from Sunday Herald, 07 December 2014, from Bhopal
The former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, put pressure on the Indian government to agree a legal settlement that let the US chemical company, Union Carbide, off the hook for the 25,000 people killed by the toxic gas disaster in Bhopal 30 years ago.
A letter released under freedom of information legislation reveals that the late Indian steel magnate, J R D Tata, wrote secretly to the Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, in May 1988 conveying Kissinger’s concern about the delays in reaching agreement on the compensation to be paid to victims. At the time Kissinger was an adviser to Union Carbide and other major US corporations.
Kissinger thought the company was prepared to make a “fair and generous settlement” which “would effectively counter any attack or criticism” because it was more than interim amounts suggested by Indian courts, Tata wrote. In February 1989, the Indian government agreed a settlement for $470 million.
This has since been widely derided as completely inadequate given the horrendous scale and persisting legacy of the disaster. Crucially, as part of the deal, all charges against Union Carbide and its managers were dropped – though this was subsequently overturned by India’s Supreme Court in 1991.
The letter, headed “strictly personal and confidential” and obtained by Bhopal activists, is important because it confirms what many have long suspected: that the US and Tata were complicit in allowing Union Carbide to evade responsibility for the world’s worst industrial accident on 3 December 1984.
Activists have also released two diplomatic cables from the online campaign group, Wikileaks, showing that Kissinger helped build the pesticide plant that showered Bhopal with poisonous gas. When he was US Secretary of State in 1976 he facilitated a bank loan of $1.3 million to Union Carbide to cover 45 per cent of the cost of building the plant.
Five groups representing Bhopal survivors have now written to President Barack Obama criticising the “central role played by the US government in the creation of the disaster in Bhopal and in the denial of justice to the victims”. They accuse the US administration of protecting corporate profits over the lives and health of ordinary people.
In 2001 Union Carbide was taken over by the US chemical giant, Dow, which is now worth $58 billion. Both companies have repeatedly refused to answer summons to appear in courts in India to answer charges against them, most recently on 12 November.
“Obama made British Petroleum pay $20 billion for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill,” said Balkrishna Namdeo of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Nirashrit Pensionbhogee Sangharsh Morcha. “We would like to ask him how his conscience allows him to support two US corporations that paid a tiny fraction of that amount for two thousand times more fatalities.”
The human rights organisation Amnesty International’s secretary general, Salil Shetty, also called on Obama to act. The compensation granted in 1989 was just 14 per cent what was asked for and averaged less than a thousand dollars per person, he argued.
“This was a woefully inadequate amount which, I think, exposes a shocking level of indifference and contempt towards the victims in India,” he said. Union Carbide and Dow had been given a haven from justice in the US and displayed an “arrogant contempt” for the Indian judicial system.
The two companies were the focus of a series of angry protests by thousands on the streets of Bhopal last week to mark the 30th anniversary. Huge models of their corporate logos were spat on, doused in petrol then burnt before cheering crowds outside the wall of the derelict and overgrown pesticide plant.
“We wanted to hit them where it hurt most,” said leading Bhopal campaigner, Sathyu Sarangi. “They have done huge damage to human health and the planet and have been getting away with it.”
He estimated that the $3.2 billion compensation settlement agreed by a Dow subsidiary in 1998 for health problems caused by silicone breast implants in the US was 100 times more than that given to Bhopal survivors. Dow had also accepted liability for Union Carbide asbestos claims in the US, he argued.
Sarangi lambasted Dow for “double-standards” and “environmental racism” because the value it put on lives in India was much lower than on lives in the US. He also accused the company of employing “dirty tricks” to defend its interests.
In another loud and furious protest in Bhopal last week, activist groups accompanied by drum rolls named and shamed Dow, Union Carbide, Tata and more than 70 leading industrialists, officials, judges and others for failing to deliver justice to Bhopal survivors.
