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article imageActivist connects dots from Bhopal to Hammond, Stratfor, and Dow Special

By Justin King     Dec 29, 2013 in World
Bhopal - In 1984, a Union Carbide Corporation plant expelled a deadly gas in the Indian city of Bhopal, killing an estimated 15,000 people. Thirty years later, the story continues and has involved people and corporations all over the world.
Activist Reena Shadaan discussed the winding road leading from the plant’s opening, to the first safety issues, to the disaster, though the court cases, the Dow purchase, the intelligence gathering activities that followed, the Jeremy Hammond leak, all the way to the current campaign in support of the residents in Bhopal, which has received a major boost from an award-winning documentary.
Digital Journal publishes the interview, in its entirety, below. Information is sourced where appropriate.
The Interview:
To give readers some context, tell us about the plant in Bhopal. What did it make, what kinds of chemicals were used in production, and so on?
The Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) opened up its Bhopal plant with Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL), its Indian subsidiary, in 1969. The American-owned UCC had the majority share in the plant. The plant was built very near to a number of slum communities in the poorest section of Bhopal, which is called Old Bhopal. These communities were occupied by some of the most marginalized sections of Indian society –poor, displaced populations/migrants from nearby villages, scheduled-caste Hindus, Muslims, and so on, who were primarily daily wage earners. The fact that UCC situated the plant near these communities is not a shock. Toxic plants are routinely placed in or near low-income, racialized areas. The same is true here in North America.
The original purpose of the plant was to formulate pesticides. It was the beginning of India’s Green Revolution, which basically meant the shift from indigenous agricultural methods to the use of GMOs, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
From 1975 onwards, the Bhopal plant shifted from formulating pesticides to manufacturing pesticides, such as Sevin. Methyl isocyanate (MIC) was used in the formulation of Sevin. Even short term exposure to MIC is extremely toxic for humans and other living things. In fact, MIC is more toxic than phosgene, which has been used as a chemical weapon.
Can you provide a brief overview of the events of December 1984 in Bhopal?
Woman expresses grief and anger at the lives lost during the disaster.
Woman expresses grief and anger at the lives lost during the disaster.
Sanjay Verma
On the evening of December 2nd, workers were instructed to use a water wash on the pipelines, which were extremely clogged. The water accumulated in the pipelines, and eventually found its way to tank E610, which contained over 40 tonnes of MIC. This caused an exothermic reaction, resulting in the 40 tonnes of MIC, in gas form, leaking into the communities of Old Bhopal. People awoke coughing, with their eyes burning. Some people thought someone in the neighbourhood was burning chillies (a custom to ward off the ‘evil eye’). When word of the gas leak spread, people began to run frantically. As an outsider, I can’t explain the terror people experienced on that night, so I’ll offer some words from a leading survivor/activist named Rashida Bi:
“The poison cloud was so dense and searing that people were reduced to near blindness. As they gasped for breath its effects grew ever more suffocating. The gases burned the tissues of their eyes and lungs and attacked their nervous systems. People lost control of their bodies. Urine and feces ran down their legs. Women lost their unborn children as they ran, their wombs spontaneously opening in bloody abortion.”
Storing 40 tonnes of MIC in a large container is a serious safety hazard in itself, but this was approved by UCC. Moreover, most of the plant’s safety systems were not operational during the night of the disaster. According to plant workers, of the 4 safety systems related to MIC, 3 were not operational.
What was the death toll of the event? [Shadaan's death toll estimate is conservative. Most sources place it at 15,000]
Within the first week of the disaster, 7,000 to 10,000 people died.
Protest on the 29th Anniversary of the Bhopal disaster.
Protest on the 29th Anniversary of the Bhopal disaster.
Sanjay Verma
How many have died to date from causes attributed to the plant disaster?
To date, more than 25,000 people have died as a result of injuries sustained on that day, and over 500,000 are affected. Chronic health problems, including cancers and sickness in the respiratory, ocular, neurological, neuromuscular, gynecological and reproductive systems, continue to plague survivors. Children can’t even drink their mothers’ breast milk because of the presence of toxins.
Communities are also facing widespread soil and groundwater contamination, which has been a focal point of the ongoing struggle for justice by survivors/activists. Because of this struggle, pipelines supplying clean water have been installed in the affected communities. This is a very recent development; for many years, people were forced to rely on contaminated water for their drinking, cooking and washing needs.
On top of this, children in the affected communities are born with higher rates of developmental disabilities and congenital malformations. This has now reached the third generation. Like Agent Orange in Vietnam, there doesn’t seem to be a clear end in sight.
What kind of warnings did Union Carbide have ahead of time?
