Victims of the Union Carbide gas leak continue to suffer, their injuries and deaths uncompensated. We must support them
By Indra Sinha, author of Animal's People, which was short-listed for the 2007 Man Booker Prize
On July 26 2006, my friend Sathyu Sarangi called me in tears from Bhopal to tell me that our mutual friend, Sunil Kumar, had taken his life. Sathyu said that when they lifted Sunil down from the ceiling fan from which he had hanged himself, he was wearing a T-shirt that said, "No More Bhopals".
Sunil was an orphan of the Union Carbide mass-gassing of Bhopal, losing his parents and three siblings on that night of terror. Aged 12, he began doing two jobs a day to bring up his surviving sister and baby brother Sanjay. He became a leader of the survivors' struggle for justice and was one of the people I loved most in Bhopal.
The BBC reported, wrongly, that Sunil was the inspiration for Animal in my novel Animal's People, but Animal certainly benefited from Sunil's courage, sense of humour and ability to live on 4 rupees (£0.05) a day. Like Animal, Sunil heard voices in his head, and suffered nightmarish visions. You can read his story here.
On the day that Sunil died, Dow Chemical's CEO Andrew Liveris visited the UN to deliver a much-publicised speech. Fireboats hired by Dow's public relations agency jetted huge sprays aloft over the Hudson River as Liveris told the assembled diplomats "Lack of clean water is the single largest cause of disease in the world and more than 4,500 children die each day because of it … We are determined to win a victory over the problem of access to clean water for every person on earth … we need to bring to the fight the kinds of things companies like Dow do best."
Stirring words. But when asked if he would clean up Bhopal, where the drinking wells of 20,000 people have been poisoned by chemicals abandoned by Dow's subsidiary Union Carbide, causing an epidemic of cancers and hundreds of children to be born malformed and with brain damage, Liveris replied, "We don't feel this is our responsibility".
Liveris couldn't be more wrong. Under the "polluter pays" principle enshrined in both Indian and US law, Union Carbide is responsible for cleaning up the contamination and compensating the thousands whose lives have been ruined. In buying Union Carbide's assets, Dow also acquired its liabilities. Dow set aside $2.3bn to settle Union Carbide's US asbestos liabilities. How then can it refuse to accept Union Carbide's Indian liabilities?
The hard answer is that Indians are not quite as human as Americans. Dow paid $10m to settle out-of-court with an American child damaged by Dursban, a pesticide so dangerous that it has been banned for domestic use in the US. But Dow employees were found to have bribed Indian Ministry of Agriculture officials to license Dursban as safe for home use in India. If an Indian child dies I doubt if there'll be $10m or even $10,000. As a Dow public affairs chief famously remarked of the paltry compensation paid to Union Carbide's victims, "$500 is plenty good for an Indian".
Why doesn't the Indian government force Dow to clean up Bhopal? The Indian law ministry has advised Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that Dow is indeed liable for Union Carbide's misdeeds in Bhopal. It's exactly what he doesn't wish to hear. He and his ministers are in contortions to appease Dow, which has offered to invest $1bn in India if freed from its Bhopal liabilities. When news broke of this sordid backroom hustling, 280 legal professionals, among them retired judges and eminent lawyers, said the attempts to exculpate Dow were unconstitutional and illegal.
Earlier this year, 50 Bhopali survivors, many old and sick, walked 500 miles to Delhi to ask the prime minister for safe drinking water and to make Dow clean the factory. For two months Manmohan Singh left them camped on a sweltering pavement without a reply. When Bhopali women brought their damaged children to his house and chained themselves to his railings, he had them arrested. The policewomen who led them away wept.
When India's prime minister finally gave a reply, it was all prevarication, no substance. The Bhopalis then declared that they would launch an indefinite hunger strike until their demand for justice was met.
On the eve of the fast, police beat up women and children as young as six years old who had gone to protest outside the prime minister's office. The police said they'd been told to get tough. Many of us around the world rang to protest and I asked a Mr Muthukumaran of the prime minister's office if Manmohan Singh had ordered the beatings. "Are you joking?" he replied. On the contrary, I had rarely been more serious.
As I write this the Bhopalis are still in jail, and we hear that Dow Chemical is sponsoring an exhibition called The Gallery of Good at the Cannes advertising festival. Next Monday, Dow will present The Chemistry of Socially Responsible Marketing, which is presumably the advertising campaign on which it has lavished upwards of $100m. But telling lies beautifully does not make them true. Wouldn't it have more socially responsible to use the money for cleaning up Bhopal?
I have spent much of the last five years writing a novel in which victims of a chemical disaster caused by a rogue corporation are sold out by their own politicians, triggering a desperate hunger strike. Animal's People is set in the fictional city of Khaufpur, but whatever success it has had, it owes to the inspiring courage and spirit of the Bhopalis, and the descriptions of the hunger strike were drawn directly from the experiences of my friends.
Sunil is dead, but on their small stretch of pavement in Delhi, now battered by monsoon rain, nine others have sat down to begin an indefinite fast for justice. Among them are my old friend Sathyu and, grown up into a fine young man, Sunil's baby brother, Sanjay.
How can I not join them? How can we all not support them?