20 years
The Bhopal Memory Project

about | 21 years later

Although both the Indian government and the survivors of the disaster lobbied to have the legal case against Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) tried in the United States court system, it was dismissed by a Judge Keenan in New York on the basis that denying India the opportunity to try the case would be a form of continued imperialism— in effect staking the lives of the survivors and the value of the victims on a wager that Indian judicial system was, or ought to become in the trying of this case, fully independent of corporate and governmental pressures.


The case was subsequently settled in India for $470 million in 1989 (once disbursed several years later, 95% of those who got anything got less than $500 and the average payment was between $280 - $330), between the government of India— representing the survivors under the Bhopal Act and the edict of parens patriae—and UC. This amount is often compared to the Exxon Valdez settlement in the US which allowed an immediate allowance of $40,000 per sea otter. Additionally, although the MIC remaining at the site was neutralized, and some of the more hazardous materials were removed by UCC before the plant was abandoned, it is now alleged that the the factory site itself has nonetheless caused continuing environmental problems. Contamination of the drinking water of 16 local communities is attributed to leaks over time from the chemical settling pools built to evaporate waste, and the buildings themselves are strewn with sacks of materials and documents. 

According to an article from 2003, Dow's position is that they have "not tested the water in Bhopal, but the Indian government tested it and found nothing wrong with it."  However, there is definitive documentation of tests conducted by the Union Carbide Corporation as early as 1989, noting that all groundwater samples caused "immediate 100% mortality in fish" and advising that further studies be "initiated without further delay." 

This disjuncture is quintessential of the Dow strategy about Bhopal.  While Union Carbide Corporation is a fully owned subsidiary of the Dow Corporation, Dow makes a symbolic distinction between what has been done and known by Union Carbide, and what is done or known by Dow.  Pressed for information, on, for example, the sabotage theory, Dow's response is that they don't know what happened, but Union Carbide says that it was a saboteur, and Dow believes them - expressly without having done any research of their own.

      Warren Anderson outside his home.  Photo: the daily mirror

None of the individuals named in the criminal indictments as responsible for the disaster —either in India or in the US—have ever been tried, though some have been charged in India. A warrant was issued for the arrest of the former CEO of Union Carbide, Warren Anderson since 1984 (on charges of culpable homicide), and even though the US and India have a joint extradition treaty, no move has been made to arrest him. In June of this year, the Justice department in the United States appraised India of the fact that they had no intention of extraditing Anderson.

In the run-up to the 20th anniversary however, international attention appears to be focusing back onto Bhopal. In 2004 Rashida Bi and Champa Devi, (shown below) survivors and activists in Bhopal, were awarded the Goldman Prize, know as the "Nobel prize for the environment." Also, recently the New York judge asked the Indian government to inform the court whether they would be amenable to having the Dow Chemical Corporation (now the parent corporation of UCC) clean up the factory site, were they to order it. After several weeks of hunger strikes, the Indian government finally did so (though whether the clean-up will be ordered is still at issue). After many years of fighting, the survivors were recently awarded the interest that had accrued from their original settlement money, in yet another hard-won battle.

How has this particular tragedy has managed to slip through the cracks of the systems of responsibility designed for abuses of any of these categories—legal, environmental, medical, corporate and human? The categories of personal injury, environmental contamination and negligence, culpable homicide, and human rights become inadequate in the face of the Bhopal disaster. Abandoned in a gray area of national and international law that applies (or doesn't) to multi-national corporate actors, Bhopal and its aftermath continue to demand a radical revision of international justice. 

An educational initiative of the Human Rights Project at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY

The Bhopal Memory Project Bard Human Rights Project