UCC was well aware of deteriorating safety conditions in the plant, and in fact, signed off on this! All design-related decisions were approved by UCC officials in the U.S. The plant was built using untested technology, it was alarmingly close to a number of densely populated communities and MIC was stored in large storage containers when it should have stored in smaller containers.
Moreover, because of UCCs cost cutting decisions, the plant was ridden with serious safety problems. In fact, most of the safety systems in the plant were not functioning during the night of the disaster.
As far back as 1976, two labour unions sent letters regarding pollution in the plant to management; however, they received no response. In December 1981, a worker named Mohammed Ashraf was splashed with phosgene. He was not given a proper safety uniform and a malfunctioning valve was the cause of the phosgene leak. After Mohammed was splashed, he panicked and took off his mask, resulting in him inhaling a large quantity of phosgene. Management blamed the entire incident on the worker removing his mask, and ignored the fact that a malfunctioning valve caused the leak and that the worker was not provided a proper safety uniform. In January 1982, another phosgene leak hospitalized 25 workers. In February 1982, there was a MIC leak, affecting 18 workers. These are just a few examples.
Workers at the plant demanded better safety conditions, but management denied any safety problems, intimidated unionized workers and continued to put the safety of the workers/communities nearby at risk.
In May 1982 a safety audit was carried out, where 61 hazards were found –30 major and 11 in the MIC/phosgene units. Nothing was done by UCC officials to remediate these hazards. In fact, in August 1982, a chemical engineer was burnt on over 30% of his body because he was exposed to liquid MIC. A month later, they turned off the alarm system that alerted the communities nearby of leaks.
In the context of UCC’s hazardous design of the plant and its cost-cutting at the expense of worker/public safety, the Bhopal gas disaster is not surprising at all. So many lives were lost before, during and after the disaster, not because of UCC’s negligence, but because they knowingly put profit before human life.
Could you tell us a little about what companies have owned the site since the disaster?
Initially, UCC had the majority share in the Bhopal plant. In 1994, UCC sold its shares to Mcleod Russel (India) Limited. UCIL was then renamed Eveready Industries. In 1998, the government of Madhya Pradesh took over ownership of the factory site.
In 2001, the Dow Chemical Company purchased UCC. As a result, Dow inherited the legal liabilities of UCC, which includes the Bhopal gas disaster. However, Dow denies all responsibility for the disaster, saying that because Dow did not own the factory at the time of the disaster, Dow was not liable. This is despite the fact that Dow settled UCCs outstanding legal liabilities in the U.S. The Bhopal-based survivor/support groups that lead the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, and we at the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, North America (ICJB-NA), have fought to bring awareness to Dow’s double standards.
It’s been almost thirty years. Is the site clean now?
No, the site continues to be contaminated.
Now that the government has control of the site, is the situation improving?
No, the situation has not improved.
The documentary talks a little about a settlement that provided financial compensation for loss of life and permanent disability and loss of life. How much was a lifetime of disability deemed to be worth?
In the years following the disaster, the Government of India made itself the sole representative of survivors in the legal case against UCC, without any consultation with survivors or survivors groups. This resulted in a $470 million USD settlement, which was incredibly low. Survivors ended up receiving about $500 USD per person. A Dow PR person named Kathy Hunt later commented that “$500 is plenty good for an Indian.” Apparently $500 USD is enough to cover a lifetime of health problems and a loss of working ability amongst the already poor communities that were impacted by the gas disaster. It’s absolutely ridiculous that survivors are subject to this treatment.
One of the current demands by ICJB is that every person known to be disabled or made destitute as a result of the disaster receives 1000 INR monthly.
Tell us a little about that documentary, please.
Bhopali is an award-winning documentary that details the ongoing disaster in Bhopal, which includes the prevalence of children with congenital malformations/developmental disabilities, illnesses amongst the children of gas affected persons, and the experience of those orphaned by the disaster.
Bhopali has given people all over the world the opportunity to see the on-the-ground situation in Bhopal, and to understand the reason why survivors and others in solidarity have sustained a 29 year struggle for justice, which is still going strong.
I recommend all those interested in environmental justice and corporate accountability struggles to watch this documentary. More information is available on the website: www.bhopalithemovie.com
Jeremy Hammond’s leaks from Stratfor contained information relating to the Bhopal disaster. Are you familiar those? If so, can you tell us a little about what was revealed?
