Thirty years ago, I’d never heard of Bhopal, India. Now to many, "Bhopal" — the site of one of the worst industrial accidents in history — signifies disaster, and justice denied. Marking today's solemn 30th anniversary of the deadly gas leak from a pesticide manufacturing facility, people around the world are saying, "We all live in Bhopal."
The 1984 disaster was a global wake-up call — but many more changes are needed so that history doesn't repeat itself. The corporations responsible for the deadly event are still not being held accountable, and Bhopal residents continue to suffer from the impacts all these years later.
30 years of injustice
Union Carbide India was one of the first major U.S. investments in India. In the wee hours of December 3, 1984, Union Carbide’s Bhopal plant — which manufactured the pesticide Sevin — leaked a deadly white cloud of methyl isocyanate over residential areas of the city, sending thousands of people fleeing for their lives.
At the time, Bhopal was a city with about as many residents as Austin, TX or San Jose, CA now. According to a recent in-depth feature article in the Toronto Star, thousands died within days of the accident. By several accounts, the gas spill resulted in more than 20,000 deaths.
Decades later, Union Carbide and its parent company, Dow Chemical, have steadfastly denied any culpability in one of the disastrous industrial accidents in history. In 1989, a year that Union Carbide earned $8 billion, the company settled out of court with the Indian government for the paltry sum of $470 million — a payout of less than $500 for most of the victims.
The International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal and other groups have repeatedly called for both companies to answer to criminal charges, to pay significant reparations to the victims, and do more to clean up the contaminated area. As PAN has explained in previous blogs, it’s an “issue of corporate accountability for crimes against humanity.”
New victims — and signs of progress
Just last month, under public pressure as women fasted without food or water for four days, India’s Minister of Chemical & Fertilizers agreed to provide additional compensation to a larger number of survivors of the disaster. Organizations representing the survivors are now seeking the extradition of Union Carbide Secretary John McDonald, and are calling on the Indian government to not allow Dow Chemical to make any further investments in India until it accepts liability for Union Carbide’s accident.
New victims of the Bhopal disaster are born every day.
While the fight drags on, the children who survived the initial incident may well be parents now, with their own children experiencing the multi-generational effects of this disaster. The United Nations recently noted that “new victims of the Bhopal disaster are born every day, and suffer life-long from adverse health impacts.”
The makers of the new film Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain, starring Martin Sheen and Kal Penn, hope to clearly draw the links between corporate accountability and human rights, then and now, in a vivid and dramatic way.
We all live in Bhopal
“We all live in Bhopal” isn’t just a rhetorical statement. A few weeks ago, residents of La Porte, Texas may have been flashing back to 1984 when 23,000 pounds of a toxic, acidic chemical used in pesticide production escaped from a DuPont plant and killed four workers. This plant also manufactures methyl isocyanate — the same chemical responsible for killing and injuring thousands of Bhopalis decades ago.
Thirty years ago, everyone was saying that the Bhopal disaster was a global wake-up call, and assumed that we’d ratchet down our dependence on dangerous pesticides and other chemicals. Indeed, those frightening days in December 1984 were the catalyst for all sorts of legislation and regulations to monitor and report chemical production and transportation.
What hasn’t changed, though, are the larger assumptions behind our purported need for highly hazardous chemicals — or the will to hold multinational corporations accountable, in a just and timely fashion, when things go badly wrong.
I hope you’ll go see the new movie when it opens this week, and look for a special event in your area. Let’s make this the generation that holds Dow and other companies accountable for what they’ve done in Bhopal and, in less dramatic ways, in other communities around the world. Let's make sure, years from now, another generation isn't dealing with the fallout of more "Bhopals."
Photo credit: Flickr/Bhopal Medical Appeal