bhopal 21 years on
Progress, economic growth, increased opportunity.
That is what the multinational companies promise when they establish their factories in the low-wage countries of Asia.
Actually the companies are searching the world looking for super profits. These are to be found in places that have been colonised or re-colonised and survive under the rule of local administrations and the WTO.
Today India is called one of the great tiger economies. Many companies are relocating there. The promised progress, economic growth and increased opportunity are not yet apparent for the 500 million or so Indian people who are homeless or living in slums with incomes
below US $2 per day, but the super profits for the capitalists are in the bank already. In 1976 the big capitalist companies were just starting to
relocate some of their big factories in Asia.
union carbide tragedy
Union Carbide set up a factory in Bhopal to manufacture pesticides. Progress, economic
growth and increased opportunity were the promise for the inhabitants of the large city in
central India, located on two lakes on the side of some very pretty mountains. Union Carbide produced very dangerous chemicals, including methyl isocyanate (MIC), an extremely toxic substance that has to be kept cool and can explode in contact with water.
The factory was built with the latest technology, except that Union Carbide saw no need to maintain costly safety systems that can often slow down production.
There was also no thought about the safety of the population of Bhopal, living just metres outside the factory gates, as the plant was conveniently located well inside the urban area. The factory brought employment to the people of Bhopal. The company felt no other duty to them and just took the super profits home. By 1982 the workers at Union Carbide had became unionised and often complained about the poor working conditions and poor safety systems. In September 1982 a safety audit showed major safety problems that
could cause a disaster. Local publications publicise the dangers, but the company took no action to possible industrial disasters. By 1984 however Union Carbide was facing serious
competition in the pesticide industry, and began a process of downsizing and cost cutting. In October 1984 they reduced production and sacked staff (including safety monitors). They reduced training, and they turned off the cooling system for the MIC tank. Turning off the cooling system saved Union Carbide and their shareholders almost $50 per day. It also let the MIC overheat.
On 3 December 1984, a night-time cleaning operation by an understaffed, under-trained and under-equipped maintenance crew went wrong. More than 27 tonnes of MIC escaped into the night air and flowed into Bhopal.
Three days and nights of panic followed and 8,000 people, mostly industrial workers and their families, died of lung failure. This is the world’s worst industrial accident, and the worst corporate
murder ever committed.
The Union Carbide managers ran to the United
States, where they remain unpunished. Twenty-two years after the poisoning of Bhopal the death toll is shocking: More than 20,000 are dead from the effects of the gas. At least 150,000 inhabitants of Bhopal are living and dying from the chronic diseases caused by MIC. Many children are born with defects caused by
their parents’ exposure to the gas. It is thought that more than 500,000 people were exposed to the gas and may develop or pass on diseases because of it.
Union Carbide refused to issue doctors with the exact chemical composition of the gases to protect its ‘trade secrets’, and declared bankruptcy in India. Union Carbide fought all compensation cases, eventually being
forced to pay US $470 Million. This money has mainly been used by a department set up by the Indian govincluding the establishment of five hospitals, at which most of the victims cannot get treatment. The relatives of the people who were killed directly by the gas received only a maximum of US $500 after some years of court cases. Today the factory sits empty and contaminated, polluting the water table of the population living in the area around the factory, who are too poor to afford bottled water.
Union Carbide merged with Dow Chemicals in 2001. Dow is a company with extensive knowledge of chemicals including their uses and misuses. They were the manufacturers of Agent Orange that was used by US forces during the Vietnam war. Dow has refused to recognise any claims against Union Carbide by the survivors in Bhopal.
In February 2006, the Bhopalis’ padyatra, or long
march for justice, began. A group of survivors from the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal marched to Delhi to demand recognition, compensation and legal action against the Union Carbide managers.
Their demands were:
Set up a National Commission on Bhopal;
Provide Safe Drinking Water;
Prosecute Union Carbide and Anderson;
Make Dow Clean Up and Pay;
Blacklist Dow and Union Carbide;
and Remember Bhopal
Then, in early April, survivor-groups stepped up the campaign to win compensation and commenced a hunger-strike that would end in victory on 17 April 2006.
Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, promised to clean up the disused chemical factory, provide fresh drinking water for the local people and build a £13 million memorial to the dead.
He fell short, however, of pledging to prosecute Dow Chemicals or Union Carbide’s former chief executive, Warren Anderson, in order to preserve India’s business prospects.
www.bhopal.org or www.bhopal.net
National Tertiary Education Union
AAWL Information Convenor