Bhopal disaster and the BP oil spill

The $20-billion fund made available to the U.S. government by BP has highlighted a double standard in the dispensation of justice after the two disasters.

August 04, 2010 01:31 am | Updated November 05, 2016 04:10 am IST

Second generation victims: Born to parents who were victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy, Vikas (11) and Aman (nine) cannot walk, speak or utilise their mental faculties. They are seen with their parents at JP Nagar in Bhopal  in this June 2010 file photo.

Second generation victims: Born to parents who were victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy, Vikas (11) and Aman (nine) cannot walk, speak or utilise their mental faculties. They are seen with their parents at JP Nagar in Bhopal in this June 2010 file photo.

Comparing the compensations for victims of the Bhopal disaster and the BP oil spill, and calling for an equitable dispensation of justice, the former members of the International Medical Commission on Bhopal, Dr. Sushma Acquilla (U.K.), Dr. Rosalie Bertell (U.S.A.), Professor Paul Cullinan (U.K.), Dr. V. Ramana Dhara (U.S.A.), Professor Birger Heinzow (Germany & Australia), Dr. Gianni Tognoni (Italy) and Dr. Marinus Verweij (The Netherlands), say:

We, the former members of the International Medical Commission on Bhopal (IMCB) welcome the announcement by the Prime Minister of India to set up a high level ministerial Committee to reopen the issue of the Bhopal tragedy, considered the world's worst industrial disaster. We understand the committee, chaired by Home Minister P. Chidambaram, met recently to explore and decide on the future of Bhopal victims and the fate of the residual Union Carbide plant. We are a group of independent experts in different fields of medicine and public health who studied the long-term health effects amongst the survivors of the Bhopal disaster, ten years after the accident.

This study was done at the invitation of gas victims who were frustrated by the Madhya Pradesh government's announcement that there were no long-term effects of the disaster and that the Bhopal case could be closed. Our study was the only one of its kind that attempted to define the gas-related illnesses in the population known as the “Bhopal Syndrome” and which showed that there were indeed long-term effects on multiple body systems.

We welcome the setting up of the ministerial committee and would like to offer our expertise to the government of India, as the only independent group of experts with detailed knowledge of the disaster and the effects of the gas.

IMCB in their 1994 report, made the following recommendations:

1. Reorganisation of the health system to establish a network of community-based primary care clinics.

2. The gas-related disease categories need to be broadened to include central nervous system and psychological (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) injury.

3. A conference to determine best practice rehabilitation medicine, including both western and Indian expertise, must be undertaken to develop rational treatments and prescription drugs for survivors.

4. Health data collected by the Indian Council of Medical Research should be communicated to the population and submitted for publication in professional journals.

5. Gas victims to have the right of access to their medical records.

6. Victim organisations should be adequately represented in the national and state commissions dealing with the disaster.

7. Criteria for compensation should include medical, economic and social damage to the victims.

8. Allocation of resources for economic and social rehabilitation of people and their communities should be made.

9. Thorough examination of the impact of the toxic waste buried on the Union Carbide site and its potential for further damage to public health needs to be researched.

To our knowledge, only the first recommendation has been partly implemented.

The recent $20-billion fund made available to the U.S. government by BP for the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico has unwittingly highlighted a double standard in the dispensation of justice for the two disasters. The Gulf oil spill is, undoubtedly, ghastly but it is as yet much smaller in scale and consequences than the Bhopal disaster. According to the official figures published by the Indian government, 3,500 people were killed outright with the subsequent death toll claimed to be in excess of 15,000. Union Carbide abandoned the plant after the disaster and has been accused of failing to clean up the site, exposing local people to water supply contaminated with toxic chemicals. The deep water tables in Bhopal and surrounding areas are now considered to be at risk of contamination. Even though Dow Chemical bought Union Carbide's assets, it has refused so far to take responsibility for its liabilities.

While there were Congressional hearings to hold BP publicly accountable for the Gulf oil spill, similar action did not occur for Union Carbide's monumental disaster in Bhopal, even though the company was cutting jobs, decreasing safety training, cutting maintenance costs, and using inferior technology in Bhopal compared to a similar plant in Institute, West Virginia. It took 17 years for the Indian government to obtain a once-for-all settlement of $470-million compensation on behalf of the victims — a meagre sum compared to the interim compensation fund of $20 billion, set up by BP.

The BP fund was set up without knowledge or evidence of injury/loss of human life, apart from those who were on the rig at the time of accident. Yet in Bhopal, without knowing the size of the damage — for example, the number of people who died or assessing the levels of disability and the effects of long-term morbidity amongst the survivors — the full settlement for compensation was agreed at $470 million. This agreementbetween the government of India and Union Carbide was considered by the victims to be a violation of their human rights.

If international human rights laws and principles are to be applied, it is clear that there is a vast chasm between the current approach to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the Bhopal victims and their environment. Transnational corporations must be under exactly the same set of obligations, no matter where their operations take place in the world. We support holding those responsible for the Bhopal disaster to account in the same way as those responsible for the BP Gulf leak.

Earlier last month, several Indian senior managers at the time of the accident in the Bhopal plant received two-year prison sentences and a small fine each, prompting an outcry in India that this disaster was treated like a minor traffic accident. The verdict has been described as “outrageous” and calls have been made for the former Union Carbide CEO, Warren Anderson, now 89, to be sent to India to stand trial.

We welcome the decision by the Indian government to review the plight of the Bhopal victims at this time, and to pursue the cleanup of the Bhopal toxic waste site by Dow Chemical. It may be late but better late than never.

(Further reading: Wikipedia page on International Medical Commission on Bhopal:

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