Dow: corporate criminal reminded of their debt to Bhopal

Update from the MV Esperanza

Feature story - 7 November, 2002
Survivors of the Bhopal, India, chemical disaster are travelling Europe, demanding justice and that Dow take responsibility for the tragedy, which has caused over 20,000 deaths and poisoned more then half a million people.

Protesting at a Dow plant in Italy.

Rashida Bee, from the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, and Mohammad Ali Quaisser, a doctor at the Sambhavana hospital in Bhopal, were hoping to have a chat with executives in the Italian head office of Dow in Milan. Dow Italy had recently refused a request for a meeting with Greenpeace, following company policy. But today, the Bhopal survivors succeeded in entering the Dow building and delivering their message.

Maybe the people at Dow felt a small twinge of guilt or a feeling of responsibility, or maybe it was that that very moment the crew of the MV Esperanza were occupying a Dow plant in Livorno, some 250 km away - climbing up to put banners on one of the tanks and across the front gate. It might even have been that the Dow executives heard about our activists meeting with the plant manager, and a representative of the plant workers, to encourage solidarity with the victims of the disaster.

Whatever the reason, Rashida and Mohamman were able to meet with members of the senior management in the Italian head office of Dow, in Milan, to demand that Dow pay its enormous debt to the people of Bhopal - who to this day, 18 years after the disaster, still watch friends and family get sick and die from the contamination that has been left behind.

The Dow executives in Milan expressed their embarrassment and understanding of the plight of the Bophalese. But they were speaking in strictly personal terms, as the company line from their US headquarters is to strongly and clearly refuse any moral, legal or financial responsibility for the ongoing tragedy related to the Union Carbide gas disaster.

What is a corporation?

A multinational like Dow, the largest chemical company in the world, is made of humans who wake up every morning, drink a cup of tea or coffee and go to work. But the way things are set up today, it makes little difference how well intentioned these people are. Corporations are free to move to those parts of the world with badly enforced environmental and labour regulations, where they can pollute people and ecosystems, abuse human rights or engage in questionable practices - their only goals being maximising profits while externalising costs to poor people and the environment.

Union Carbide, who operated the pesticide factory in Bhopal, and was later purchased in its entirety by Dow, decided to save some money by ignoring safety procedures in the plant, which were required at a similar plant in the US. After the accident, it abandoned the factory site, leaving vast amounts of chemical pollutants that continue to kill people living near the factory.

Had the disaster occurred in a country with appropriate regulations, the company would have been forced to pay proper compensation to the victims, as well as to clean up after their mess. Instead it got away with paying just US$400 to about half the people who demanded compensation for injuries, and about US$1,250 each to the 14,410 persons who claimed death compensation.

Towards a system of corporate accountability

Dow Chemical needs to clean up the Bhopal factory site at their expense, secure long-term medical treatment for survivors, compensate the victims and provide clean drinking water to people in Bhopal forced to drink contaminated water every day.

In the bigger picture, the world needs an international instrument to hold corporations criminally and financially liable for damage and compensation for victims of industrial disasters and damage to the environment.

Corporations like Dow and others, including the individuals responsible for illicit or immoral decisions, must not be allowed to hide behind legal clutter, or to unduly influence or buy governments to avoid their responsibilities and promote self-serving policies.

To this end, the Esperanza is touring the Mediterranean - to expose toxic pollution in the region and to call on governments to protect their citizens by holding polluters accountable for violating people's fundamental right to a toxics free environment.