PITTSBURGH – Unlike a natural disaster like the recent earthquake in Algeria, some man-made disasters, “industrial accidents,” leave dishes on the shelves, homes intact, windows secure and factories in place.
On Dec. 3, 1984, at least 8,000 residents of the city of Bhopal died when a gas used to make pesticides for India’s “green revolution,” methyl isocynate (MIC), leaked out of the Union Carbide plant and floated into the homes of sleeping workers, their families and neighbors. Award-winning journalist Dan Kurzman notes in his book, The Killing Wind, that the current fatality figure is three times the one announced by the Indian government, and is based on the records of crematorium and cemetery officials.
Kurzman checked hospital and medical records and estimates that 300,000 men, women and children, many not yet born at the time of the corporate killing, were injured, most permanently.
The city of Pittsburgh has about 300,000 residents. Imagine if the disaster had happened here. As a result of breathing the steady, deep breaths of sleep during a single night, all men, women and children would be sick or dead. Dogs, cats and birds would be ill or dying. The city would be silent, except for the survivors’ screams of grief.
The Union Carbide industrial accident in Bhopal is the worst in world history.
Nineteen years later, Union Carbide is now owned by Dow Chemical. Two women, Champa Devi and Rasheeda Bee, survivors of that word-defying December night, are leading a grassroots movement to bring Dow corporate executives to trial in India, force the corporation to provide medical care for the people, pass the chemical securities act, pay restitution to the families and restore the land, water and soil.
Devi, Bee and their translator, Satinath Sarangi, a metallurgical engineer and activist with the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, are currently on a 40-day tour of the U.S. that included a protest at the annual Dow Chemical shareholders meeting in New York and a 20-minute meeting with Dow executives. The World interviewed the leaders between their meeting with the United Steelworkers of America union and their address to a meeting of the Association for India’s Development at Carnegie Mellon University.
Rasheeda Bee serves as the president of the Bhopal Gas Affected Women Stationery Employees Union. Champa Devi is the union’s secretary. All 100 women, 50 Hindu and 50 Muslim, who work at a state-owned factory making office stationery and other goods for the government press are gas victims.
Bee was 28 in December 1984. She had rarely crossed the threshold of her family’s tiny home to venture into outside world. She helped to care for all 37 members of their extended family. “We woke up that morning and heard people running outside,” she recalled as if it were yesterday.
“Imagine, 37 people coughing so badly we were not able to talk to one another. We ran. After about a half mile, I had to sit down. My eyes were so inflamed, like needles piercing into my eyes. My lungs felt like they were filled with red chilies. When I looked around all I could see were dead bodies.
“People [were] lying dead everywhere. Cattle lying dead. At about 4:00 in the morning, the police told us to go back home. The gas had ended. But we decided to get out of the city. And we went to our home village. By the third day, there were still 19 family members missing and we returned to Bhopal. We looked in every hospital. At one hospital, I saw 900 bodies.”
Bee returned home and was re-united with her family. She joined demonstrations at the gates of the Union Carbide plant. The company still had 20 tons of the deadly MIC inside. The people wanted it neutralized or returned to the U.S. The corporation and government put down gunny sacks around the chemical factory, sprayed water from helicopters and hosed down the streets. “But the gas does not follow traffic rules,” said Bee. “The people demanded safety and they demanded [to see] the managers of the plant.”
Demonstrations continued. The Indian government set up relief stations around the city distributing wheat and oil. They dispatched emergency medical personnel from around the country.
Champa Devi said that problems with the plant started long before that deadly December night. Her family reported seeing graves of workers who built the plant in 1972. “People came to Bhopal from all over the state,” she said. “It was work to build the plant and [there were] jobs when it was finished. But people died building that Union Carbide factory. They were buried near the factory and their families told to go back home. Go back to where they came from with nothing.
