The people of Bhopal are still awaiting justice

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The Independent Online

Two decades may have elapsed since the disaster at a pesticide plant in the Indian town of Bhopal, but the effects of that terrible night of 2 December 1984 are still being felt. The town's water supply is poisoned. A sample from a well near the site this year showed contamination 500 times higher than the maximum limits recommended by the World Health Organisation. The people of Bhopal are exposed to substantial chemical hazards every day.

Some 3,000 people died within hours of the accident, which spewed the deadly gas methyl isocyanate into the night air, choking people as they slept. A further 12,000 have died over the years as exposure to the gas has taken its toll on their health. Now it seems that more will continue to die as a result of the contamination of the water.

Union Carbide, the US company which owned the plant and which was charged with cleaning up the site, disputes the fact that Bhopal is still contaminated, but its record over the years hardly makes it a credible authority where questions of public safety are concerned.

The name Bhopal will forever be associated with great injustice. Those responsible for one of the most serious industrial accidents in history have never been held to account. Warren Anderson, the former head of Union Carbide, has not been brought to justice.

It took five years for the company to accept "moral responsibility" for the disaster. It eventually agreed to pay $470m compensation, to be distributed through the Indian government, but considering that 120,000 people still suffer from ailments caused by the accident, this was a disgracefully small sum. And the victims of the disaster were not consulted in the settlement discussions. Many, saddled with vast medical bills, feel cheated by the level of compensation. Some have still to receive it.

What has happened at Bhopal is a shameful example of corporate irresponsibility in a globalised age. The executives of Union Carbide must be brought to trial. The Indian and US governments must ensure that Bhopal is decontaminated and that all the survivors receive the proper compensation. It may be 20 years since the disaster, but the wounds of Bhopal are not even close to healing.

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