How Now Silly Dow!

Feature story - July 20, 2004
India's Supreme Court has ordered the government to release millions of dollars in compensation for victims of the 1984 Bhopal gas disaster. This, and other recent positive developments, are good news for the Bhopal survivors but far from the end of their battle for justice. Our Indian campaigner, Shailendra takes up the story.

Celebrations on the streets of Bhopal. Now almost 20 years later all survivors will finally get meagre compensation. Full justice will require Dow Chemical to clean up the polluted site.

In May the Indian Supreme Court ordered the provision of piped drinking water to the people living near the Dow/Carbide plant; they have been drinking the poisoned ground water for over 20 years.

Then in June the Indian government, recognising the extent of toxic contamination at the abandoned Dow/Carbide factory, officially informed US authorities that it had no objection to Dow Chemical being ordered by a competent US court to carry out environmental remediation of the plant in Bhopal.

Now the Supreme Court has cleared the distribution of the balance of compensation remaining from Union Carbide's settlement among the 566,876 Bhopalis whose claims have been partly settled for injuries and loss of family. The balance of the undistributed compensation has grown to around US$327 million.

A simplistic calculation reveals that US$327 million divided amongst 566,876 survivors is about US$570 per family. That has to pay back debts incurred over the last 20 years. To cover costs of on going medical treatment and hospital bills.

US$570 for surviving one of the world's worst chemical industry disasters. For losing family members, your lungs, your liver, your will to live. For continuing to live around a toxic hotspot, where toxic dust, air and water compromises your already damaged health and financial situation. Twenty years of medical bills. Twenty years of trying to make ends meet. Twenty years of waiting. Waiting for retribution, waiting for justice, waiting for US$500. Despite the fact that Dow thinks "$500 is plenty good for an Indian" it isn't.

Tomorrow, there will be long queues outside the Collector's office. To fill forms, to confirm identities, to ink thumbs, to collect a draft, to stand in another queue. To stand and dream and hope.

Even as televisions flash images of celebrating Bhopalis, a dust storm swirls across the abandoned Dow/Carbide factory site, a fine cloud of white powder in the air burns your eyes. The intrusive, all-pervasive smell of chemicals reminds you of the ongoing pollution. Of processed, semi-processed and unprocessed chemicals that together made that deadly pesticide called Sevin, breaking down, reacting and travelling through dust, air, and water. Racing through the blood of those who stand in queues and dream and hope and clutch on to their identity cards that will get them US$500.

Tomorrow it will rain and the gushing waters will seek cracks in the earth to deposit the poisons deep into the aquifers, to be pumped up again when the government's piped promise dries up.

Today, the queues outside hospitals that dot Bhopal, are back to business as usual. Men and women, young and old, in burkhas and saris, in grubby fez caps and stained pyjamas, wheezing, coughing, moaning, and very sick.

Already the Bhopalis are beginning to worry, lest the world begins to believe that their woes are over. Worried that their friends and supporters around the world should assume that the belated steps taken by the Indian government and the Supreme Court translate into an end to their suffering. That the additional money will change their wretched plight. That justice has been meted out.

But the truth is, US$570 will disappear before you can say 'Dow Chemical'. The clean drinking water in pipes will dry up sooner rather than later. Their health complications will only get worse.

Very little will change until the absconding criminal corporation, Union Carbide and its new owner Dow Chemical are held liable for a series of crimes against the Bhopalis.

Very little will change unless Dow is forced to clean-up the poisonous factory site. Unless Warren Anderson stands trial for the massacre. Unless a comprehensive medical rehabilitation programme is put in place for survivors and their children. Unless there is a plan for economic rehabilitation for survivors.

The Indian government has done and will do what it was supposed to do a long time ago; the Indian Supreme Court will ensure it. But it has no or very little funds in the kitty after being shortchanged by the Union Carbide following the infamous settlement. Carbide shares rose after the 1989 compensation decision because it got away with paying a fraction of the compensation if the accident had happened in the US.

Now is the time to begin building pressure on Dow to own up to its responsibilities and liabilities in Bhopal. Now is the time to rally all friends and supporters of the Bhopalis around the world, to make that big push to hold a criminal corporation liable. Now is the time to remember that a real victory in Bhopal will set a precedent for millions who continue to suffer Bhopal-like tragedies every day, every where. Twenty years is too long.

More:

Our section on Bhopal and Dow, including a timeline of the ongoing disaster.

View the polluted site of the abandoned factory in Bhopal.

Multimedia:

View the three part slideshow on the Bhopal disaster:

Part One - Immediate aftermath and the tragic effects of an avoidable disaster.

Part Two - Devastating effects on local people still suffering almost 18 years later.

Part Three - Suffering but not in silence- Will Dow listen to calls to clean up Bhopal?

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