Cambridge's Policy Order on Bhopal an Admirable Step
The Bhopal Gas disaster 30 years on - a struggle against apathy, legal labyrinths and corporate evasion
Thirty years mark a generation according to many - there are generational shifts, generational memories and generational lessons. The industrial disaster in 1984 in Bhopal, India, also feels long-ago, not just one but several generations ago.
But it has been 30 years since the disaster happened. More precisely, on the night of Dec 2-3 when deadly MIC (methyl isocyanate) gas leaked from a Union Carbide plant and spread over the city, like a death shroud.
The statistics are chilling: close to 8000 dead within 3 days, and approximately 23000 deaths since. Over 120,000 people are permanently disabled and many more are unable to earn a living because of injuries suffered from the 1984 disaster. And then there is ongoing congenital malformations and developmental disabilities among the children of survivors.
This much we know - this much the world knows, more or less. But disasters and such horrific incidents have a tendency to numb us, to coax us to forget that they ever happened, that they really were as vicious as they are made out to be...Chernobyl, Fukushima, Tazreen, the tsunami, Rwanda, Bhopal. What remain are searing memories, iconic images, devastated people - and struggles for justice, which, in cases like in Bhopal have to fight constant forgetting, and fatigue among supporters. Yet, it is precisely the scale of injustice and the subsequent attempts of all parties involved to scuttle any chance of justice that keeps such struggles going.
Bhopal has seen more than its fair share of legal battles. It has had to fight against false and mischievous claims and a general apathy from the putative perpetrators, from the governments involved and from the legal system. From the ambulance-chasers who descended on Bhopal soon after the disaster to the latest battles in court, the struggle for a fair adjudication has dogged Bhopal all through.
What is instructive - in this and probably many other cases - is the obfuscations encountered when the battle has gone to the courts. As noted above, the world knows of certain facts: the number of deaths, the ownership of the plant (Union Carbide Corporation with over 50% of holdings) and the farce of the initial compensation. Yet, in fighting the legal battle in the United States, the courts ruled in one of the cases of fixing liability (the Janki Bai Sahu case) that, "Sahu and many others living near the Bhopal plant may well have suffered terrible and lasting injuries from a wholly preventable disaster for which someone is responsible. After nine years of contentious litigation and discovery, however, all that the evidence in this case demonstrates is that UCC is not that entity.” (emphasis mine)
Who exactly is that mysterious "someone" who is responsible? People died and are continuing to die but no one is guilty! Haven't we seen this time-and-again especially in the case of those marginalized and oppressed , and especially when the matter goes to the courts, which with their own logic and language of fairness and dispassionate arbitration let-off the guilty?
It is a lesson for struggles for justice everywhere which try to take on the powerful and their efforts to shush all resistance. That is why, for instance, the Bhopal struggle and the fight against the BP oil spill in US waters found common expression last year.
The corporations - UCC and then Dow - have spared no effort in passing the buck of who is ultimately responsible. Dow strenously denies that it took over the liabilities of UCC when that company became its wholly owned subsidiary.in 1999. UCC passes the buck off to UCIL (Union Carbide India Limited), the company that it formed to oversee and transact the India operations.
On many counts this is a classic case of differential powers at play, of differing leverage that countries have. Despite its much touted emerging superpower status, India has not been able to push the US government for speedy justice. Taking on a US multinational corporation takes might, and many nations have seen how tough a battle that can be. In more recent history, from the case of Latin America's "banana republics" to Chevron in Nigeria, corporations are extremely powerful bodies that seem to work with - and co-opt - the state anywhere. The Indian state has taken symbolic action now and then against Dow but never has it comprehensively gone after it.
It also bears mention in this case - as in many other - that those affected are often from economically weaker sections so every institution tries its best to further marginalize them, to push them away. Thus the struggle for Bhopal has always taken many meanings and has parallels for many global struggles. It is in this context that it is significant that the Cambridge (MA) City Council approved a policy order on Nov 24 2014, initiated by councilor Nadeem Mazen, to look into the investment the city has in Dow stocks.
Mazen feels that Cambridge can make a big difference by looking into the investment the city and also its major universities have in companies like Dow. “There is incredible devastation still at play (in Bhopal) simply because the proper steps have not been taken and that is troubling for all of us, especially if it is something we are complicit in," he said. The Policy Order can be viewed here.
The battle for justice in Bhopal will continue. The survivor groups are still very strong as is the support structure around them.
It will continue by undermining the basis of Dow's viability as a corporate entity and by calling the bluff on its many efforts to "greenwash" its activities.
It will also continue by building alliances everywhere and finding more common causes. Bhopal is not out there - it is all around us and we all live in Bhopal.
Umang Kumar is active in several Boston-area causes and also with the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB).