Bhopal: 100 000 still suffer 'chronic illnesses'

Tens of thousands of Indian people still suffer appalling effects from the Bhopal gas leak 20 years ago and over 20 000 have died from the disaster, Amnesty International said on Monday, labelling the victims’ long wait for justice a major breach of human rights.

The aftermath of the leak showed how “an industrial disaster can involve a complexity of violations of civil, political, economic and social rights for generation after generation”, the London-based group said in a major report.

Amnesty said it believed that at least 15 000 people died between 1985 and 2003 because of disaster, which saw tonnes of deadly methyl isocyanate seep into the atmosphere on the night of December 2-3, 1984 from a pesticide plant owned by United States firm Union Carbide in Bhopal.

“This is in addition to the 7 00 to 10 000 people who died in the immediate aftermath, taking the total death toll to well over 20 000,” the report said.

Around 100 000 people are still suffering “chronic and debilitating illnesses” Amnesty said, noting that even 20 years later, many have yet to receive adequate compensation or medical treatment.

“Today, 20 years after the disastrous gas leak at Bhopal, tens of thousands of people are still suffering the after-effects,” Amnesty said in an 82-page report titled Clouds of Injustice.

“Despite the determined efforts of survivors to secure justice, the large numbers affected have received inadequate compensation and medical assistance,” the organisation said.

“People already living in poverty face health problems that are shortening their lives and affecting their ability to work.

“The site has not been cleaned up so toxic wastes continue to pollute the water which the surrounding communities rely on,” it said.

After a protracted legal battle, Union Carbide, now a subsidiary of Dow Chemical, paid $470-million to the Indian government in a settlement reached in 1989.

India’s Supreme Court directed the government to pay out part of the money, with the rest kept by the Reserve Bank of India, some of which was ordered to be handed over in July following a legal petition from victims.

Overall, efforts by survivors to get proper justice through both US and Indian courts “have so far been unsuccessful”, Amnesty said.

“The transnational corporations involved ... have publicly stated that they have no responsibility for the leak and its consequences or for the pollution from the plant.

“Union Carbide Corporation refuses to appear before the court in Bhopal to face trial and the Indian government agreed to a final settlement which has left survivors living in penury.”

Amnesty said it had identified “a pattern of serious failures” over safety by Union Carbide ahead of the leak, as well as subsequent attempts to frustrate survivors before courts in both the United States and India.

The Indian government was also culpable in that it failed to tackle safety problems with the plant, and subsequently negotiated a settlement “without the participation of the victims”.

The report ends with a list of demands, such as better compensation and treatment for victims, and decontamination of the Bhopal site.

It was undeniable that the disaster was a human rights issue, Amnesty said.

“Thousands of people in Bhopal were denied their right to life, and tens of thousands of people have had their right to health undermined,” it said.

“Thousands of poor families have suffered illness and bereavement, further impairing their ability to realise their right to a decent standard of living.” - Sapa-AFP


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