US accused of double standards over Bhopal


ACTIVISTS SEEKING justice in the world’s worst industrial disaster in the Indian city of Bhopal are accusing the United States of double standards, saying it penalised firms polluting its soil but ignored its mistakes abroad.

Members of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action say Washington pushed oil giant BP to establish a fund of $20 billion for damage claims within weeks of the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but victims of the Bhopal disaster have had no real justice more than a quarter century after 25,000 people died in the deadly gas leak from the Union Carbide plant.

Some 8,000 to 10,000 people from slums surrounding the factory died within three days of the poisonous methyl isocyanate leak on December 3rd, 1984, while the rest succumbed to effects from the killer gas over the following few weeks.

Tens of thousands of others, the majority of them poor, still suffer the effects of extensive contamination of land and water, leading to congenital birth defects and a range of illnesses including blindness, various cancers, respiratory problems and immune and neurological disorders.

The BP fund has triggered calls in India for the US to show similar accountability for the Bhopal victims, many of whom have received no compensation at all.

The Indian government, after initially demanding $3.3 billion from Union Carbide – bought by Dow Chemicals in 1999 – agreed in 1989 to an out-of-court settlement of $470 million, or a mere 15 per cent of the original amount.

In the early 1990s survivors and families of victims were awarded compensation of 25,000 rupees (€438) but even this meagre amount never reached the majority of victims, many of them illiterate, as it was soaked up by bribes paid to lawyers, middlemen and touts.

Activists from the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, an umbrella group of survivors’ organisations, estimate that some 100,000 people received merely interim compensation of Rs 200 rupees (€3.50) a month for a brief period immediately after the disaster but little else.

Indian activists also point to the fact that about€218 million was swiftly paid out as compensation for the killing of a few thousand otters, seals and eagles following the Exxon Valdez oil spill off the Alaska coast in March 1989.

“Obama holds corporate companies accountable in the US but why is it that he does not hold American companies responsible for what they do abroad?” asked Rachna Dhingra of the Bhopal group. If this was not double standards, what was?.

The outrage across India over Bhopal follows the first convictions in the gas leak case, in which seven former Union Carbide employees received two-year jail sentences and minor fines but were released almost immediately on bail.

Other issues surrounding the tragedy also emerged, such as claims by a non-governmental organisation that Bhopal victims were used as guinea pigs in drug trials at a city hospital specially set up for their care. Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udyog Sangathan claimed it had documents to prove that such trials were conducted without the patients’ knowledge and that some may have even died as a consequence.

Activists have traced 160 patients and the many medicines used for those trials. Convener Abdul Jabbar alleged that those patients had been duped into signing papers consenting to the drug trials. “Most victims couldn’t read English and were asked to sign papers in the language,” he said.

Meanwhile, India’s ruling Congress Party, which was in power in 1984, has set up a ministerial panel to re-examine compensation and criminal accountability issues.

It will also pursue the extradition from the US of former Union Carbide chairman Warren Anderson who was released from custody after the Bhopal accident and escorted out of the country within days like a VIP.