Remembering Bhopal

Issue 288
January/February 2015
Power to the People

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Remembering Bhopal
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Cover: Painting by Sara Caracristi www.caracristi.blogspot.co.uk

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Bhopal marks a political, economic and legal watershed for India and the planet. Vandana Shiva reports.

The night of 2/3 December 2014 marked the 30th anniversary of the terrible tragedy of Bhopal, when a pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide leaked methyl isocyanate gas, killing more than 3,000 people immediately, nearly 8,000 in the days following, and more than 20,000 over the last three decades.

The people of Bhopal are still fighting for justice. Over the years, I have joined them in solidarity. I pay tribute to their resilience, facing apathy with hope, and injustice with courage.

Bhopal was a watershed moment. One could think of an era before Bhopal, and an era after Bhopal. The tragedy woke me to the violence of industrial agriculture. It made me aware that the agrichemicals being manufactured at the Bhopal plant had their roots in warfare. Bhopal set me on the journey of seeking, practising and promoting a nonviolent, pesticide-free, peaceful and Ahimsic agriculture. Starting the campaign “No More Bhopals, Plant a Neem” was one aspect of this journey. Neem controls pests without causing harm. Though this property of neem was labelled as superstition at the time of Bhopal, in 1994 neem was patented by the United States Department of Agriculture and the chemical company W.R. Grace. We challenged this biopiracy and joined hands with the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements and the European Greens to fight the case in the European patent office in Munich. It took 11 years, but we won, and we had the neem patent struck down. Victories in basmati biopiracy and wheat biopiracy cases followed.

But Bhopal is not just a personal watershed. It is a political, economic and legal watershed for India and the planet. Bhopal was a toxic tragedy on two levels: first, the leak of a toxic gas from a plant producing toxic pesticides, and the continued presence of 350 tonnes of hazardous toxic waste; and second, the toxic influence of corporations on courts and successive governments. Bhopal was used by Union Carbide and the US courts to escape liability and responsibility for the harm caused. It set the precedent of governments shrugging off their duty to protect their citizens and taking away citizens’ rights and sovereignty in order to make settlements with corporations and allow them to evade their responsibilities.

The cases brought by the victims to US courts were dismissed on the grounds that the appropriate platform was the Indian legal system, albeit that other cases involving US corporations and foreign victims were being heard in US courts. In 1999, when the victims again approached the US federal courts seeking compensation for the 1984 incident as well as for the alleged ongoing environmental contamination at and around the Bhopal plant site, the cases were dismissed again.

In 1989 the Indian Supreme Court approved a settlement of the civil claims against Union Carbide for US$470 million. The state forcefully took over the representation of the victims on the principle of parens patriae, a doctrine that grants the inherent power and authority of the state to protect individuals who are legally unable to act on their own behalf. Denying the people of Bhopal their full sovereignty as citizens through parens patriae was a major human rights violation that needs to be corrected.

A criminal lawsuit charging the Union Carbide Corporation and Warren Anderson, its former CEO, with culpable homicide, has been ongoing in the Indian legal system since 1989. In June 2010 a court in India handed down a verdict in the case. As a result of a September 1996 order that reduced the charges, Union Carbide India Limited and seven executives of the company were found guilty of criminal negligence. The company was required to pay a fine of 500,000 rupees (US$10,870), and the individuals were each fined 100,000 rupees ($2,175) and sentenced to two years in prison. On 2 August 2010, the Indian Central Bureau of Investigation filed a petition with the Supreme Court in New Delhi, seeking to reinstate the original charge. In May 2011, the Supreme Court rejected the petition and declined to reopen the case. However, after the protests of the Bhopal survivors in November 2014, the Indian government promised to strengthen the curative petition that Dow Chemical was already facing in the Supreme Court, designed to address inadequacies within the 1989 settlement on the basis that the correct figures for dead and injured victims were not used. The government is now seeking an additional amount of up to US$1.24 billion, but the Bhopal survivors’ groups are quoting the government’s own previously published figures (the Indian Council of Medical Research’s epidemiological report, 2004), which are considerably higher and would raise the required settlement to US$8.1 billion.

On 6 February 2001, the Union Carbide Corporation became a wholly owned subsidiary of The Dow Chemical Company, following a US$11.6 billion transaction approved by both boards of directors. ‘Owning’ means owning both assets and liabilities. Dow would like to disown the liability for the Bhopal disaster, whilst accepting liability for harm caused to workers of Union Carbide in the US. In January 2002, Dow settled a case brought against its subsidiary Union Carbide by workers in the US exposed to asbestos in the workplace, and set aside US$2.2 billion to cover future liabilities. The case was filed before the acquisition of Union Carbide by Dow. Yet Dow refuses to address the death and damage caused by Union Carbide in India.

This pattern of double standards, of privatising profits and socialising disaster, runs through the pattern of corporate rule being institutionalised since Bhopal. Dow, along with Monsanto, is involved in pushing hazardous, untested GMOs on society, along with the same war-based chemicals such GMOs rely on. Monsanto introduced crops resistant to the systemic herbicide glyphosate (Roundup) as a magic bullet to control weeds. However, as a result of repeated heavy applications of glyphosate, about 65 million acres of US farmland have now been taken over by weeds that have developed resistance to it. On 15 October 2014, in spite of protests from citizens and scientists, the US Environmental Protection Agency gave final approval to Dow’s Enlist Duo genetically engineered corn and soya, which are resistant to both glyphosate and 2,4-D, or 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, one of the ingredients in Agent Orange, the defoliant that was blamed for numerous health problems suffered during and after the Vietnam war.

Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, senior scientist at Pesticide Action Network, said: “Weed resistance to chemical herbicides is one of the biggest problems farmers now face, and that is a direct result of converting so much of our farmland to herbicide-resistant GE [genetically engineered] crops. We need to get out of this futile chemical arms race fast.” As this chemical arms race unfolds, more and more communities and countries are making the democratic choice to become GMO free. In the mid-term elections of November 2014, Maui County of Hawaii voted to become GMO-free. Dow and Monsanto immediately sued Maui to stop the law banning GMO cultivation.

Corporations like Dow and Monsanto that are engaged in chemical warfare against the Earth and communities everywhere are now assaulting the democratic processes through which people are trying to prevent the continued corporate crimes against Nature and humans. The 30th anniversary of Bhopal should catalyse actions worldwide for justice for Bhopal and for all victims of an economy based on toxics. It should strengthen our resolve to create toxic-free food and agriculture systems, and to defend our freedom to be free of poisons.

Vandana Shiva is the author of Soil Not Oil. www.navdanya.org

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