Bhopal gas tragedy lives on, 20 years later

Evidence of contaminated water in Indian city mounts.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Nearly 20 years after an accident at a Union Carbide chemical plant killed thousands here, there are signs that a second tragedy is in the making. New environmental studies indicate that tons of toxic material dumped at the old plant have now seeped into the groundwater, affecting a new generation of Bhopal citizens.

The Indian government - long criticized for its lax regulation of Union Carbide and reluctance to pursue legal claims - now says it's ready to hold parent company Dow Chemical liable for the ground contamination.

For many, the Bhopal litigation serves as a test case for India's relationship with foreign businesses and investors. But for the victims of Bhopal, the gas tragedy is a matter of justice, compensation, and safety - all of which, they say, has been a long time in coming.

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While Union Carbide settled a civil suit in 1989 by agreeing to pay victims a lump sum of $470 million, a criminal trial against the company and its top officials is entering its 15th year, with less than half of the few hundred witnesses having testified. And the compensation process has taken so long that the settlement fund has nearly doubled in value; Officials haven't decided how to dole out nearly $333 million in unplanned interest.

In the meantime, government inaction on water contamination may be affecting untold thousands who were seemingly left untouched by the poisonous gas accident of Dec. 3, 1984.

"Our state pollution control board in December filed a report that confirms that there is contamination of the groundwater, and we will give this to the Supreme Court to settle," says Babu Lal Gaur, state minister for rehabilitation of the Bhopal gas victims, in an interview with the Monitor.

He notes that these studies were kept under wraps by the previous Congress Party government, but that the new state government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, will pursue the case with vigor. "The Dow company, they are responsible for this, and the state government wants Dow to clean up, after the decision of our Supreme Court."

A Union Carbide spokesman says that the company and its sole shareholder, the Dow Chemical Company, cannot be held liable for any waste cleanup at the plant or any contamination of the ground water. "There is no legal foundation for application of liability," says John Musser, the Union Carbide spokesman, speaking from Midland, Mich., headquarters.

Union Carbide took "moral responsibility" for the tragedy, says Mr. Musser, but never had legal responsibility for the Bhopal plant, since that plant was operated by a separate Indian subsidiary, Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL).

At the time of the accident, Union Carbide owned 50.9 percent of UCIL's shares, but severed its relationship with UCIL in 1994. UCIL did some cleanup at the site, Musser says, "but did not complete the work," and the plant site was later bought by another Indian company, Everready Industries India Limited. Today, the plant site has been transferred to the legal responsibility of the state government itself, he says. "The chain of responsibility is very clear and Union Carbide has not been a party in that."

For Abdul Jabbar, a community activist here, a case establishing clear responsibility has been a long time in coming. Mr. Jabbar has been involved in the Bhopal gas victims' cause since that first night on Dec. 3, 1984, when he woke up to the sounds of screams on the street, and gathered up his family to flee.

"This tragedy is living on," says Jabbar, who runs a seamstress workshop for widows of gas victims. "The groundwater for 3 to 5 kilometers from the site is contaminated, and this comes 20 years after the fact. The state public health agency has conducted two studies proving the water is unfit for drinking, but still people use the hand pumps."

Jabbar says he believes that the previous Congress government withheld information about water contamination at the Union Carbide site because it was the Congress government that welcomed Union Carbide to Bhopal in 1969, and Congress led governments that regulated it thereafter. The current government's hands are not dirty, he adds, so they are happy to blame Congress and move on with the issue. Officials with the Congress Party did not return calls for this report.

The scientific evidence of water contamination is mounting. By 2002, a number of environmental and public interest groups had collected samples from the soil, groundwater, fruits, and vegetables, finding high levels of heavy metals such as nickel, chromium, mercury, and lead, along with other toxic materials such as dichlorobenzines, all of which were used at the Union Carbide plant.

Contamination levels in soil and water samples at the plant were more than 10 times higher than in surrounding areas, indicating that the plant was the source of the contamination. Mercury and lead contamination have even found their way into samples of breast milk.

There is one more cruel twist. Back in 1984, the wind direction carried the methyl isocyanate gas toward the south. But now, the contaminated groundwater is heading north, carrying the poisons to a completely new population.

Holding Dow Chemical responsible has its risks, of course. India's central government, led by the BJP, has opened its doors to foreign business, including dozens of new chemical factories scattered along the Arabian Sea coast, from Bombay to the southern tip of Kerala and up the east coast of Tamil Nadu.

Any new legal action in the 20-year-old Bhopal case could scare off foreign investors who might fear an unending barrage of litigation in the case of an accident. Some survivors here say that Indian regulations on industry remain lax and sporadic, and that a future Bhopal-style tragedy is still possible.

Down at Shahjahani Park - a small patch of grass from which tall mango trees grow - a meeting of old men and women promises to keep the struggle going.

Among them is Raisa Bi, one of more than 500,000 Bhopal residents who survived that night but continues to suffer from its effects. She works six days a week stitching clothes at the workshop run by Jabbar's group. Her disabled husband, himself a gas victim, cries every day she goes to work, she says. "He asks, 'How do I go on living my life like this?'"

While she is encouraged that the state government is now showing interest in water contamination, she believes that the only people who truly care about the Bhopal gas tragedy are those who have survived it.

"Those who are living out the consequences of the tragedy, they are the only ones who remember it," she says.

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