A disaster still in progress

Two years in jail and bail of Rs 25,000 for the eight accused (one now deceased) in the Bhopal gas case will do nothing to lessen the poisonous atmosphere that has clouded the controversial tragedy for 25 long years. The death of 15,000 people on that fateful night in 1984 when lethal fumes of methyl isocyanate leaked from the Union Carbide factory in the city should have been an open-and-shut case of criminal and corporate liability. Yet, a quarter-of-a-century down the line, all the victims have managed to get is Rs 12,410 each for the dead and for the survivors of a lifetime of disability and pain both for themselves and their progeny. Liability for the tragedy like the noxious fumes seems to have vanished with the acquisition of Union Carbide by Dow Chemicals that refuses to take on the task of ensuring justice for the victims. And to rub salt into grievous wounds, the government of India, which should have weighed in on the side of the victims, has all along seemed to be on the side of the offenders. From accepting second best in the form of watered down compensation from the beginning to facetious remarks by the minister of state for environment recently on the safety of the environment around the plant, the victims have been shortchanged at every step.

Today, 560,000 claims for disabilities are pending before the courts, none of them addressed so far. Despite the minister’s flip remarks that he suffered no ill-effects from visiting the site, this place of devastation poses a continuing threat to those around it. According to the Centre for Science and Environment, the groundwater in a radius of three kilometres around the plant contains 40 times more pesticide than normal. The water that is used by people in the area contains deadly doses of mercury and chlorinated benzene compounds. In other words, Bhopal is a disaster still in progress. Even the amendments to the Factories Act 1948, made in 1987, which make it mandatory for companies to inform those in the vicinity of potential hazards have not been observed.

This apathetic attitude explains why Warren Anderson, the Union Carbide boss at the time of the leak has been able to live a life of ease far away in the US while the victims struggle from day to day. The government could have, and still can, use its considerable might to reduce the damage in the form of cleaning up the environment and pressuring Dow Chemicals to make some form of restitution. The State has neither pitched in to help the victims with their medical problems nor their legal entitlements. What is this if not licence for fly-by-night corporates to come calling at a future date?


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