighting two battles – a legal one in the courts and a moral one outside.

Dow is also resisting calls by the survivors and by Greenpeace to clean up the site of the factory which is severely contaminated with toxic byproducts that spilled out during the factory’s operation and still posing a threat to people who live in the vicinity.


Dow cannot claim it does not know about the contamination. In 2002, a year after it bought up the plant, Union Carbide disclosed to a district court in New York the report of a 1989 soil sample study which said ”all samples caused 100 percent mortality to fish in toxic assessment studies and were to be diluted several fold to render them suitable for survival of fish.”

But why aren’t the lessons from Bhopal being learnt?

Nityanand Jayaraman, who is associated with the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, lists the reasons as political expediency, economic viability and the sheer imbalance of power between citizens and corporations.

”Simply put, the current culture among regulators, planners, policymakers and judges, not to mention industrialists, allows a community to exercise its right to a hazard-free living and working environment only if that is economically and technologically viable for the industry, and politically expedient for the powers-that-be,” said Jayaraman.

That mood is reflected in a recent Supreme Court order, overturning a lower court ruling to protect a local community from an ammonia storage tank, by saying that risks had to be ”counterbalanced by services and amenities provided by these utilities.”

Commenting on the court order, Usha Ramanathan the well-known writer on legal affairs said: ”Pragmatism and perception of risk and hazard as inherent in the ways of the modern world, led the (Supreme) Court to draw up a calculus between ‘utilities which exist in public interest…and human safety’.”

Ramanathan holds not only the court but elected representatives in Parliament complicit in this deliberate erosion of the rights of the people.

She points to a 1987 legislation in which Parliament absolved the designer, manufacturer, importer or seller of plant and machinery of any liability after the user who received them gave an undertaking that ”if properly used” no harm would ensue.

”Seen in the context of Bhopal, had this amendment been in place before the disaster, Union Carbide Corporation could not have been held liable for the disaster,” said Ramanathan.

The official apathy is also reflected in the fact that it took the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) that represents the medical establishment until November this year to make public its findings on the health effects of the Bhopal toxic gas leak.

The ICMR study started in 1985 and the inordinate delay was attributed to the fact that two of the chief medical scientists died and the project was briefly suspended for unknown reasons.

The time lag has meant that some of its recommendations have become irrelevant especially with regard to the ICMR assessments of the long-term effects of methyl isocyanate exposure and cancer found in some of the Bhopal victims.

But the report officially acknowledges that of the victims treated at the Hamida hospital, the only medical facility in the area at that time, 99 percent suffered from breathing problems, 86 percent had eye problems and 91 percent gastro-intestinal complications.

Menstrual abnormalities, vaginal discharge and premature menopause have emerged as the most common problems among gas-hit women and even their offspring, 20 years after the disaster. These problems are not only affecting the reproductive health of the women but also leading to social problems in conservative communities. Reproductive health of men too has been adversely affected by the gas – several cases of secondary infertility have been reported.

Medical studies conducted soon after the disaster had reported a large number of ‘spontaneous abortions’ among women who were pregnant at the time of the leak. Several of these women had episodes of abortions later on, too, and many could not conceive at all. After these initial studies, there has been no follow up nor any study on the long- term impact of the gas leak on reproductive tracts of women and men.

If Bhopal has stayed in the public eye at all it has largely been due to the determination of groups like the Bhopal Group for Information and Action (BGIA) led by Satinath Sarangi.

”Lack of media attention has led many people to believe that the disaster is over and all is well in Bhopal,” Sarangi told IPS.

According to Vinuta Gopal, Greenpeace campaigner in Bhopal, 20 years on and people are still suffering because Dow Chemical refuses to take responsibility for their welfare or for the toxic waste that is still poisoning their land and water.

”Thousands around the world are remembering Bhopal and what its stands for today – the danger of the chemical age, double standards and lack of accountability of multi- national corporations,” said Gopal.

 
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INDIA: Bhopal Nightmare Lingers On With Few Lessons Learnt

Ranjit Devraj

NEW DELHI, Dec 3 2004 (IPS) - Twenty years after the world’s worst industrial disaster at a pesticides plant in the central Indian city of Bhopal, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are in agreement that tragedies of such magnitude teach no lessons in a world driven by corporate profit.
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