By Madhu Malhotra, Director of Amnesty International’s Gender, Identity and Sexuality Program
It is almost three decades since one of the worst corporate disasters in history – the devastating 1984 gas leak at the Bhopal pesticide plant in India. It is estimated that the leak killed more than 22,000 people and left another 100,000 suffering from health problems. But far from being forgotten, the impact of the leak and the plant’s former operations continue to be felt today by people in the area.
When I first visited Bhopal, I was struck by the fact that the skeleton of the plant remains in the centre of the city; an ongoing, visible reminder of the disaster to the residents of Bhopal. The site is easily accessible to the local population, with broken boundary walls and little security. It is estimated that there are about 350 tonnes of toxic waste inside the site. Contamination has also been found in soil and groundwater at and around the site.
The tens of thousands of survivors and their families have yet to receive adequate compensation from Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) (the majority owner of the Indian company that operated the plant) or the Indian government.
Research conducted by Amnesty International in December 2012 found that women in Bhopal are at the forefront of the struggle for justice. Since the gas leak, women have reported ongoing serious health issues including gynaecological and reproductive health disorders. Others told me that, with their husbands and partners dead or too ill to keep on working, they have been the sole bread winners for their families, while at the same time caring for ill family members.
“It’s been round the clock physical and mental agony for almost three decades,” Hazra Bi, a Bhopal activist and survivor, told me. “But I won’t give up the fight for justice. It’s a question of Bhopal’s future generations.”
We at Amnesty International, along with local and international partners, have been campaigning for justice for the Bhopal victims and survivors for many years. It has often been an uphill struggle, but two recent developments have offered some hope to the victims and survivors, their families and local residents.
On 23 July 2013, a Bhopal court ordered US chemical giant The Dow Chemical Company (Dow) to appear before it to explain why its wholly owned subsidiary UCC has repeatedly ignored court summons in the ongoing criminal case concerning the disaster. UCC is accused of “culpable homicide not amounting to murder”.
Although these criminal charges were brought in 1987, UCC has repeatedly ignored court summons in India. Dow has owned UCC since 2001 but has consistently denied responsibility for any UCC liability in relation to Bhopal. The court summons was a victory for all of us campaigning for the survivors of Bhopal, and an important step forward in efforts to ensure corporate accountability for the disaster.
Then, on 1 August 2013, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a public interest research and advocacy organisation based in New Delhi, released its action plan for the environmental remediation of the Bhopal site and surrounding areas.
Survivors and human rights campaigners have repeatedly called for Dow/UCC and the Indian government to address the ongoing environmental and health impact of prior operations at the site. But despite numerous studies finding soil and groundwater contamination at and around the site, little effective action has been taken to remediate the contamination.
CSE’s action plan offers hope that something will now be done. In April 2013, CSE brought together many of the organisations that had previously studied and reported on the contamination at Bhopal.
Together, they saw eye to eye on many of the key issues, and most importantly agreed an action plan for securing the site, removing the toxic waste and addressing the soil and groundwater contamination.
While the action plan is an NGO initiative, it was agreed in collaboration with the Central Pollution Control Board, part of the Indian government’s Ministry of Environment & Forests. It could therefore be a huge step towards making sure that people in Bhopal can finally live in a clean and healthy environment.
I left Bhopal with these inspiring words from Rampyari Bai, aged 85, activist and survivor of the Bhopal disaster: “I will fight for our rights and justice until my last breath so another Bhopal doesn’t take place in this world.”
There’s still a long way to go, but these two developments have been welcome and positive news, They give hope to all those who have campaigned for so long for justice for the survivors of Bhopal, and a safe living environment for today’s residents.