UPA government in ‘sell-out’ with Dow, allege Bhopal gas victims

By Sanjay Sharma, IANS

Bhopal : Bhopal gas tragedy survivors have charged union Commerce and Industry Minister Kamal Nath and the prime minister of a "sell-out" to Dow Chemical, saying the government was making a concerted move for an out of court settlement to clear the US firm, which owns Union Carbide, of all responsibility of paying damages to the thousands of gas leak victims.

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"As 100 percent owner of Union Carbide, Dow Chemical is liable for the clean up of toxic contamination of the soil and ground water in and around the abandoned factory in Bhopal," maintains Satinath Sarangi, of the Bhopal Group of Information and Action (BGIA) that is fighting for the survivors' rights.

"Dow Chemical is also liable for the health damages, including congenital malformations, caused to the 25,000 people living near the Carbide factory who have been drinking water laced with toxic chemicals and heavy metals for the last 15 years or more," he asserted.

The deadly gas leak from the Union Carbide pesticide factory in Bhopal on Dec 3, 1984, killed more than 20,000 people so far. An estimated 150,000 people continue to suffer from the toxic effects of the gas, including diminished vision, cancer, respiratory, neurological and gynaecological disorders.

Second generation victims are suffering from growth defects and women from severe menstrual disorders.

However, Dow, which took over Union Carbide in 2001, has rejected the contention that it has inherited Union Carbide's Bhopal liabilities – something the activists don't agree.

Kamal Nath had said in Washington on Thursday that Dow Chemicals' investments in India would not be affected as a result of the Bhopal gas tragedy even as the government would like to see the court processes on the matter resolved.

"The tragedy was at Union Carbide, and Dow by integration inherited (it). Union Carbide-Dow themselves had no status in this," Kamal Nath had reportedly said referring to the Bhopal gas tragedy at a press meet in Washington.

However, activists say Dow's liability flows from the "polluter pays" principle, which is the law of the land both in India and the US.

They maintain the factory site has never been properly cleaned up and the abandoned chemical wastes continue to poison over 10,000 people living in the vicinity.

The gas victims have been demanding that Dow provide medical rehabilitation and economic reparation; clean up contamination in and around the former factory site in Bhopal and ensure that Union Carbide Corporation, now a 100 per cent subsidiary of Dow, appears before the Chief Judicial Magistrate's court in Bhopal, where UCC faces criminal charges of manslaughter.

"But the PMO (Prime Minister's Office) files obtained by us (survivors' organisations) under the Right to Information reveals that the prime minister is involved in plans that would allow Dow to walk away from its liabilities in Bhopal", Sarangi added.

"The 'PMO Files' have been uploaded to: www.bhopal.net/pmo.html," he said.

Sarangi has charged Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia and Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram with writing to the prime minister recommending taking the matter out of court.

The bone of contention, Sarangi said, is an application submitted by the ministry of chemicals in the Madhya Pradesh High Court appealing to the court to order Dow to deposit Rs.1 billion against initial payment for costs of remediation.

Dow Chemical has said that it will not invest in India unless this application is withdrawn.

"The PMO files contain evidence that top level politicians and bureaucrats are conniving with Indian and US corporations to shut the book on the world's worst industrial disaster and its long-suffering victims without addressing the pending issues," said Rashida Bee, of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmachari Sangh in a statement.

Rashida claimed one letter reveals that Dow was advised by none less than the prime minister's principal secretary to meet and seek the opinion of Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi. Singhvi is also the legal counsel for Dow in the state high court.