Crimes of Bhopal and the Global Campaign for Justice

Article excerpt

Crimes of Bhopal

ON THE NIGHT OF DECEMBER 2 TO 3, 1984, THE CHEMICAL DISASTER AT THE UNION Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, left a half million people surrounded by deadly poison clouds while they slept. The disaster killed more than 8,000 people in its immediate wake (Morehouse and Subramaniam, 1985). The death toll today is well over 20,000 and rising (Dinham, 2002), with over 30 survivors dying every month (Madhya Pradesh Government, 2001). Today, well over 120,000 survivors are in desperate need of medical attention for chronic exposure-induced diseases (Dinham, 2002), including breathlessness, persistent cough, early-age cataracts, loss of appetite, menstrual irregularities, recurrent fever, back and body aches, loss of sensation in limbs, fatigue, weakness, anxiety, and depression. An overwhelming majority of the exposed people earned their living through hard labor. Thousands of families are on the brink of starvation because the breadwinners are dead or too sick to work.

Union Carbide simply abandoned the factory. Today, over 20,000 people in the surrounding area rely on drinking water contaminated with chemicals that have seeped into the ground water from the plant, causing cancer and other diseases (Labunska et al., 1999). Union Carbide's own report on the contamination indicates that over one-third of the factory premises is hazardously contaminated. A recent report of the Fact Finding Mission on Bhopal (1999) shows that the poisons in the groundwater are present in high concentrations in the breast milk of women in the surrounding communities. Union Carbide has yet to pay for containing the toxic groundwater, rehabilitating the degraded land, or arranging an alternate supply of drinking water.

Corporate Crimes

There is substantial evidence that Union Carbide, with complete control over the pesticide factory in Bhopal, was deliberately negligent in the factory's location, design, operation, and maintenance. Two years before the disaster, the corporation's safety experts warned in a confidential business memo of a "potential for the release of toxic materials." Warren Anderson, the company's chairman, and other senior executives ignored the warning and went ahead with reducing plant personnel, shutting down vital safety systems, and keeping people in the neighborhood in the dark about the deadly chemicals stored, used, and produced in the factory. Less than three months before the disaster, an internal Union Carbide memo warned of a "runaway reaction that could cause a catastrophic failure of the storage tanks holding the poisonous (methyl isocyanate) gas" at Union Carbide's Institute, West Virginia, plant. This warning was not shared with the management, let alone with operators of the Bhopal facility (Jones, 1988; Agarwal and Tandon, 1985; Bidwai, 1985; International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, 1985; Pesticide Action Network UK, n.d.; Chouhan, 1994).

Three days after the disaster, Anderson, on a PR visit to Bhopal, was arrested along with other officials and soon released on bail. He was then escorted to New Delhi on a special government aircraft and allowed to leave the country. He never came back. Neither did any representative from Union Carbide Corporation.

In January 1987, the Indian government's counsels for the prosecution, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), charged Warren Anderson, the corporation, and nine other Union Carbide subsidiaries and officials with manslaughter, grievous assault, and other serious offenses that were punishable by over 10 years of imprisonment and fines. In 1992, Union Carbide Corporation and former chairman Warren Anderson were proclaimed "absconders" by a judgment of the Bhopal District Court for their failure to appear to face criminal charges (Morehouse, 1994).

Fifteen years later, India's prosecutors have had a rethink. On May 24, 2002, in a small dusty courtroom in Bhopal, the CBI presented an innocuous-looking four-page application before the Chief Judicial Magistrate with the purpose of diluting the charges they had earlier pressed against Union Carbide and Warren Anderson in the criminal case on the disaster in Bhopal (London Free Press, 2002). …