28 years later, women in Bhopal still waiting for justice
Tens of thousands of victims of India’s worst ever industrial disaster – the 1984 catastrophic gas leak at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal– are still waiting for justice, and women are suffering disproportionately, Amnesty International said.
The gas leak, which occurred exactly 28 years ago today, killed between 7,000 and 10,000 men, women and children just in the first three days.
A further 15,000 are believed to have died over the following years, while tens of thousands more have been left with serious health problems. Union Carbide was bought by Dow Chemical Company (Dow) in 2001.
“28 years is too long to wait for justice. The Indian government and Dow must finally compensate the victims properly, and the Indian authorities must also hold those responsible for this disaster to account,” said Madhu Malhotra, Director of Amnesty International’s Gender programme.
Women in Bhopal have suffered disproportionately since the gas leak. Many have suffered severe health impacts, including gynaecological and reproductive health disorders. As men affected by the disaster became too ill to keep on working, many women have also had to continue to take on the role of breadwinner, while at the same time caring for ill family members.
“On the night the gas disaster happened my pregnant daughter-in-law suddenly went into labour. We took her to hospital and as soon as they gave her an injection, she breathed her last,” said Rampyari Bai, one of the survivors of the leak and an activist in Bhopal.
But women are also at the forefront of the struggle for justice.
Local activists groups are demanding that the government adequately compensate the victims and provide health care to those who are still suffering.
“We are fighting for the issue of liability of Union Carbide, whether it is in US or in India. It is because people here believe that it's not just important to get compensation, but it's also important to get justice,” said Rachna Dhingra from the Bhopal Group for Information and Action.
There has yet to be a thorough investigation into the health effects of the disaster on people’s lives.
According to activists, there are still close to 150,000 people battling chronic illnesses of the lungs or liver.
The industrial skeleton of the former Union Carbide factory today still lies abandoned in the centre of Bhopal, with more than 350 tonnes of toxic waste untreated inside.
Some 40,000 people are still living next to the factory, and have been exposed to the toxic waste for years.
“Today 28 years after the disaster, in many senses the situation of the victims is worse than it was on the morning of the disaster. The people who are struggling are mainly poor and are mainly women,” says Hazra Bi from the local NGO Union Carbide Gas Affected Women's Collective.
Amnesty International urges the government of India and Dow to immediately clean up the site of the gas leak.
In 1989, the Indian Supreme Court announced a settlement between the Indian government and Union Carbide, without consulting with survivors. Union Carbide was asked to pay US$470 million in compensation, but even this inadequate sum has not been distributed in full to the victims.
Dow has consistently denied any responsibility for Union Carbide’s liabilities in Bhopal.
In August 2012, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that greater powers should be given to the committee monitoring the rehabilitation of victims of the gas leak. Activists say they hope the decision will lead to better healthcare for those affected.
“The decision was positive and must be urgently implemented. The only way for Dow and Union Carbide to finally put the legacy of Bhopal to rest is to work with the affected communities and government of India to fully, and effectively, address the human rights impact of the disaster,” said Madhu Malhotra from Amnesty International.
Photo: Bhopal survivor Hazra Bi works for the local NGO Union Carbide Gas Affected Women's Collective© Amnesty International