Survivors of the deadly Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984 have spent decades blaming the Congress party for denying them justice and allowing Union Carbide Corporation, the company responsible for the disaster, to escape prosecution. But has the Bharatiya Janata Party fared any better?

This election season, the BJP has raked up the issue of the gas tragedy several times, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi accusing the Congress of neglecting victims of the “world’s worst industrial catastrophe”. Though the BJP’s Bhopal candidate, Pragya Singh Thakur, does not mention the gas tragedy in her vision document for the constituency, Modi has challenged the Congress to contest the May 12 polls in the constituency on the issue of the disaster.

However, a report by an organisation representing gas tragedy survivors and activists claims that the BJP has been just as guilty as the Congress in denying justice to people affected by the disaster.

The report, published on Thursday by the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, alleges that the Modi government took no action against Union Carbide for absconding from criminal proceedings in India, and is now at the verge of jeopardising the entire criminal case against the company.

It notes that in September 2015, just days after the Bhopal district court summoned Dow Chemical for the third time, Modi networked with Dow’s chief executive officer, Andrew Liveris, at a dinner he hosted with the heads of 40 Fortune 500 companies while on a visit to the US. At the event, Modi reportedly urged the companies to increase their investments in India, sparking outrage among Bhopal gas survivors.

Modi even tweeted a photo in which Liveris appears. The Dow executive is in the front row, second from right.

The International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal report adds that the BJP government has failed to clean up the widespread groundwater contamination that continues to affect the health of Bhopal residents.

“I would say that the BJP has been worse than the Congress in terms of protecting the interests of corporations,” said Rachna Dhingra, an activist from the Campaign. “In the last month, Modi has been making jibes at the Congress for not doing anything for Bhopal victims. While this is true, Modi’s own actions seem to imply that orders of Indian courts don’t matter, that the victims don’t matter.”

Ignoring summons

The Bhopal gas tragedy took place on the night of December 2, 1984, when large quantities of poisonous methyl isocyanate gas leaked from a pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide India Limited in Bhopal. The Madhya Pradesh government initially said that 3,787 people died in the disaster, although the figure has now been determined to be much higher. At least 5.25 lakh were left with long-term injuries and health defects that have passed down the generations.

UCIL was owned by Union Carbide Corporation, US, whose chief executive officer at the time was Warren Anderson. Even though Anderson was arrested in India immediately after the gas disaster, he managed to leave the country within hours. Activists have often blamed Rajiv Gandhi, who was prime minister at the time, for allowing Anderson to leave India under pressure from the US government.

The Central Bureau of Investigation filed a criminal case of culpable homicide against Union Carbide Corporation. In 1992, when Anderson and UCC repeatedly failed to appear before the Bhopal district court, the chief judicial magistrate declared them to be absconders.

In 2001, Dow Chemical Company bought UCC. Under Indian and US law, this meant that Dow had also taken over all of Union Carbide’s criminal, environmental and civil liabilities. However, Dow Chemical claims it did not inherit UCC’s liabilities. It has also ignored multiple summons by the Bhopal district court to explain why Union Carbide has been absconding from court proceedings since 1992.

According to the report by the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, the court issued six summons to Dow Chemical between August 2014 and July 2018, when the Modi government was in power. The summons were issued through to the Union Ministry for Home Affairs, which was supposed to ask the US government’s Department of Justice to ensure that Dow Chemical received the summons. Dow Chemical ignored all six summons and did not appear before the court.

“The Ministry of Home Affairs has always approached the US Department of Justice in a very apologetic manner about this, and the MHA has never followed up with the US government when Dow has not appeared before the court,” claimed Dhingra.

Said Rashida Bi, a survivor of the Bhopal gas tragedy and a member of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmchari Sangh: “If Rajiv Gandhi let Warren Anderson get away, what is Modi doing? We have seen photos of him hugging the CEO of Dow. Doesn’t he have any shame? The government does not have time to give us justice, but it has time to talk to companies.”

A family walks past the closed down Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India 01 December 1999. AFP PHOTO / RAVI RAVEENDRAN

Losing hope

While Dow Chemical and Union Carbide have evaded court proceedings in India for decades, the case itself is now at risk of being nullified.