The leaks revealed that Dow Chemical had hired the private intelligence firm, Stratfor, to follow survivors and activists involved in the struggle for justice in Bhopal. This includes the Yes Men who very famously pranked Dow on BBC. They monitored the activities of activists in India, North America, and the U.K. by documenting solidarity events, press releases, blog/social media posts, and our mailing lists. In addition to this, they monitored media reports on UCC, Dow and Bhopal, and went so far as to note those who commented on these news reports!
Protester carries a photo of imprisoned American activist Jeremy Hammond during Bhopal protest.
Protester carries a photo of imprisoned American activist Jeremy Hammond during Bhopal protest.
Sanjay Verma
Not only did Jeremy show us that Dow was spying on survivors/activists involved in the Bhopal struggle; it showed us that, despite Dow constantly denying their liability in the Bhopal gas disaster case, our struggle to hold them accountable was reaching their door step.
One of the leading campaigners in the Bhopal struggle, Rachna Dhingra said, “Jeremy Hammond, Bhopal survivors salute you for your courage. We thank you for exposing that Dow Chemical was spying on Bhopal campaigners. You have been imprisoned for 10 years for speaking the truth and the company whose lies continue to kill people in Bhopal every day faces no liability."
In June of 2010, some Union Carbide India Limited employees were convicted of crimes that are roughly equivalent to manslaughter charges in the United States. How much time did they spend in prison?
None! The eight Indian officials charged were sentenced to two years each, which is the maximum sentence for the charge of criminal negligence, and then they were let off on bail!
On the positive side, this led to massive outcry amongst the general public and resulted in the Indian government instituting a new compensation package for survivors. But this new compensation package had its own problems. Less than 10% of those impacted by the gas disaster were included, and the second-generation victims were excluded.
They were also given a fine. What was the fine given to the defendants?
They were fined 100,000 INR, which is about $2,100 USD.
I’m sorry, and what was the total cost of clean up again? [Although the cost is still unclear, it is estimated to be near $60 million US]
At this time we’re not sure, as there hasn’t been a proper assessment of the site. Proper scientific assessment is actually one of ICJBs demands. There is no doubt that it will be a huge task. It is estimated that there is more than 20,000 metric tonnes of toxic waste just in and around the plant site.
I see. So where is the activist movement in Bhopal and the United States going from here?
We’re entering the 30th anniversary year. The survivors’ struggle has seen many important victories; however, the struggle for justice and accountability continues. During the 29th anniversary, ICJB released a press statement, detailing survivors’ demands going forward. A number of demands to Dow, the Government of India and the state government of Madhya Pradesh were outlined. This includes proper clean-up of the site, that Dow and UCC officials (including former UCC CEO, Warren Anderson) will cease to abscond from legal proceedings in India, epidemiological studies to document the health impact of exposure, and proper medical/rehabilitation facilities to treat the affected populations, including those impacted by groundwater contamination and the children born with congenital malformations and developmental disabilities.
In North America and beyond, it is critical that we keep the Bhopal gas disaster in the public eye. It’s the world’s worst industrial disaster, and it’s ongoing. We play an important role in North America, since Dow is headquartered here.
We want to continue to connect with other groups who believe in corporate accountability and justice, so that we gain enough people-power to contest corporate-power. We want to connect with social justice groups, environmental groups, environmental justice groups, and all other like-minded organizations and individuals. Our struggles are intrinsically connected –we’re fighting against corporate power, the blurring line between corporations and governments, and diminishing environmental and human rights.
Executive being burned in effigy during a Bhopal protest.
Executive being burned in effigy during a Bhopal protest.
Sanjay Verma
Tell us a little about the 29th anniversary protests.
Every year, survivors groups in Bhopal hold events to commemorate the anniversary. The staff, children and parents of the Chingari Trust, a school/rehabilitation center for children with developmental disabilities and congenital malformations caused by the gas disaster, hold a candlelit vigil. There was a rally of about 5,000 people that concluded with an effigy burning outside the factory, and there was a torch rally of about 300 people.
Solidarity events take place in other parts of India and the rest of the world. In North America, we hold various events to honour those that died and those that continue to struggle for life, dignity and justice. In the past, this has included film screenings, candlelit vigils and other protest actions.
Every anniversary rejuvenates the struggle.
What can readers do if they wanted to get involved?
We are approaching the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal gas disaster. Can you believe that this struggle, which seems like an open and shut case, has been going on for almost 30 years? And not only going on, getting worse!
ICJB North America is always looking for people to join us as volunteers and supporters. We’re a relatively small number of people trying to do big things. The more people we have, the stronger our struggle becomes. If readers are interested in getting involved in any way, please contact us at: icjb.us.ab@gmail.com or visit our website, at www.icjb.org
More about Bhopal, Dow, Jeremy Hammond, Stratfor, Disaster