Wednesday, 11 October 2006
Dull side of shining India
Brian Allan Bergmark
Regan Whitmer Johnson
The pesticide plant responsible for the 1984 Bhopal disaster continues to trample on the basic human rights of local communities
Union Carbide Factory
Warning on exterior wall
Dow Chemical now owns
Statue of pain
Besides the accidental release of 40 tonnes of poisonous MIC gas in 1984, the plant has been polluting with its routine practices. By-products are dumped in ‘solar evaporation ponds’ across the railroad tracks from the factory. Toxins in the by-products seep into the soil
The marchers were greeted by threats and abuse from the police. They went on a hunger strike in Delhi before the central government gave in to their most basic demands of beginning the bureaucratic steps towards clean water provision. Still, however, the water has not come
Heavy rains sweep human waste on railroad tracks into slum homes metres away. The homes are made of burlap bags, trash, cardboard, discarded wood and dung. This could be a number of places in the Subcontinent, but for the fact that the monsoon floods carry with them water containing highly toxic waste into these houses. The residents of these homes have no choice but to tap into toxic polluted groundwater, courtesy the neighbouring Union Carbide Company (now The Dow Chemical Company) pesticide factory. Welcome to Annu Nagar, Bhopal – site of the infamous December 1984 ‘Bhopal disaster’ which claimed over 15,000 lives.
Besides the accidental release of 40 tonnes of poisonous MIC gas in 1984, the plant has been polluting its surroundings and endangering lives with its routine practices. By-products are dumped in ‘solar evaporation ponds’ across the railroad tracks from the factory. Toxins in the by-products seep into the soil and contaminate the groundwater tapped by 16 Bhopal bastis. Scientific studies have shown that these poisons, which include mercury, lead, organochlorines, teratogens, and carcinogens, are deleterious to human health; the specific effects of long term exposure to these chemicals in Bhopal, however, is unknown.
Within walking distance of Annu Nagar is Sambhavna Clinic. The clinic offers medical care to victims of the factory’s toxic pollution. More recently, its focus has been providing free food and medical care to victims of the recent monsoon floods – victims who are suffering eye problems, fever, skin eruptions, itchiness and rashes. More importantly, the clinic has provided the local community with hope that they may one day enjoy their basic human rights. Through adept political organisation, Sambhavna directly provides and fights for the services that the Indian government and Dow Chemical should be making available.
With Sambhavna’s help, the residents of these communities have demanded of the government a supply of clean water, prosecution of Union Carbide’s personnel and enforcement of the clean up of Union Carbide’s toxic waste. Disgracefully, their demands for clean water from the government have not yet been met. In March, 39 gas explosion survivors marched 800 kilometres to Delhi to demand that the government supply clean water to the citizens of Bhopal. The marchers were greeted by threats and abuse from the police. They went on a hunger strike in Delhi before the central government gave in to their most basic demands of beginning the bureaucratic steps towards clean water provision. Still, however, the water has not come. The government has delivered some tanker water to these citizens, but the tanker water is often unclean, pungent, contaminated with toxins and dead animals, or not delivered because of the poor roads in the bastis.
Of Union Carbide Corporation and now Dow Chemical, Sambhavna and the citizens of Bhopal have demanded compensation for loss of life and health and the clean-up of toxic waste.
On the walls of the company’s factory is graffiti that would embarrass any self-respecting company in the West. ‘DOW CHEMICAL MUST END TOXIC TERROR IN BHOPAL’ reads one of the slogans, written on the 21st anniversary of the gas disaster. Efforts targeted at Dow have met with even less success than those targeted towards the Indian government. With miniscule public interest outside of Bhopal and little pressure from the Indian government, Dow has no financial incentive to compensate victims of its irresponsible behaviour.
The Dow Chemical Company crisis highlights a common problem faced in developing countries. Governments encourage foreign investment to boost their economies, and are therefore reluctant to prosecute or punish foreign companies. Foreign companies open factories in countries like India solely for the lax pollution and labour laws that allow for cheap production. The companies will quickly move out if the government raises costs by enforcing pollution standards and demands compensation on behalf of its citizens. So, when a US based corporation like Union Carbide destroys the health and welfare of local citizens, the government sides to a large extent with the company at fault, rather than with the people it apparently represents.
We understand that international business is enormously complex, with many costs and benefits to a country that are difficult to measure. At the same time, we saw a shameful and ongoing human cost in Bhopal, which we worked to document scientifically with the Sambhavna Clinic. There can be no question that Dow Chemical has an urgent moral obligation to aid in the provision of clean drinking water and medical care to the citizens of Annu Nagar as well as those of the 15 other bastis whose groundwater continues to be contaminated.
Sambhavna Clinic will release the results of its study on the effects of toxic groundwater on childhood development later this autumn. We hope that this research will help not only the 16 communities still harmed by Dow’s negligence, but will also spur similar support for social justice in other parts of Asia.
Brian Bergmark and Regan Johnson are biologists
To get more information on Sambhavna Trust Clinic or to donate, please visit www.bhopal.org/sambhavnaclinic.html
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