About 2000 people died instantly when 80 tonnes of the paralytic methyl icocyanide gas leaked from a pesticide plant owned by then US-based Union Carbide firm in Bhopal, capital of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.
Chronic effects of the world’s worst industrial disaster have killed 20,000 more in the past 19 years, while courts in India and the United States wrangle over damages, compensations, medical costs and blame.
The disaster also led to 100,000 injuries with 50% of the victims becoming partially or totally disabled. NGOs say at least one gas-hit person has been dying daily since 1984 from respiratory ailments, cancer and deformities.
Local forums caring for the victims say politicians are preying on this votebank in advance of the 1 December state polls.
“Each election, the parties come and make this an issue,” said Satinath Sarangi, who heads the Sadhbhavna (Brotherhood) Trust which is involved in providing medical aid to the ailing survivors.
“But no one has taken it seriously. We have had to fight the system for every little thing. The system has only made promises and done nothing.”
“Imagine the chemicals have been lying there for 19 years as the federal and state governments fight over the issue of cleaning them. They wouldn’t even allow Greenpeace to do it,” Sarangi said.
He has published a seven-point pamphlet which he and his staff distribute, advising potential voters to ask pointed questions of political contestants.
“I want them to confront politicians and ask what have they done for the victims, list their works and what will they do if they win,” the spirited social worker said.
“We have little hope… half my family died in the tragedy and the other half is still suffering”
Abd al-Jabbar, who operates the bustling Swabhiman (Pride) Centre, an employment agency for victims of the disaster, is himself a survivor of the gas leak.
“I was just a short distance from the factory when the gas began leaking. I ran with my aged mother. We must have walked 50 km. Even today I suffer from lung illnesses,” he
At his centre, dozens of women work on sewing machines, stitching emblems for the contesting political parties they themselves feel have betrayed the cause of the victims.
“We have little hope,” said Naushena Begum, whose home is near the now-ruined Union Carbide factory. “Half my family died in the tragedy and the other half is still suffering.”
One of the key election issues centres on 1.5 billion rupees (around $326 million dollars) given by Carbide as compensation that is in the custody of India’s Supreme Court as the
federal and state governments squabble over who is responsible for doling out the fund.
“The court had to take the money given by Union Carbide in its own custody as the two governments cannot reach agreement on who should disburse it,” said Jabbar.
“And this money has been there for years as the two parties fight it out in the court while the victims suffer”
“And this money has been there for years as the two parties fight it out in the court while the victims suffer,” he said.
Besides Madhya Pradesh, polls also slated in the states of Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Delhi are seen as a direct electoral battle between India’s ruling Hindu nationalists and the main opposition Congress party.
The International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB) has declared the upcoming anniversary on 3 December of the 1984 disaster, the ‘Global Day of Action Against Corporate Crime’.
Besides coordinating protests against Dow-Union Carbide facilities worldwide, the ICJB has called upon groups which fight corporate crime to take action on that day against the human, environmental, consumer and labour rights violations by private or public corporations.