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Bhopal Gas Victims Still Await Justice 25 Years Later

India is marking the 25th anniversary of the leak at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in the city of Bhopal. The victims have generally been left in a legal haze since the ill-fated night (Dec. 2, 1984) when a toxic-gas cloud spread across the central Indian city.

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India is marking the 25th anniversary of the leak at the Union Carbide pesticide plant in the city of Bhopal.  The victims have generally been left in a legal haze since the ill-fated night (Dec. 2, 1984) when a toxic-gas cloud spread across the central Indian city.

Victims of the gas leak, accompanied by family members and supporters, took to the streets of Bhopal to demand long-delayed justice.

They want accountability for the deaths of thousands of people and the ill effects suffered by - in the Indian government's estimate - a half million individuals.

There have been numerous civil and criminal cases, filed in India and the United States. 

Warren Anderson, 88, who was then chairman of Union Carbide, faces manslaughter charges in India. The United States, five years ago, rejected India's request to extradite him.

A nearly one-half-billion dollar settlement was paid by Union Carbide to the Indian government in 1989.  Disabled survivors say what eventually trickled down to them, amounting to an average of a few cents a day since the tragedy, is woefully inadequate to pay medical bills and replace lost income.

India's prime minister, Manmohan Singh, commented in a statement that the victims "can never really be fully compensated." 

Mobile protest truck in New Delhi marking 25th anniversary of Bhopal gas leak.
Mobile protest truck in New Delhi marking 25th anniversary of Bhopal gas leak.

The parent company of the Indian subsidiary was bought by Dow Chemical of the United States in 1999.  Dow maintains all legal liabilities were settled with that one-time payment.

New York-based lawyer Rajan Sharma, who represents Bhopal plaintiffs in a groundwater contamination case, filed in 1999, disputes Dow's stance.

"The U.S. Court of Appeals has rejected that argument at least four times," Sharma said.  "There is absolutely no doubt the present-day litigation that concerns environmental pollution stemming from the Bhopal plant is completely outside the scope of the 1989 settlement."

Sharma, speaking to VOA from Bhopal, says he hopes American judges will rule the plant's original owner is legally responsible, no matter how much time has passed.

"We are cautiously hopeful that the American courts will see that Union Carbide is playing a game here whereby it will not submit to the jurisdiction of India's courts.  It will not allow India to apply its own laws to address this problem.  The American courts will see that if they do not address this Union Carbide will essentially to have been allowed or permitted to escape liability altogether."

Dow declined VOA's requests for an interview.

Anti-Dow Chemical petition signed by Delhi college students.
Anti-Dow Chemical petition signed by Delhi college students.

Union Carbide claimed a disgruntled employee sabotaged the plant, causing the leak of tons of toxic gases.  Activists contend a faulty plant design or neglect was to blame.

Union Carbide documents no one has bothered to remove remain at the neglected site inside buildings with broken doors and smashed windows.  Lawyers and activists say the files, could be pertinent to the lingering legal cases.

Telegrams and other papers obtained by VOA from the site discuss leaks and other problems at the facility prior to the December 1984 disaster.  The full picture is slowly vanishing, however.  Security guards on the site say they use the remaining documents to light fires on chilly nights.

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