India: Survivors of Bhopal Gas Tragedy March to Demand Justice

Organizations such as Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmachari Sangh, Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Purush Sangharsh Morcha and Bhopal Group for Information and Action are leading this "Padyatra." They are demanding that the Prime Minister begin an empowered commission on Bhopal for medical care and rehabilitation of the Bhopal victims and their children.

Almost twenty three years after the Union Carbide gas disaster, Bhopal continues to gasp for breath. So far, authorities have failed to provide a clean and healthy environment for the thousands of citizens who inhaled the poisonous gas on December 2-3 in 1984, suffering irreversible lung damage. These survivors, mostly concentrated in Atal Ayub Nagar, JP Nagar and Arif Nagar, still use water polluted by the toxins left behind by the US multinational.

Groundwater contamination arising out of toxic waste from the Bhopal gas tragedy threatens the health of an entire new generation of the city’s inhabitants. About 8,000 tons of toxic waste still lies scattered and exposed on the premises of the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal. Now, decades after the world’s worst industrial disaster, these toxins have seeped into the city’s groundwater, according to environmental studies conducted by both the government and civil society groups. Though this information was even accepted by a court in the United States, the Indian authorities have done little to address the issue.

Although studies conducted over the years have arrived at roughly the same conclusion regarding groundwater contamination, it’s only now that the Madhya Pradesh government says it’s ready to take the case of the gas victims to the Central Government.

"Our state pollution control board filed a report that confirms that there is contamination of groundwater and we are ready to take the matter to the Union government," said Ajay Bishnoi, Minister for Gas and Rehabilitation.

Scientific studies have proven that the toxic waste, containing harmful metals like mercury and dangerous pesticides and pollutants, has seeped into underground water reserves. The areas affected include Ayub Nagar, Kainchi Chhola, Arif Nagar, Dashhehra Maidan, Chandbari and Garib Nagar.

"We believe that around 40,000 people in localities close to the plant have been drinking the contaminated water for the last several years," says Abdul Jabbar, a crusader for the rights of survivors of the tragedy.

"The water is not colorless and it tastes bitter. We know it is harmful for our health but we have no option. Also, due to financial constraints, I cannot move to some other place," says Rashid Khan, a resident of Arif Nagar, who lost both his father and brother to the tragedy. He himself suffers breathing problems resulting from exposure to the deadly methyl isocyanate gas.

Shanta, another gas victim, says, "We have seen many things in the last few decades after the tragedy, now we believe that government should act fast."

Forty seven year old Asghar says, "We want justice from the government. We also want that the government should pay adequate compensation to us."

Activists’ claims have been backed by several studies over the years that say residents of the area have been drinking highly contaminated water that is injurious to human health. One such study, conducted by the public health engineering department in 1998, stated: "Large areas of Bhopal city, consisting of 10 wards, were badly affected by the disastrous methyl isocyanate gas leak. This gas has badly polluted the environment not only of the locality but also underground water reserves."

In 1999, a Greenpeace study observed: "The water has been contaminated to a thousand times more than the average drinking water standards acceptable in developed countries." According to a study conducted by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), Nagpur, water in the factory area recorded a high concentration of toxic waste, indicating the possibility of contamination at great depths. Likewise, a 1998 study by the Boston Citizen Environmental Laboratory claimed that water had been contaminated to a dangerous level.

Digvijay Singh, former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, who governed the state from 1993 to 2003, always denied that underground water reserves were contaminated. To prove the point, then minister in charge of gas relief and rehabilitation, Arif Aqueel, drank water from taps located in areas around the plant.

In recent years, there has been some recognition of the plight of Bhopal’s residents. In a March 2004 judgment, an appellate court in the US held Union Carbide responsible for groundwater contamination. The court also declared that those affected by drinking contaminated water should receive compensation. Each day, about 4,500 patients queue up at government run outpatient departments complaining of respiratory diseases, stomach ailments, dysentery and nervous system disorders. The doctors at Hamidia and Bhopal hospitals consider the inflow alarming for most of these ailments – some passed on to the second generation – can be traced back to methly isocynate (MIC) gas. It had killed 16,000 people in 1984 and permanently harmed more than five lakh.

[Video of march from Bhopal to Delhi]

Eight years ago, volunteers of Greenpeace, along with representatives of the Bhopal communities, visited the Carbide plant and assessed the conditions at the factory site and its surrounding areas. They found stockpiles of toxic pesticides and hazardous waste scattered all around. There has been no improvement in the situation even today. The survey revealed contamination of land and ground water supplied as drinking water to inhabitants near the abandoned plant with heavy metal and chlorinated chemicals, including chloroform and carbon tetrachloride. The solid samples also showed contamination by lead, nickel, copper, chromium, chlorobenzene, Sevin and hexachlorocyclohexane.

Indeed, there is no parallel to the December 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy in terms of the magnitude of destruction and the number of deaths. But the process of rendering justice to the victims has proved to be a deplorable legal tragedy. While the criminal case against those responsible for the disaster has been proceeding in the Bhopal District Court at a snail’s pace, the civil case seeking due compensation has been closed after the Indian Government and UCC arrived at a settlement before the Supreme Court in 1989. Under the settlement, UCC and its Indian subsidiary, UCIL, agreed to pay, and did pay, $470 million to the Government of India on behalf of all the victims.

Since then, the survivors of the tragedy have been questioning the unjust nature of the settlement and improper consideration of the compensation claims of individual victims and survivors. Besides, survivors deplored the extent of indifference within India to the magnitude of the tragedy, and its continuing consequences for the health of the survivors and their families.

The settlement clearly shows a double standard in treating victims of industrial disasters in India and elsewhere. Union Carbide and eight other companies paid US $ 4.2 billion as potential damages for Silicon Breast Implants to 650,000 claimants. If the award amount of $470 million were distributed equally among all the victims of Bhopal disaster each would get around $200. Many of the people did not get even that much relief.

The hope of the victims ever to receive justice received a setback with the merger of Union Carbide Corporation with Dow Chemicals. With the merger, UCC has vanished as an entity and Dow became the second largest chemical corporation in the world. In its submission to the Securities and Exchange Commission, USA, Union Carbide has deliberately omitted the mention of pending criminal liabilities of the corporation.

According to a press release issued by Satinath Sarangi of Bhopal Group for Information and Action, the Bhopal "Padyatris" expect to reach New Delhi in the last week of March, when they hope to meet with the Prime Minister. Depending on the response of the Prime Minister the marchers may decide to go on an indefinite fast at the end of their 800 kilometers long march.

Information and Action:

Email Petition for Justice for Bhopal Victims

Bhopal.Net – International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal