Dedicated to Justice for Bhopal
Emily Gayong Setton had not been born on December 2, 1984, when more than 35 tons of toxic gases leaked into the night air over Bhopal, India, from a pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide. The leak immediately killed 7,000 people, and 15,000 more died in the aftermath. But the 22-year-old Amnesty International activist, formerly the co-president of Columbia University’s AIUSA student chapter and student area coordinator for New York, has made the fight for justice in Bhopal central to her life. Setton says she first became aware of the magnitude of the catastrophe during a visit to Bhopal in 2006 when she heard her friend’s uncle retell the chilling story of the disaster
For more than two decades, the Indian government and the Madhya Pradesh state government largely abandoned their responsibilities to press for a cleanup or to ensure justice and redress for Union Carbide’s victims. Union Carbide paid $470 million in a settlement endorsed by India’s Supreme Court in 1989, but individual compensation payments have been inadequate, delayed or unpaid, and the government has rejected large numbers of claims. Meanwhile, the disaster continues to claim victims among the survivors’ children, who have suffered high rates of birth defects, and the more than 20,000 people who have continued to drink water laced with the abandoned plant’s toxic waste.
Appalled that the American firm Union Carbide, acquired by Dow Chemical in 2001, was doing virtually nothing to clean up the lethal waste, Setton returned to the United States determined to help win redress for the people of Bhopal.
win redress for the people of Bhopal. “It’s enraging that an American corporation can get away with one of the world’s worst industrial disasters just because it’s in the developing world,” Setton says. “That Dow Chemical, by dangling promises of investment to the Indian government, has been able to do so shows how much we value profit over justice.”
Setton joined AIUSA’s Corporate Action Network (CAN) in 2006, the year after AI released a groundbreaking report on the Bhopal disaster and began to campaign on the issue. Setton helped organize protests, teach-ins, shareholder actions, hunger strikes, film screenings, embassy visits and, of course, the effort to send thousands of letters and postcards to both Dow Chemical and the Indian government.
Soon after joining the network, Setton became a CAN coordinator and forged a relationship with Students for Bhopal, leading to the formation of the New York Coalition for Justice in Bhopal. The coalition organized solidarity actions, including a protest at an award ceremony to honor Dow Chemical CEO Andrew N. Liveris for “global citizenship.” The following year, Setton traveled again to Bhopal to research her senior thesis on the Bhopal movement. She visited the abandoned factory where she saw “a chemical wasteland” of former disposal ponds. She also met with state government officials, including the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, who denied any outstanding problems. Most significantly, she met with the survivors themselves, who shared their struggle.
“I went to Bhopal to discover how international supporters help Bhopalis in their struggle for justice,” she says. “Instead, I found that the strength and leadership of this movement comes from the survivors themselves. The Bhopalis have shown me what a truly egalitarian international movement should look like.”
Setton, who graduated from Columbia in 2008, is currently teaching human rights advocacy to youth activists in Northern Thailand. She has remained active in the Bhopal struggle, serving as American protest coordinator to support the 2008 March to Delhi. The epic 500- mile march and 130-day sit-in by more than 130 survivors of the disaster began on February 27 and ended on August 8, when the Indian government announced it would establish an “empowered commission” on Bhopal and take legal action on the civil and criminal liabilities of Union Carbide and Dow Chemical.
Setton believes it was the combined pressure of the survivors’ march and international support for the movement that forced the government to act. It was a victory, she says, but she believes Amnesty International has a vital role to play to ensure that the Indian government follows through on its commitments. “The combined power of dedicated local activists in Bhopal and international pressure to amplify their voices,” she says, “will ultimately be unstoppable.”