BHOPAL, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Hundreds of people marched through the central Indian city of Bhopal late Tuesday, waving flaming torches to commemorate the thousands who perished in the world’s deadliest industrial disaster and demanding justice for survivors who continue to suffer three decades on.
In the early hours of December 3, 1984, around 40 metric tonnes of toxic methyl isocyanate gas accidentally leaked from a pesticide factory owned by U.S. multinational Union Carbide Corp. and was carried by the wind into the surrounding slums.
The government recorded 5,295 deaths. Activists estimate 25,000 people have died from illnesses in the years since. Many more, they said, are dealing with cancer, blindness, respiratory difficulties and immune and neurological disorders, but with no support.
“We are here to demand our rights from both the Indian government and Union Carbide,” said Kamla Bhai, 70, as she walked alongside other survivors, activists and supporters through Bhopal’s bustling streets to the abandoned factory site.
“We lost our children, we lost our husbands, we lost our mothers, we lost our fathers, yet we have been ignored by the government and cheated by the corporate for the last thirty years. Their treatment has been shameful.”
Bhai, whose husband died from cancer five years after the calamity, said survivors needed health care and financial compensation, while a second and third generation of children with congenital deformities needed special medical treatment.
Others at the rally called for the clean-up of thousands of tonnes of toxic waste, buried by the company inside and outside the plant. The waste has seeped into the ground and poisoned the drinking water of 50,000 people living around the site.
The government of Madhya Pradesh state, where Bhopal is located, said that the Supreme Court decides who are the beneficiaries eligible for compensation and free health care.
“Every affected person has been listed and this has been put before the Supreme Court and the court has decided, after extensive examination of their cases, what is to be paid and to whom,” said Pravir Krishn, the state’s principal secretary at the department in charge of relief and rehabilitation for Bhopal’s victims.
Krishn said some impoverished families seeking compensation for sicknesses or medical help for their disabled children, who suffer from diseases such as cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy, were not from contaminated locations, suggesting they falsely claimed to be victims of the tragedy.
He said the state has provided 40 billion rupees ($650 million) to 575,000 people identified by the Supreme Court as being affected by the disaster, built six state-of-the art hospitals and provided houses for many victims.
U.S. company Dow Chemical , which now owns Union Carbide, has denied liability, saying it bought the company a decade after Union Carbide settled its liabilities to the Indian government in 1989 by paying $470 million.
Activists said that was a paltry sum based on a gross underestimate of the human suffering caused by the calamity.
Various petitions to hold Dow to account for increased compensation as well as the cleaning up of toxic waste are being pressed in Indian and American courts.
“The time has come to bring Dow and Carbide to justice. No more hiding behind share ownership and legal loopholes,” said Salil Shetty, Secretary-General of Amnesty International.
“The double standards are outrageous. If the same disaster had been caused by an Indian company on U.S. soil, there is no way they would have got away with it.”
While many events surrounding the disaster’s anniversary have focused on issues such as the lack of health care, compensation and job opportunities for survivors and their families, others have questioned whether another Bhopal could happen.
Delhi-based think-tank Centre for Science and Environment on Monday released a new book which found that India has laws for hazardous waste management and industrial disasters, but there is no compliance.
“While we have thankfully not witnessed another major Bhopal-type disaster in the last 30 years, we have a number of mini Bhopals - which are small types of gas leaks from industry - happening all over the country,” said Sunita Narain, CSE’s director.
Last Saturday, for example, a chlorine gas leak from a factory just 40 km (25 miles) from Bhopal sickened 44 people and caused widespread panic in the Mandideep area, media reports said.
“Thirty years after the horrific industrial disaster, India needs to finish the job it started and now work on strengthening institutions, tools of compliance and monitoring and putting in place a strict corporate liability regime,” Narain told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Reporting by Nita Bhalla, Editing by Lisa Anderson