Socialist Worker

Multinational poisoned city

Issue No. 1814

DOW CHEMICALS is one of George Bush's favourite multinational companies. In June Bush awarded the company the National Medal of Technology. Dow Chemicals now owns a company called Union Carbide. Union Carbide was widely held to be responsible for the worst industrial massacre in history - the Bhopal disaster. The chemical industry is pushing to prevent the introduction of new health and safety laws at next week's Earth Summit.

THE DISASTER struck the Indian city of Bhopal at midnight on 2 December 1984. A massive gas cloud leaked from the US-owned Union Carbide pesticides plant, engulfing 500,000 desperately poor people. Within hours the historic city was turned into a huge gas chamber. An estimated 8,000 or more people choked and retched out their lives in Bhopal's alleys and streets.

They died in terror, their eyes, throats and lungs on fire as the gases stripped the linings from their lungs and they drowned in their own fluids. Things are nearly as bad in Bhopal today as they were on that night 18 years ago.

Thirty people still die every month from the effects of the gas. The death toll today stands at well over 20,000, more than six times the number killed on 11 September. Up to 150,000 Bhopalis suffer from chronic health problems because of the gas, including breathlessness, brain damage, cancers, mental illnesses and birth defects.

When Union Carbide finally left Bhopal in 1998, it left around 5,000 tonnes of its waste chemicals behind to leach into the soil and water around the factory. Blood The environmentalist group Greenpeace has declared the site a 'global toxic hotspot' but some 20,000 people still live near the factory - they are too poor to move away. A gas survivor, Ram Quari Bai, says, 'Diseases have got stuck to us like insects drinking our blood.

'When the gas came everything fell, and everything fell through our hands. And what are we left with? Not even our health.' The appalling misery was directly caused by the ruthless drive for profits. The disaster reveals the multinationals' racist double standards. It also shows the routine exploitation of workers that happens everywhere in the world.

Union Carbide produced a pesticide, MIC, that was so deadly when tested on rats that it refused to publish the results. But it chose to produce and store MIC at a plant in Bhopal with nearly 120,000 people living close by. The plant had a history of cost cutting.

In 1982 one worker was killed and 18 were injured. This prompted the trade union in the plant to put up posters warning about the dangers. Management responded by sacking the leaders and cutting costs still further. The workforce halved between 1980 and 1984. Maintenance supervisors were cut and safety training for workers was slashed from six months to 15 days.

The chemical was stored in quantities 130 times that permitted in Europe. Cooling systems meant to keep it stable were shut down five months before the disaster, to save between $10 and $30 a day. Vital gauges and indicators were defective and the flare tower meant to burn off gas emissions was not working when disaster hit. Local people were never even warned of the lethal gas leak because the safety siren had been turned off. But management did have prior knowledge of the dangers. In May 1982 a US safety audit found a total of 61 hazards, 30 of them major and 11 in the dangerous MIC units.

It warned of a 'higher potential for a serious incident or more serious consequences if an incident should occur'.

'Bhopal is everywhere'

THE CHEMICAL bosses are getting away with murder. On 24 May this year the bosses' CBI organisation applied to a Bhopal court to have outstanding charges against Warren Anderson, former chief executive of Union Carbide, dropped from 'culpable homicide' to 'negligence'. 'Culpable homicide' draws a penalty of ten years imprisonment. 'negligence' carries only two years in prison. If Warren is found guilty of negligence he cannot be extradited to India.

But the survivors' organisations in Bhopal have been fighting for 18 years and they are not giving up now. Bhopal campaigner Satinath Sarangi, along with Rashida Bi, recently ended 19 days on hunger strike in New Delhi against these moves.

She says, 'Because an exemplary punishment of Carbide/Dow would set limits on the conduct of other multinational corporations, and so affect their profits, the US administration has openly and blatantly pressured the Indian government to hinder the course of justice in Bhopal.' The Indian courts are due to rule on the dilution of the charges on 27 August, next Tuesday.

Activist Sathyu Sarangi said recently, 'Bhopal is like a window. You can see the world through it.' She is right. That's why the fight for justice for the victims of Bhopal has sparked solidarity round the world and is part of the growing international anti-capitalist movement.

Sathyu said, 'Today, wherever we may be, there are slow and silent Bhopals happening all around us. Every human body on the planet is contaminated with dioxin, the most potent man-made carcinogen known. When did we give big business the right to put dioxin in our bodies? We never did, of course - but now we must fight to be rid of it. We look forward to the day when communities will win back control of their environments, their health and what goes into their bodies. We believe that a millennium without Bhopals is possible. The change is happening every day. in every corner of the world communities and individuals are confronting giant corporations. And, increasingly, we are winning.' Solidarity action is being coordinated through the site.

Compensation of 5p a day

FOR 18 years the survivors have been waiting for proper medical care, for adequate compensation, and for justice from a company that has refused to admit any responsibility. Dow Chemicals is one of the world's biggest corporations, with the best lawyers and the most powerful high level government allies.

After the disaster Union Carbide sacked its workforce without redundancy pay. When the workers won a court ruling for compensation in 2000, Union Carbide launched a legal challenge.

Mehboob Bi lost eight members of her family, including her two month old baby and her husband who worked at the plant. She says, 'I lost my husband. I lost my house and property. I lost my money. look, look at my condition. Sometimes we sleep only with a glass of water. If my hands and feet work I earn and we eat our roti [bread] or else we eat nothing.' In 1989 the multimillion dollar company forged a 'settlement' with the Indian government, giving the survivors compensation of around $500 (£350) each. That's around 5p for every day since the disaster.

Kathy Hunt, Dow's public affairs spokesperson, stated, '$500 is plenty good enough for an Indian.' Bhopal ultimately cost Union Carbide only 30p a share. This fact was celebrated in its annual report after the settlement was agreed.

No one from the company has been prosecuted. The Indian courts issued an arrest warrant for Warren Anderson, a top Union Carbide executive - it has simply been ignored.

The company has consistently refused to help clear up the contamination it caused. A Dow executive even suggested that survivors' paltry compensation should be used for cleaning the area. The US India Business Council is an unaccountable club of 60 of the largest US corporations that lobby Indian government ministers.

In 2000 it warned the Indian government that a potential barrier to US investment was 'concerns about liability mechanisms in the event of a disaster'. In India the chemical industry is growing at five times the global rate. Bhopal could happen again.

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Sat 24 Aug 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1814
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