As survivors mark the 30th anniversary of the Bhopal gas disaster, shareholders in the US-based chemical company held liable by the Indian courts say justice must finally be done.
For three decades, campaign groups have been demanding that the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) and parent company Dow Chemical be brought to justice for what is the worst industrial disaster in history.
Now, as the annual torch rallies, protests and vigils begin in Bhopal, Dow’s shareholders have tabled resolutions calling for management to accept responsibility for the gas leak, to fully compensate victims and to pay for a full clean-up of the area, which remains contaminated and dangerous.
Thousands of people died in just one night on 2 December, 1984 when the toxic gas methyl isocynanate leaked from a UCC-owned pesticides factory in Bhopal.
In total, more than half a million people were exposed to the gas. Death toll estimates range from 8,000 to 16,000, and some 40,000 people were left seriously ill or permanently disabled.
A second disaster was caused when thousands of tonnes of toxic waste, dumped at the abandoned Union Carbide Corporation (UCC)-owned factory, contaminated the local water supply.
This contamination poses an ongoing threat to the health of those living nearby, according to Amnesty International.
The Bhopal Medical Appeal says this has caused a high number of birth defects in the area.
Dow representatives have repeatedly failed to attend court in India to face charges of culpable homicide not amounting to murder.
Dow, which completed its takeover of UCC in 2001, claims it has no corporate responsibility for the disaster.
“Dow Chemical are saying they bought the assets of UCC but somehow they didn’t buy the liabilities, and that’s quite simply laughable,” said Simon Billenness, who serves on the Committee on Socially Responsible Investments of the (UUA), shareholders behind one of the resolutions tabled this week.
Dow has consistently refused to pay to clear toxic waste from the site in Bhopal, or to pay further compensation to victims.
It has stated that the US$470 million compensation paid by Union Carbide in a 1989 civil settlement was final.
But those campaigning for justice say this sum was “inadequate”, as it wasn’t based on the true number of victims. Based on the Indian government’s own figures, they say, the settlement should have been over US$8 billion.
Colin Toogood, Campaigns Manager at the Bhopal Medical Appeal, said Dow’s refusal to take responsibility for Bhopal makes its shareholders “very nervous.”
“Dow’s refusal to settle the case is now starting to harm their business interests.” he told Equal Times.
“India is a huge emerging market, which is now at the stage where all the multinational companies are desperate to invest as much as they can.”
“Whenever they try to build a new facility, or form a new partnership with an Indian company, there are protests. We’ve found all sorts of examples where their business ventures in India have just collapsed.”
In the tabled resolutions, shareholders UUA and Calvert Investment say the CEO of Dow Chemical, Andrew N. Liveris, is “mismanaging” the Bhopal case.
Billenness said shareholders see a “considerable risk” to the company if the case remains unresolved.
“By stonewalling, by refusing to appear in Indian court, by refusing to take responsibility or figure out how to reach a fair and equitable settlement in this case, the CEO is mismanaging this liability,” Billenness said.
“This is racking up losses in terms of damage to the company’s reputation and more importantly, the inability to invest in Indian markets.”
On the anniversary of the disaster, Bhopal is again firmly in the public eye.
As one of the resolutions notes, the release this year of new feature film A Prayer for Rain, based on the Bhopal disaster and starring Martin Sheen as the Union Carbide CEO, “further increases the visibility of the Bhopal disaster” and reinforces the public’s association of it with Dow Chemical.
Shareholders and campaigners alike have said Dow’s problems will not go away unless it takes responsibility for Bhopal. But earlier this year. Dow successfully blocked a similar motion tabled by shareholders.
“The question we’re asking is, at what point is the damage to the company from refusing to settle this case going to cost more than a settlement?” said Billenness.