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Do we all live in Bhopal now?

A Greenpeace study finds 473 US chemical facilities each endangering 100,000 or more people with a Bhopal magnitude disaster on its 30th anniversary.

December 2014 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the world’s biggest industrial disaster, a chemical leak in Bhopal, India that killed at least 20,000 people. Three decades on, survivors still drink contaminated water and breathe poisonous air because no one accepts liability for cleaning up the mess. Bhopal continues to endure high rates of cancer and other illnesses. Moreover, environmentalists warn the lax standards leading to Bhopal persist at chemical plants both in the developing - and the developed – world. 

A movie, “Bhopal: a Prayer for Rain,” starring Martin Sheen (the West Wing’s President Bartlett), has been released to coincide with the unhappy anniversary. The film shows how a multinational corporation, Union Carbide, ignored safety warnings, and then literally ran away to escape responsibility for the resulting catastrophe. Local doctors could not treat survivors because the ingredients of the pesticide (methyl isocyanate) were a commercial secret.

Some victims received compensation of $550 each to meet medical bills for what remained of their lives. However, it has taken 27 years of persistent local and international activism for the Indian government to agree to revise up the numbers of those seriously affected.  Even now, court cases drag on, with campaigners trying to obtain more realistic compensation and to force Dow Chemical, which bought Union Carbide, to clean up the site. The US government has refused to extradite CEO Warren Anderson (played by Sheen in the film) to face justice in India, although Anderson promised he would return. (He died a peaceful death in a Florida nursing home in September). 

Local campaigners believe their own government was more interested in attracting foreign investment than ensuring minimum safety standards. Bhopal, they say, is symptomatic of the global race to the bottom to offer lax regulatory environments for manufacturing and the extractive industries.

In her new book, “This Changes Everything,” [1] Naomi Klein reflects on this “prevailing ethos among the political elite that it is not the place of government to tell large corporations what they can and cannot do, even when public health and welfare - indeed the habitability of our shared home – are clearly at stake.”

Satinath Sarangi, of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, says all seven Indian prime ministers since the disaster “have held foreign direct investment by US and other corporations to be of far greater priority than the lives and health of ordinary people.” [2]

Moreover, Sarangi warns there is a greater possibility of another Bhopal occurring in India today than in 1984. Union Carbide “crushed” the union after workers in the Bhopal factory raised the alarm about safety before the disaster, he says. “The situation regarding worker’s rights and workers able to voice their concerns is far worse all over the country today.” [3]

In addition, the government agency scrutinizing all hazardous technologies and processes entering the country was wound up in early nineties. Instead, the Indian government has been setting up petroleum chemical and petro chemicals investment regions. 

Sanjay Verma, who lost most of his family in the disaster, also blames corruption. A German firm intending to clean up the contaminated site reputedly backed out of the deal because “local politicians were expecting money from the German company.” [4]

Thirty years on from the Bhopal disaster, have any lessons been learned farther afield? A Greenpeace study using Environmental Protection Agency data indicates there are 473 US chemical facilities that each put 100,000 or more people in danger of a Bhopal magnitude disaster. Together, the 300 highest risk plants put 110 million Americans at risk of such a disaster.

John Sauven of Greenpeace calls Bhopal “a disaster waiting to happen, as chemical companies have historically cut corners to boost profits….And it's not just in fast developing countries that such serious incidents happen. In Hungary in 2010 a sludge spill from a caustic waste reservoir killed and injured many people, flooded towns with toxic waste and polluted rivers as far away as the Danube. These big incidents hit the headlines, but the lack of safety at chemical plants is an ongoing problem.” [5]

Sauven concedes there is a long way to go. “Until now, the most we've achieved are community "right to know" rules that require chemical plants to report on their dangers but do not require them to eliminate these hazards.” [6]

What can be done in the face of this prevailing orthodoxy? Naomi Klein believes that although the international legal architecture of corporate rights is both daunting and insidious, “the well-kept secret behind these deals is that they are only as powerful as our governments allow them to be.” [7]

The view from Bhopal, however, is more stoic. According to Sanjay Verma, “We all live in Bhopal. ….If justice happens in Bhopal, it would then set a precedent, and corporations will learn a lot too, and will be scared to put profit over human lives. We people of Bhopal are dying anyways, so we better die fighting.” [8]

 

[1] Naomi Klein, “This Changes Everything,” Allen Lane, 2014

[2] Satinath Sarangi email to the author November 1 2014

[3] Ibid

[4] Sanjay Verma email to the author November 10 2014

[5] John Sauven email to the author November 19 2014

[6] Ibid

[7] Naomi Klein, “This Changes Everything,” Allen Lane, 2014

[8] Sanjay Verma email to the author November 10 2014 

All images are stills from the film  Bhopal: a Prayer for Rain, used with kind permission.

About the author

Rebecca Tinsley is the founder of Network for Africa, a charity that trains local people to become lay counsellors for the survivors of conflict and genocide. She also founded Waging Peace, an NGO campaigning for human rights in Sudan.


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