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Bhopal tragedy: Beyond the gas

Pratap Ravindran

PUNE, Dec. 6

DECEMBER 3, the day on which, 18 years ago, over 40 tonnes of the highly poisonous methyl isocyanate gas leaked out of the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, killing 80,000 people in three days and over 20,000 more subsequently, passed like any other in India.

The mainstream media in the country reported the Centre's `concern', as expressed in its mid-year economic review, about the rising fiscal deficit and the capital market indices dropped because of profit-booking by some institutional investors and operators. In short, business as usual with the bourses whipsawed by fear and greed...

It took a group of socially responsible investments funds in the US to advise Dow Chemical Company, which bought Union Carbide in February 2001, to address the ongoing economic, health and environmental liabilities arising out of the Bhopal gas tragedy.

The investors, Trillium Asset Management, Domini Social Investments, the Calvert group and others, seized the opportunity presented by a coincident two-day Salomon Smith Barney Chemical Conference in New York, to send a letter to Dow's CEO, Mr Michael Parker, and the company's Chairman, Mr William Stavropoulos, exhorting them to "continue dialogue with representatives of Bhopal citizens groups, to take their claims seriously, and to work towards a mutually acceptable solution".

An article titled `Investors urge Dow Chemical to take responsibility for Bhopal disaster' by Mr Tim Edwards available on www.bhopal.net quotes Mr Steve Lippman of Trillium Asset Management as saying: "On the eighteenth anniversary of arguably the world's largest industrial disaster, and at a time when the public has never been more concerned about corporate responsibility, Dow must address the ongoing problems of the citizens of Bhopal where, even after all these years, child born to survivors suffer debilitating illnesses, and mothers exposed to contaminated drinking water carry mercury in their breast milk".

It may be recalled in this context that Dow, the world's largest chemical manufacturer, had settled, in January, asbestos lawsuits filed against Union Carbide in the US as part of the liabilities that it had assumed when it bought the company — but has not accepted responsibility for the pending liabilities arising out of the Bhopal tragedy.

Further, Dow has adopted the position that no legal issues remain outstanding with regard to the Bhopal disaster and that it has satisfied the Indian courts in this respect — even though the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has announced its intention to name Dow Chemical as accused number 10 and the Madhya Pradesh Government has said that it will ask the courts to compel Dow Chemical to pick up the bill for cleaning up the toxins in the soil and the ground water around the abandoned Union Carbide factory.

Meanwhile, according to reports available on www.bhopal.net, internal documents of Union Carbide brought on record in the course of the ongoing class action suit filed by Bhopal survivors in the Federal Southern District court of New York, have revealed that Union Carbide and its former CEO, Mr Warren Anderson (against whom an arrest warrant on charges of culpable homicide has been outstanding since 1992), had knowingly deployed "unproven technology" in the Bhopal plant to cut costs.

Union Carbide, in 1990, had commissioned the Indian National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) to prepare a report on the contamination from the abandoned plant. The company had then used the NEERI report to back its claim that no dangerous contamination had taken place. But, the internal documents show that Union Carbide itself did not find the data in the NEERI report credible and that it conducted its own investigation, which threw up proof of massive contamination. Union Carbide did not make its findings public.

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