“After the plant opened, we saw dead cows near pools of water around the plant. My neighbor lost eight goats after they drank from the ponds around the plant. There was never any reason given for their deaths. We would smell awful smells in the air when the wind blew across the factory. Union Carbide never mentioned the product. ”
For survivors, death did not end after the Dec. 3, 1984 accident. Between then and 2001, eight members of the Bee family died of cancer including cancers of the throat, brain, intestines, breast and of leukemia. One of her nephews was six months old the night of the gas wind. When he turned 14 he developed a neurological disorder that has left him in a vegetative state ever since.
The Indian government established 38 work centers in Bhopal to provide training and work for women, including Bee and Devi, because so many men were killed or permanently disabled by the Union Carbide gas. The stationery factory came on line in 1986, but the women were only paid 10 rupees a month. Workers organized a union. They elected Bee and Devi to their offices and began a 17 year campaign for equal pay for equal work. In 1989, all 100 workers and 25 children marched to New Delhi, India’s national capital, and won a raise to 535 rupees per month. But, government workers are paid 2,400 rupees per month. “We wanted equal pay,” Bee clarified. “Not special treatment because we are gas victims.”
Also in 1989, the Indian government accepted a settlement with Union Carbide of $470 million. “They sold out,” said Devi with disgust. “The Silicon Breast Implant settlement was $500 million. In Bhopal, the people saw little change, especially in treating the cancers and continuing sicknesses from the gas.”
In 2001, the stationery workers’ union and Bhopal residents raided hospitals and found medicines for gas victims sitting in storage. On Feb. 28, they stormed Dow Chemical’s headquarters in Mumbai. Using brooms, they vowed to sweep out the corruption in the corporation which denied their families medical care. They were successful in releasing medicine for treatment.
By 2002, the stationery workers’ union and Bhopal residents joined forces with Greenpeace and launched the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal. On the 18th anniversary of the mass corporate killing, the remaining MIC and other chemical waste in the Bhopal factory was finally contained. Dow shipped containers of toxic waste out of Bhopal to European facilities, including to The Netherlands and Switzerland.
President Bee and Secretary Devi are not bitter. Speaking on behalf of tens of thousands of families, victims of the corporate greed, they demand justice as expressed in the union’s slogan, “We are flames not flowers.” Union Carbide, now part of Dow, is guilty of mass murder and the survivors have spent 18 years fighting for justice. “We want the world to remember,” says Devi, “but we want the corporation, especially Warren Anderson (former CEO of Union Carbide), tried in India. We want passage of the chemical securities act, restitution to surviving families, medical care and our land and water restored to its original condition.”
International pressure and direct nonviolent action in Bhopal has produced results. The International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal believes that resolutions from unions, organizations and local governments to the Indian government, the U.S. government and Dow Chemical could achieve their demands. “We are the closest we have been [to resolving these issues],” adds Satinath Sarangi. “We need a little push.”
The author can be reached at email@example.com
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The Bhopal disaster
• At least 8,000 people died on or shortly after Dec. 3, 1984, as a result of agas leak in a pesticide plant owned and operated by Union Carbide.
• Over 20,000 people have died from the aftereffects, more than 300,000 have been injured.
• By court order Dow Chemical has released Union Carbide internal memos that document a long history of neglected safety precautions dating into the early 1970s. The documents can be found at www.bhopal.net / contaminationtour
• About 1.4 million people live in Bhopal, the 15th largest city in India and the capital of the Madhya Pradesh State.
• Union Carbide originally offered an average payout per victim of only $350 in U.S. currency.
• Approximately 20,000 people still live in the vicinity of the disaster; their drinking water has been declared unsafe but is still the only water available.
• Survivors still suffer alarming rates of cancer and respiratory diseases.
From the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, www.bhopal.net
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What you can do
You can write to William S. Stavropoulos, the CEO of Dow Chemical Company, at 2030 Dow Center, Midland, MI 48674, or fax him at (989) 636-1830, and demand that Dow do the following:
• face up to criminal charges in India
• release all toxicological information about the poison gases
• arrange for long-term medical care for survivors
• provide economic rehabilitation to Bhopal
• clean up the toxic wastes and contaminated groundwater