Every December for the past nineteen years, marchers in Bhopal, India, have paraded an effigy of Warren Anderson through town and burned it. Anderson is despised because he was the CEO of Union Carbide on December 3, 1984, when an explosion at the company’s Bhopal factory leaked deadly methyl isocyanate gas over the city’s shantytowns in the worst industrial disaster in history. The exact death toll will never be known–many corpses were disposed of in emergency mass burials or cremations without adequate documentation–but the Indian government now puts the total at more than 22,000 and climbing.
As the disaster’s twentieth anniversary approaches, Bhopal is back in the news. On April 19 two advocates for the survivors won the most prestigious environmental award given in the United States. In her acceptance speech at the annual Goldman Environmental Prize ceremony in San Francisco, Rashida Bee confessed that she and colleague Champa Devi Shukla initially assumed they had been selected by mistake. “We knew a few individuals who had won awards,” she explained, “[but] they were all educated people, spoke English and had e-mail accounts.”
One a Muslim and the other a Hindu, Bee and Shukla are leading the fight to hold Union Carbide and its new owner, Dow Chemical, accountable for the Bhopal disaster, which the two women assert is still killing and injuring thousands of people a year through poisoned groundwater. “The gas disaster was sudden, one night, but the last twenty years have also been miserable,” Shukla said in an interview. “People still have pain and breathlessness, and now we are seeing cancers, too. There is mental and physical retardation among children. Many women are sterile or never begin menstruating, so men don’t want to marry them.” A 1999 study commissioned by Greenpeace International but conducted by independent scientists concluded that Bhopal’s groundwater contains heavy metals, volatile chemicals and levels of mercury millions of times higher than is considered safe.
Neither Union Carbide nor Dow has ever faced trial for Bhopal–inconceivable, activists charge, had the disaster occurred in the United States or Europe. Union Carbide instead reached a $470 million settlement with the Indian government in 1989, based on now-discredited estimates that only 3,000 people died and only 100,000 were “affected.” Upon review of the settlement, an Indian court reinstated criminal charges against Union Carbide and Warren Anderson in 1991. When neither the corporation nor Anderson showed up for trial, they were declared fugitives from justice. The Indian government is now seeking their extradition, but Washington has not honored the request. Meanwhile, Dow, which purchased all outstanding shares of Union Carbide in 1999, refuses to accept the company’s alleged Bhopal liabilities. “Dow remains firm in its position that in acquiring the shares of Union Carbide it acquired no new liability,” John Musser, a Dow spokesman, wrote in an e-mail interview.
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So Bee and Shukla are touring the United States, using the prestige of the Goldman prize to press their case. On May 13 they’ll confront Dow officials at a shareholders meeting in Midland, Michigan. They demand that Union Carbide/Dow appear at trial in India, pay for survivors’ healthcare and economic rehabilitation and help restore Bhopal’s environment. They reject the suggestion that the $470 million settlement discharged the company’s obligations. “Union Carbide made that settlement with the government, not with the people affected,” says Rashida Bee. “Not a single victim was consulted.”
Battling the world’s biggest chemical corporation is a far cry from the humble beginnings of the two activists. Bee was illiterate and knew nothing of the outside world when, at age 28, she experienced the disaster. It killed seven members of her extended family and left her husband too ill to continue his work as a tailor. Shukla lost her husband and two sons. A daughter later suffered three miscarriages, a grandson died and a granddaughter was born with a cleft lip and a missing palate.
Bee and Shukla consistently refer to what happened in Bhopal as a crime rather than an accident. “It was Warren Anderson’s criminal negligence and insistence on cost-cutting that caused this disaster,” says Bee. Internal Union Carbide documents, released in 2002 during the discovery phase of a civil lawsuit against the company, seem to support her contention. A 1973 document, signed by Anderson himself, notes that the technology to be used in the Bhopal factory was “unproven.” A safety review conducted by Union Carbide experts in 1982 warned of a “serious potential for sizable releases of toxic materials” at the factory.
Dow spokesman John Musser confirmed the existence of the 1982 study but asserted, “None of the issues [it] raised would have had an impact on the fatal gas leak and all of the issues had been addressed by the plant well before the December 1984 disaster.” The real culprit, the company insists, was sabotage. Musser further notes that it was the Indian government that declared itself the sole representative of Bhopal’s victims before the 1989 settlement. Nor are allegations of groundwater contamination true, he said, citing studies in the late 1990s by local and federal government agencies in India.
“They have their studies, we have ours, so let’s go to court and let a judge decide who’s right,” said Gary Cohen, director of the Environmental Health Fund in Boston. Cohen has little hope that the Bush Administration will extradite Anderson or current Union Carbide/Dow officials. But, he says, “Dow wants to expand in India, and we’re going to make that very difficult” by raising questions about the trustworthiness of a corporation that refuses to heed a court summons. Nityanand Jayaraman of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal says activists plan to press the Indian government to include Dow, not just Union Carbide, in the current criminal case; the government could then attach Dow’s assets if it refuses to appear in court.
For their part, Rashida Bee and Champa Devi Shukla hope to pursue justice face-to-face by tracking down Warren Anderson during their US tour. Shukla says that “if we see him, we will ask, If you are innocent, why are you hiding and not answering questions about what happened in Bhopal?”