25 years later, Dow and India still failing the people of Bhopal

December 1, 2009

By Anna Phelan, Amnesty International USA’s Business and Economic Relations Group

Last week President Obama and Prime Minister Singh met to discuss U.S.-India relations; it was the first state visit of President Obama’s administration. According to news reports, the two heads of state discussed working together as natural allies on intelligence issues as well as energy security, clean energy, agriculture and climate change issues. Did President Obama use this opportunity to also address human rights concerns in India? And in particular, did they discuss Bhopal?

Twenty-five years ago, a toxic gas leak at Union Carbide’s pesticide plant in Bhopal, India caused more than 7,000 immediate deaths. Since then, 25,000 people have died and 100,000 suffer from ongoing health problems. Let me be more specific. The survivors and their children, a second generation of survivors, live with debilitating illnesses including cancer and birth defects. The plant site has not been cleaned up. Toxic wastes continue to pollute the environment and ground water. No one has been held accountable, despite years of legal proceedings in both the Indian and U.S. court systems. In short, survivors have been denied adequate compensation, medical care, rehabilitation of disaster site, and justice.

In India last week, the biggest daily newspapers — The Deccan Herald, The Telegraph, and The Times of India — all reported on the Indian government’s flawed decision to mark the 25th anniversary by opening the Bhopal disaster site to the public.

Government officials claimed they wanted to:

help people to get rid of apprehension and misconceptions that chemical waste lying inside the factory is still harmful or that the chemicals are polluting the water in nearby localities.

Take a look at this recent footage of the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal:

Bhopal survivors and their supporters were outraged by the publicity stunt. And rightly so! Both the Indian government and the companies involved, including U.S.-based Dow Chemical which purchased Union Carbide in 2001, have failed to release information on the toxicity of the gas leaked, failed to conduct research on the long-term health effects of the leak, and failed to clean up the site. In fact in March, the BBC’s Science and Environment reported on Bhopal health effects, that:

The Indian government stopped its research into the medical effects of the gas without explanation 15 years ago.

Dow Chemical just outright denies responsibility for the consequences of its wholly owned subsidiary, Union Carbide Corporation. The company was happy to absorb Union Carbide’s assets, but not it’s liabilities.

It’s time for India and Dow to stop shirking responsibility for the ongoing contamination of the site. Today a new report is being released by the Bhopal Medical Appeal and the local Sambhavna clinic, demonstrating that there are still high levels of toxic chemicals in the drinking water supply in 15 communities near the old Union Carbide pesticide plant. Will the report be enough to get Bhopal on the top of their agendas?

Help the Bhopalis reach a silver anniversary worth celebrating, not one defined by a legacy of neglect and inaction. Tell Prime Minister Singh and Dow’s CEO Andrew Liveris that it’s time to end 25 years of injustice.