If successful, "restorative justice" could also provide a way forward for future cases—and force companies to put people, and the planet, before profitsby Martin Wright / December 7, 2017 / Leave a comment
A common reaction to mention of the Bhopal poison gas disaster is “I think I’ve heard of it, but wasn’t it a long time ago?” Indeed, it was—in 1984 to be precise—but people are still suffering its after-effects. Worse, there has been a second poisoning: deadly chemicals left on the abandoned site are leaching into the water supply.
Humera is one young victim who is suffering, despite being born years after the disaster. She is three years old and has a serious development delay. Humera’s grandmother was exposed to Union Carbide’s poison gas in the 1984 Bhopal Gas Disaster. Humera and her parents live in the Nawab Colony area where they were exposed to the water contaminated by toxic waste while the Union Carbide factory—now abandoned—was still in production.
This contaminated groundwater aquifer has been the primary drinking water source for tens of thousands of people for many years and is widely believed to be the cause of a spate of health problems and birth defects now affecting a third generation in the communities living here.
Humera is not the only child affected. Ateek Uddeen is 15 years old and suffers from cerebral palsy. Both his parents were exposed to Union Carbide’s poison gas in the 1984 Bhopal Gas Disaster.
Enna is 5 years old and suffers from mental retardation along with cerebral palsy.
Enna’s father was exposed to Union Carbide’s poison gas in the 1984 Bhopal Gas Disaster, and her mother died two years ago.
According to the Bhopal Medical Appeal, to which many British people have contributed, there is an epidemic of unnatural births. Thousands of children are being born malformed, with brain damage, or both. Blind, lame, limbs twisted or missing, deaf-mute, brain-damaged, with hare-lips, cleft palates, webbed fingers, cerebral palsy, tumours where eyes should be: these are the children of Bhopal, two generations after the fatal gas leak in 1984.
The Sambhavna Clinic, funded by the appeal, treats thousands of survivors, and has commissioned large-scale research. Preliminary results show over ten times more cancers than among people not exposed to the gas.
How did it all happen? A company controlled by the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) operated a pesticide factory in Bhopal, but safety precautions were skimped. Just after midnight on 3 December, 1984, huge quantities of the volatile, deadly gas methyl isocyanate (MIC) escaped.
Within three days 8-10,000 people had died from exposure to the gas, rising later to an estimated 25,000; up to 500,000 suffered damage to eyes, lungs and other organs.
In the immediate aftermath, the company took steps which many have argued appeared to aim mainly at limiting the compensation payable and the damage to its reputation. In 2001 UCC was taken over by the Dow Chemical Company, which claimed however that it was taking over UCC’s assets and not its liabilities. In September 2017 Dow, in turn, merged with DuPont to form the world’s largest chemical company, DowDuPont Inc.
To this day, Union Carbide has never answered the criminal charges outstanding against it and its current owner Dow, when summonsed to explain why it should not produce Carbide to the courts, simply did not turn up.
A ‘curative petition’ in India’s Supreme Court aiming to address inadequacies within the 1989 civil settlement of the initial disaster (U.S. $470 million) remains stalled despite the Indian Government’s official position stating that the “gross inadequacy” of the 1989 settlement, with Union Carbide, resulted in an “irremediable injustice.”
Marches, hunger strikes and other protests have not succeeded in persuading the government to take decisive action.
A small group of Quakers and others is trying another way, inspired by a case reported by the Australian criminologist John Braithwaite in his book Restorative justice and responsive regulation. In this case, insurance companies were misselling worthless policies, including to poorly-educated Aboriginal communities.
Top managers from the companies visited them and met the victims; some went back to the city ashamed of what their company had done. There were discussions with regulators and even the prime minister, and reforms to the law and regulations followed. This restorative problem-solving was accomplished without going to court (except for two individuals who refused to co-operate).
The new group, called Restorative Action for Bhopal, has tried to secure face-to-face contact, so far without success, but plans to continue. It will enlist the support of influential people, and use other approaches such as letter writing.
It will avoid the all-too-easy ‘blame game’; instead, it will concentrate on the humanitarian and human rights implications, as well as the commercial advantages to the newly merged company of starting with a clean slate and demonstrating its expertise in removing contaminants such as arsenic and mercury from water. The group is in touch with the Quaker South Asia Interest Group and Quakers in Bhopal, and all like-minded people who would like to help are invited to get in touch.
If they are successful, the model is one worth bearing in mind for future cases. For Bhopal is only one example, among many, of a multinational company causing severe environmental damage through its operations in less developed countries.
There is beginning to be a recognition that businesses have a responsibility to “put people and the planet alongside profits,” to quote from a group of business leaders and others called the B-Team. This is a welcome statement of principle, and it is up to all of us to hold them to it. But as Bhopal is the most serious and longest-running case, it should be at the forefront of such a campaign.