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Bhopal on $40 a Day

by Romi Mahajan

“Living. Improved daily.”

That’s the motto of Dow Chemical–global giant–the folks that lied about Dioxin, gave us poisonous silicone implants, and in 2001 merged with Union Carbide, the company responsible for the worst industrial accident in history–in Bhopal, India. Behind the spin of the noble motto lies a company that has done nothing to either promote “living” or to improve the lives of the literally hundreds of thousands of poor Indians that have died, been maimed, or otherwise suffered by its hand.

The night of Dec 2-3, 1984, cannot and should not be forgotten. That night, 40 tons of the deadly gas Methyl Isocyanate(MIC) spewed from a Union Carbide pesticide factory in Bhopal–the cloud of gas engulfed entire wards of the city; thousands of people died horrible deaths, drowning in their own bodily fluids, lungs and eyes aflame. Tens of thousands were maimed that night itself. As time passed, ailments developed and the drinking water in the gas-affected wards became toxic, thus producing a continuous and constant set of wracking health risks. Over the last 18 years, the number of people whose lives and bodies have been shattered exceeds 200,000. As of today, 30 people die monthly as a result of gas-related ailments and over 120,000 people are in need of urgent medical care. Of these, 80,000 are too ill to perform manual labor, thereby rendering them unable to support their families.

The conditions that precipitated the accident were the results of typically inhumane cost-cutting efforts by Union Carbide. The proximate cause of that night’s gas leak was the turning off of the refrigeration unit–in order to save $40 a day. That the plant was of flawed design and an incredible safety hazard was known to Union Carbide–previous accidents and a company-performed safety audit finding “61 hazards[including] 11 in the phosgene/MIC units” made the case very clear–that the plant was a powder keg. Nothing was done about it.

Hundreds of thousands of people have paid the price with their lives, their organs, their limbs, their psyches.

Living. Improved daily.

After the accident, Union Carbide acted immediately to mitigate financial risk and in keeping with this to take incredibly cynical steps, including withholding key medical information on the leaked gas and dispensing unsound medical advice in order to support their ridiculous claim that MIC was “nothing more than a potent tear gas.” After denying financial responsibility for years, Union Carbide finally settled out of court with the Government of India–and agreed to pay $470 Million. On the day the paltry settlement was announced, the stock price of Union Carbide shot up $2. Families of the dead received $1250 and each injured victim got between $400 and $500. Then CEO of Union Carbide Warren Andersen has not answered the criminal charges brought against him by the Bhopal court and has not been extradited.

In 1991, India “liberalized” its economy and ushered in an era of privatization and foreign investment. Multinational Corporations have been able to extract a raft of concessions from the Indian Government, which, under the tutelage of the IMF and similar bodies and with the interests of India’s super-elite classes in mind, has the sole job of creating a good investment climate. Dow Chemical, a global behemoth with over 3200 products in the market and over $26.5 Billion in annual revenues, expressed concern to the Indian Government that their investment plans in India could be hampered by fear of a transfer of pending liabilities; in keeping with their Washington-given mandate, the Government of India has decided to dilute the Bhopal-related charges to “negligence.” As in the case of Enron, the Indian Government easily caved in to the desires of Dow, a company that corporate watchdog INFACT says peddles influence with “blatant disregard for people and the environment.” A compromised government in cahoots with a cynical and recalcitrant corporation-simply reflective of the incredible absurdity of India’s liberalization plans and of the double standards about the value of human life that any votaries of liberalization must accept and support, directly or tacitly.

Living. Improved Daily.

That Dow Chemical acted and continues to act with malfeasance is clear. So too is the fact that the Government of India continues to act in disregard of the welfare of its own citizens. We must therefore join people like Tara Bai, Rashida Bi, Sathyu Sarangi, and Diane Wilson in fighting for redress and justice–for the still suffering people of Bhopal. These brave activists (Tara Bai and Rashida Bi are gas-affected) have been conducting hunger strikes and crying out for justice.

Immediate demands of the Indian Government should include fast-tracking the process for extraditing Warren Anderson, to not dilute the charges and to hold Dow Chemical responsible for pending medical and environmental rehabilitation liabilities in Bhopal. Immediate demands of Dow Chemical should include sending Mr.Warren Andersen to Bhopal, accepting responsibility for cleaning the contaminated soil and groundwater in the vicinity of the factory, paying a just level of compensation to the victims including provisions for long-term are, immediately releasing all information on the composition of the leaked gases, and paying for the economic and psychological rehabilitation of the families affected.

A second set of demands regards Dow’s conduct and ability to sell toxic substances now and in the future. On June 8, 2000 the EPA banned virtually all home uses of Dursban, a toxic pesticide made by Dow. Unfortunately, using the double standards for which Dow and other corporations are so famous, Dursban is being produced and marketed in India. Any campaign that truly seeks to memorialize the dead and win redress for the still living must work to stop Dow’s current depredations.

Make these demands by writing to Dow Chemical and to the Government of India. Don’t use Dow products until Dow complies. Visit www.bhopal.net to find out how to act now to help the victims in Bhopal.

Far too many –especially the powerful–have little regard for “ordinary” people, especially the poor, the non-white, the denizens of the Third World. Appalling double standards exist. While this has been shown to be true time and again in overt as well as subtle ways, it really shocks the senses when we examine the degree. Very simply put, to powerful companies like Dow–and even unfortunately to the Indian government–Indian lives are not worth as much as the lives of others. Nowhere even close.

$40 buys a good meal out for 2 or 3 in Seattle. $40 a day is what travel guides call inexpensive traveling in most of Asia. In Midland, Michigan (Corporate HQ) $40 dollars buys you a bit more than one share of Dow Chemical stock. $40 a day in Bhopal–the price to run the Bhopal factory’s refrigeration unit–could have saved 200,000+ people from death, disfigurement, chronic health ailments, and psychological trauma.

Death. Dispensed daily.

Information on ongoing action and demands can be found at (www.bhopal.net and www.corpwatchindia.org. Information from these sites has been used widely in this piece.) On August 27, the Bhopal Magistrates court will hear the case regarding the Government of India’s application to dilute the charges. There are only 6 days to act!

Romi Mahajan lives in Redmond, Washington and can be reached at: romimahajan2000@yahoo.com

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