This week, India’s Supreme Court convicted eight former executives of Union Carbide India Limited–a subsidiary of the American company Union Carbide, now owned by Dow Chemical Company–of negligence in the Bhopal gas leak, which exposed at least 500,000 Indians to 40 tons of toxic methyl isocyanate gas. The leak, which is considered “the world’s worst industrial disaster” killed at least 3,000 people instantly and thousands more after being exposed to contaminated air and water; government agencies estimate a total death toll of 15,000 lives. The eight executives (one of whom passed away before the conviction) were sentenced to two years in prison and fined Rs. 100,000 (about $2,100). What is perhaps even more shocking than these seemingly lenient convictions is the timeframe–the court’s decision arrives more than a quarter century after the Bhopal gas leak, which occurred in December 1984.
Today, over 400 tons of hazardous waste remain buried at the site of the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, which is now owned by the Indian government. A large slum now borders the 11-acre site; the informal housing settlement grew rapidly after the disaster, drawing poor people seeking cheap land, unaware of the long-term impacts of the gas leak. In an open pit near the factory’s wall, where workers once dumped toxic sludge, children now swim in the “pond” on hot days. During the monsoon season, rising water levels cause the pit to overflow into the neighboring slum’s streets and alleyways.
Although the government still denies the lasting impacts of the Bhopal disaster, activists paint an ugly picture of thirty-year-old women going through menopause, babies born with cleft lips and twisted limbs, and children with damaged brains, who are unable to speak or walk properly. In 1989, the Union Carbide company was able to reach an out-of-court settlement, avoiding legal ramifications by paying $470 million to victims (each of whom received about $550). Now, the Indian Parliament is considering the 2010 Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill, which would cap the maximum reparations for a nuclear accident at Rs. 500 crore (about $107 million). If such a bill passes, who will remember the victims of Bhopal and the innumerable social and ecological damages caused by the gas leak? This bill–like the United States’ Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which places a $75 million cap on oil spill reparations–protects corporate interests, rather than safeguarding the people and the environment from immense tragedies like the Bhopal gas leak.
Photo courtesy of Ascanio Vitale