The accident started when a lethal gas used for making insecticides, methyl isocyanate, leaked from a tank at the Union Carbide plant, which is surrounded by densely packed housing. The regional government put the immediate death toll at 3,787, but survivors say the real number was more like 8,000.
The gas seared the lungs, and burnt the eyes of anyone exposed. In the three decades since, campaigners say the death toll has reached 25,000 “and counting” because of an epidemic of diseases caused by lingering water and soil contamination around the plant.
As many as 150,000 are still battling chronic illnesses, with tuberculosis and cancers “rampant”, they say. There are estimated to be 50,000 still living in the vicinity of the plant whose groundwater is contaminated by toxic chemicals and metals that have leached from hazardous waste dumps.
Young children born disabled or ill along with those made sick from the lingering contamination line the hallway of the Chingari clinic in Bhopal. It regularly sees 200 children, and has another 500 on its waiting list.
The clinic’s manager, Tarun Thomas, says that new children are needing help every day. “Dow is washing its hands of the whole thing,” he said. “Look at these children and how they are suffering because Dow refuses to take responsibility.”
The campaign against Dow has been backed by a motion lodged in the Scottish Parliament by the SNP MSP Bill Kidd. A delegation of six trade unions from Scotland was in Bhopal last week to show solidarity with the survivors, carrying messages of support from Glasgow, Edinburgh, Stirling and Falkirk councils.
Dow described the 1984 gas release as a “terrible tragedy” which should never be forgotten. “Let’s also not forget the facts or rewrite history,” company spokesman Scot Wheeler told the Sunday Herald.
“The facts are that Dow was never in Bhopal nor is there any assumed liability as misrepresented by some groups. It is important to note that Dow never owned or operated the plant,” he said.
“Dow acquired the shares of Union Carbide Corporation more than 16 years after the tragedy, and 10 years after the $470 million settlement agreement - paid by Union Carbide Corporation and Union Carbide India, Limited - was approved after review by the Indian Supreme Court in 1991.”
He added: “As Dow never owned or operated the Bhopal facility, any efforts to directly involve Dow in legal proceedings in India concerning the 1984 Bhopal tragedy are inappropriate, misguided and without merit.”
Bhopal: evading the law over the decades
3 December 1984: A tank full of 40,000 kilogrammes of highly toxic methyl isocyanate at Union Carbide pesticide plant explodes and showers the city of Bhopal, killing at least 3,800 people within hours.
9 February 1989 – Bhopal’s Chief Judicial Magistrate issues a warrant of arrest without bail against Warren Anderson for repeatedly ignoring summons.
14 February 1989: Indian Supreme Court approves $470 million settlement between Indian government and Union Carbide, causing civil and criminal legal actions to be dropped.
3 October 1991: The Indian Supreme Court agrees to reopen criminal cases against Union Carbide.
1 February 1992: Bhopal court says Warren Anderson has ignored four summonses and is “absconding from justice”.
26 November 1996: Drinking from community wells is banned after they were found to be contaminated by Union Carbide chemicals.
6 February 2001: Union Carbide is taken over by the US chemical giant, Dow.
28 August 2002: Bhopal’s Chief Judicial Magistrate demands the immediate extradition of Warren Anderson from the US to face charges of culpable homicide.
22 November 2002: Documents released in a New York court case reveal that Union Carbide found contamination in soil and water around its Bhopal plant, but covered up the findings.
6 January 2005: Bhopal’s Chief Judicial Magistrate summons Dow to appear in court to explain why its subsidiary, Union Carbide, had failed to face charges.
7 June 2010: Eight former Union Carbide managers in India are convicted for negligence leading to the Bhopal disaster.
29 September 2014: Warren Anderson dies in the US, still a fugitive from justice.
12 November 2014: Dow again fails to appear in court in response to another summons from Bhopal’s Chief Judicial Magistrate.
3 December 2014: Thousands of protestors take to the streets of Bhopal for 30th anniversary rallies demanding justice from Dow.