Fighting for Victims' Rights

Morehouse has battled for years over compensation for survivors of the Bhopal disaster. INTERVIEW: BHOPAL ACTIVIST

WARD MOREHOUSE looks down, rubbing his bristly white crew cut with both hands. He is sitting in the tiny offices of the Bhopal Action Resource Center, near the United Nations, amid banners, piles of paper, and a fax machine. It's mid-November and he is about to leave for India, for the fourth time since 1984, to mark the sixth anniversary (Dec. 3) of the leak of lethal gas from the Union Carbide India Limited plant at Bhopal. Once again there isn't much to celebrate.

``The condition of the vast majority of these people,'' he says about the survivors of the 1984 gas leak, ``continues to be as it was the day after the disaster - one of great suffering.'' The methyl isocyanate gas, a chemical used to make pesticides, killed at least 2,500 people, most of them poor residents of the shantytowns around the Carbide plant. More than 1,000 more have died since, and many thousands were disabled.

Academic-turned-activist

But Mr. Morehouse's years of advocacy on behalf of Bhopal victims, along with the efforts of others at the Bhopal Action Resource Center (BARC), haven't been wasted.

``They have been one of the mainstays in the United States that this incident should not be forgotten,'' says Rev. J. Andy Smith III, director of social and ethical responsibility in investment for the American Baptist Home Mission Society.

The $470 million settlement between the Indian government and Union Carbide Corporation, the United States parent of the Indian subsidiary, has been contested in India's Supreme Court. Several victims groups, including BARC, have opposed the deal because they say it absolves Union Carbide of criminal liability and provides inadequate compensation.

Morehouse is an academic turned activist. He has published scholarly articles on the social effects of technological change and has run international education programs for the New York State public school system. He remains a research associate at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. Much of his work has focused on India.

``I left the academic world,'' he says, ``because I was getting impatient with the rather medieval character of university faculties and this enormous gulf between the world of thought and action.'' Since the mid-1970s he has been president of the Council for International and Public Affairs, a nonprofit research and education organization.

Morehouse and another Council staffer, David Dembo, founded BARC in December 1985 along with Clarence Dias, an Indian attorney who heads an organization of third-world lawyers and law professors. BARC is operated by the council, which raises its $500,000 annual budget through publishing ventures.

The founders wanted to provide a conduit of information about the victims to the US and counter Carbide's public relations apparatus. It hasn't been easy.

``It's very depressing to be up against a huge corporation that does actively spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on PR campaigning about Bhopal,'' says Mr. Dembo. ``When you're losing major battles and winning some smaller ones, it's a very frustrating thing.''

BARC has, for instance, tried to dispute Union Carbide's claim that the leak was an act of sabotage - a theory that would free the corporation from any liability for the disaster. The Indian government says lax safety standards and poor plant maintenance caused the leak.

BARC has published books and reports, held press conferences, and brought Bhopal victims to the US both to keep the story alive, and to promote their view of the victims' situation. Says Wil Lepkowski, senior editor of Chemical & Engineering News and a journalist who has written frequently about Bhopal and its aftermath, BARC ``provides the only main alternative to Carbide's information and publicity.''

$12 monthly stipends

But a Union Carbide official says BARC's work isn't just an alternative. It's also often wrong.

``We have found that they have really been manipulating, distorting, and erring with information for a long time,'' says Union Carbide spokesman Robert Berzok. A recent BARC book on Carbide's environmental record, says Mr. Berzok, ``just seems to impute evil to us, to corporations that operate around the world.''

Reporter Lepkowski agrees that the book, ``Abuse of Power,'' is a ``polemic against Union Carbide.'' He says Morehouse and the other BARC activists can't believe the corporation can do any good at all, and he worries that their convictions color the information that BARC disseminates.

But he also says that BARC's bias isn't any more self-serving than Union Carbide's.

Even though many Bhopal victims are benefiting from a $12 monthly stipend that the government began distributing in June, while the settlement dispute creeps through the courts, Morehouse is openly discouraged.

``I feel really sad.... Here was an opportunity for the great institutions of society to play a constructive role ... to mend the terrible hurts that that disaster inflicted on tens of thousands of innocent people and what have we had? A true travesty of justice,'' he says.

BARC wants, according to research associate Lucinda Wykle, ``additional financial support for the victims from Union Carbide and for, in some way, Union Carbide to be held accountable for what happened.''

The question of financial compensation for the survivors is complicated by the economic differences between India and the US. When the $470 million settlement was announced, the Indian government said a family of someone killed in the leak might receive the rupee equivalent of $13,200. That's a long way from the million-dollar awards that sometimes follow airplane crashes in the US.

Union Carbide officials have long asserted that Indian standards should dictate the compensation. But echoing the long debate that has surrounded this issue, Ms. Wykle says, ``I have a hard time saying a life in the US is worth more than a life in India.''

As far as BARC's work is concerned, Dembo suggests the effort hasn't been fruitless. ``The overall idea that Bhopal hasn't been forgotten is something that keeps us moving forward.''

They apparently take some solace from a few words by Czech writer Milan Kundera that appear on the copyright page of one of their reports about Bhopal: ``[T]he struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.''

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