In August 2017, Dow Chemical merged with DuPont Nemours, USA, to form DowDuPont Incorporated. The new company announced plans to split its merged businesses into three different entities by June 2019. This means that after June 1, Union Carbide Corporation will cease to be a legal entity, and Indian courts will not be able to prosecute it for its criminal liabilities in the gas tragedy.

In February 2018, five different organisations of gas disaster survivors wrote a letter to Modi urging him direct the CBI to obtain a prohibitive writ against the splitting of Union Carbide. The letter also urged Modi to expedite the legal proceedings against UCC. The letter to the Prime Minister was forwarded to the Madhya Pradesh government’s chief secretary, and was still “under process” in January.

With no updates since then and barely 20 days left for Union Carbide to split, activists and survivors are losing hope of getting justice.

“We have been writing letters and protesting and appealing to the government for 35 years, but now time has almost run out and we have not got justice,” said Rashida Bi. “The government should have taken some action against Union Carbide before this split.”

Question of compensation

Another omission listed in the ICJB report is the BJP government’s inaction with respect to securing better compensation for survivors of the gas tragedy.

In 1989, Union Carbide had paid $470 million as damages for the gas disaster. In 2010, the Union Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers filed a curative petition in the Supreme Court, seeking an additional compensation amount of $1.2 billion for gas tragedy survivors. Through the petition, the government acknowledged that survivors had not been given enough compensation earlier.

In 2011, five survivor-led organisations became co-petitioners in the curative petition, demanding $8.1 billion as compensation on the grounds that the number of people affected by the gas leak was much higher than the government’s petition claimed. According to the organisations, the Indian Council of Medical Research had recorded up to 22,917 gas leak-related deaths in the years after the disaster, while the government’s curative petition reported just 5,295 deaths. Similarly, while the government claimed that 5.2 lakh people had suffered temporary injuries, ICMR records suggest that the injuries were actually long-term or permanent.

“How can there be just 5,295 deaths when the government officially claims it pays pensions to 5,000 women widowed by the gas leak?” said Rachna Dhingra. “If 5,000 married men died, it is obvious that a similar number of women, children and unmarried people would have also died. If you present wrong data to the Court, the corporations are the only ones that benefit.”

From 2012 to 2014, survivor organisations wrote six letters to former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and to the BJP government in Madhya Pradesh, urging them to amend the death and injury figures in the curative petition based on the scientific findings of the Indian Council of Medical Research, but received no response.

After the BJP came to power in May 2014, they also wrote three letters to Modi. When they did not receive a response, five women survivors went on a no-water fast at Jantar Mantar in Delhi in November 2014. Even though they were assured that their demands would be met and the death and injury figures would be revised in the curative petition, the revisions have not yet been made more than four years later. For now, hearings of the curative petition have been postponed.

Bhopal Gas tragedy survivors go on indefinite hunger strike to press for correct figures on the disaster related casualties at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on Nov 10, 2014. Photo: IANS

Cleaning up

The Campaign for Justice report claims that since January 2015, the BJP government has disregarded the urgent need to assess and contain the environmental damage that continues in the regions around the gas leak even 25 years later.

In 2008, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests had appointed three government agencies to conduct comprehensive scientific assessments of the extent of groundwater contamination persisting in Bhopal district in the years after the gas leak, with the aim of devising plans to clean up the contamination. However, by 2011, various scientific experts appointed by the ministry deemed the three studies to be unreliable.

In 2014, members of the Campaign for Justice appealed to the United Nations Environment Programme to conduct its own study of the contamination in Bhopal, but the UN agency claimed it would need an official request from the Indian government to do so. After several appeals to the BJP government, survivors’ organisations faced rejection: the Ministry of Environment and Forests told them in April 2015 that there was no need for a UN study since Indian agencies had already conducted studies of their own.

In 2017, a study by the Indian Institute of Toxicology Research found that at least one lakh people from 42 communities in Bhopal district continue to be affected by toxic groundwater in vast areas around the gas leak site. Even though this study has been recognised by the Supreme Court, the government has not taken any steps to clean up the contamination.

“If you visit homes of people affected by the gas tragedy, there are still children born with disabilities in almost every family,” said Rashida Bi. “Even today there is a chance to save people from this contamination, but the government does not want to take any action.”

By pinning all the blame for the Bhopal gas disaster on the Congress in election rallies, Rashida Bi claims that the BJP has turned survivors like her into a joke. “Both parties have let us down. We don’t know who to vote for. NOTA [none of the above] seems like the only option.”