Bhopal protests on 25th anniversary of killer gas leak

Indian activists marked the 25th anniversary of the Bhopal gas leak disaster Thursday with protests and demands that those responsible for thousands of deaths finally be held to account.

Survivors and people from all walks of life shout slogans during a rally on the 25th anniversary of the world's worst industrial accident near the old Union Carbide factory in Bhopal. (AFP Photo)

Demonstrators and survivors capped a week of commemorations with a planned march to the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, where on December 3, 1984 a cloud of methyl isocyanate gas killed up to 10,000 people within three days.

Studies released earlier this week showed the shantytowns surrounding the site were still laced with lethal chemicals that polluted groundwater and soil, causing birth defects and a range of chronic illnesses.

"The survivors of the tragedy, through these protests, are venting their ire against the state government for its inaction in clearing the toxic waste," said Satinath Sarangi of the Bhopal Group of Information and Action.

Research by the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) showed 25,000 people have died from the consequences of exposure since 1984.

After those studies concluded, government statistics said 100,000 people were chronically sick, with more than 30,000 people living in water-contaminated areas around the factory.

The government of Madhya Pradesh, of which Bhopal is capital, assumed responsibility for the site in 1998, and has only partially cleared the hundreds of tonnes of toxic materials scattered around the plant.

Thousands more tonnes lie just yards away from the plant in man-made "solar evaporation ponds" where Union Carbide was dumping waste for years before the accident.

The state government says the material is not harmful, and to prove this planned last month to open the site to visitors. It later reversed the decision.

In a statement released to coincide with the anniversary, Dow Chemical -- which purchased Union Carbide in 1999 -- said a 470 million dollar settlement reached in 1989 with the Indian government "resolved all existing and future claims" against the company.

Union Carbide "did all it could to help the victims and their families" until the settlement and said the Indian government should be responsible for providing clean drinking water and health services to residents.

It said at the time and continues to insist that sabotage was behind the leak.

Most of the settlement money was used to pay compensation of between 1,000 dollars to 2,000 dollars to victims who were left unable to work or with long-term ailments, but many received nothing at all.

"People came and told us we could apply for compensation," Laxmi Narayan, whose wife suffers terrible eye complaints apparently caused by the industrial accident, told AFP. "They took our name down, but we never saw a penny."

Demonstrators of all ages would rally to "push our longstanding demands of compensation, medical and health facilities and rehabilitation of victims," said Javed Naqi, a coordinator with the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal.

Criminal cases against former Union Carbide executives are pending in various Indian and US courts which hold them and Dow liable for the catastrophe.

Amnesty International called on Dow to "cooperate fully in the ongoing legal proceedings in order to ensure that those responsible are held accountable."

The Dow Chemical company is also one of the chemical companies who produced toxic herbicide Agent Orange for the US Army to use in the American War in Vietnam.

Agent Orange has now affected around 4 million Vietnamese, leaving its victims with a host of serious health problems. Subsequent generations of those exposed to the highly toxic substance have also been plagued with birth defects and poor health.

Vietnamese AO victims filed a lawsuit against the US herbicide producers in 2004, but American courts have rejected their requests for a trial.

Source: AFP

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