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Polluted Water, Chronic Illness, Little Compensation

Bhopal 20 Years Later

by JUSTIN HUGGLER


The Independent

The failure of the Indian government and an American corporation to tackle the after-effects of one of the worst industrial accidents in history has left a legacy of continuing pollution and inadequate medical care for survivors, according to a report released today.

Days before the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal disaster in India a study has shown that survivors are still desperately in need of medical treatment and have not been properly compensated.

On the night of 2 December 1984, poisonous methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas leaked from the Union Carbide pesticide factory in Bhopal. Thousands were killed immediately. Thousands more were to die from the effects of that night in the months and years that followed.

Now, Amnesty International has claimed that neither the Indian government nor Union Carbide have done enough to provide proper redress for the victims or to clean up the site.

"The disaster shocked the world and raised fundamental questions about corporate and government responsibility for industrial accidents that devastate human life and local environments," the report reads.

"Yet 20 years on, the survivors still await just compensation, adequate medical assistance and treatment, and comprehensive economic and social rehabilitation. The plant site has still not been cleaned up so toxic wastes still pollute the environment and contaminate water that surrounding communities rely on. And, astonishingly, no one has been held to account for the leak and its appalling consequences."

Survivors are marking the 20th anniversary this week by demanding the site is cleaned up and victims given proper compensation. Amnesty found the site of the factory is still severely contaminated, and is poisoning ground water supplies. The report details the case of Hasina Bee, a survivor of the disaster who still lives near the factory site, has been drinking the water from the hand-pump near her house for 18 years.

"When you look at the water, you can see a thin layer of oil on it," she said. "All the pots in my house have become discoloured…green-yellow. We have to travel at least two kilometres to get clean water…but my health is so bad that it prevents me from carrying the water I need from there."

The report confirms survivors’ claims that far more died in the immediate aftermath of the gas leak than the figure of 2,000 claimed by the Madhya Pradesh state government. Amnesty’s found that 7,000 died in the immediate aftermath, and 15,000 more have died of related diseases since 1984. It reveals that 100,000 people still suffer from chronic or debilitating illnesses. "The company decided to store quantities of the ‘ultra-hazardous’ MIC in Bhopal in bulk, and did not equip the plant with a corresponding safety capacity," the report says.

"UCC transferred technology that was not proven and entailed operational risks. It did not apply the same standards of safety in design or operations to Bhopal as it had in place in the USA. Unlike in the USA, the company failed to set up any comprehensive emergency plan or system in Bhopal to warn local communities about leaks."

Union Carbide has since been taken over by Dow Chemicals. The Amnesty report says: "Both companies used the new ownership structure in an attempt to avoid further responsibility for the Bhopal disaster".

The report says: "Efforts by survivors’ organisations to use the US and Indian court systems to see justice done and gain adequate redress have so far been unsuccessful.

The report is severely critical of the Indian government for "its failure to assess adequately the risk from the Bhopal plant", and for agreeing to a "derisory" settlement with Union Carbide in 1989 without consulting survivors, and for agreeing that this settlement ended Union Carbide’s liability.

In 1989, the Indian government abruptly agreed to end legal proceedings for a settlement of only $470m (£240m) from Union Carbide – a figure that was widely criticised.

But Amnesty found that: "Even this inadequate sum has not been distributed in full to the victims … about 16,000 claims are outstanding, and most of the successful applicants have received minimal amounts of compensation. At the time of writing in September 2004, around $330m of the $470m remained held by the Reserve Bank of India."

JUSTIN HUGGLER writes for the Independent.