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December 4, 1999
Seattle Remembers Bhopal
R S Shankar
When Anjali Kamat holds a 'Remember Bhopal teach-in' on December 5 at the Indo-American Community Service Center in Santa Clara she is hoping that the younger generation of Indian Americans will involve in fighting for the survivors of the world's worst chemical disaster.
She is among a handful of Indian American activists who are trying to engage the younger generation in social activism.
The 15th anniversary of the gas leak from a Union Carbide Corp pesticide plant in Bhopal has prompted scores of social activists in over half-a-dozen American cities to hold seminars and vigils.
In New York a class-action lawsuit filed last month against Union Carbide and its former chief has charged the company with racial discrimination in the alleged reckless operation of its Bhopal factory, as well as with crimes against humanity. No specific amount has been asked.
Union Carbide shareholders, meanwhile, have voted for its merger with Dow Chemical.
Union Carbide was very much on the mind of activists in Seattle last week who turned the city into a battle zone for at least two days. They say the multinational has not faced its responsibilities for the disaster; they scorn its claim that a disgruntled employee caused the accident, and they say the $ 470 million the company paid to the Indian government to rehabilitate the victims and pay the bereaved families is an insignificant amount.
''The issue of Bhopal is highly relevant" to WTO issues, said Tony Juniper, policy and campaigns director of Friends of the Earth, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The Friends of the Earth, in existence for nearly two decades, was one of the strongest and most visible of the demonstrators in Seattle.
"Companies like Union Carbide have a very narrow interpretation of their responsibilities to wider society," he said.
''If there is a disaster of the kind that occurred in Bhopal, they seek to remove any responsibility from themselves and try to limit their financial costs to the absolute minimum," Juniper said. "That is not a sound basis for reflecting human rights, environmental quality or public safety. What's happening here could certainly exacerbate those pressures."
Another report refers to the Bhopal disaster as "the Hiroshima of the chemical industry," and says Union Carbide violated the human rights of Bhopal's people by cutting costs and delaying precautions.
Sanford Lewis, a lawyer who wrote the report, said the WTO is now helping to pave the industry's way around the world, despite "the risks, or even the certainties, of injury, death and destruction" associated with some chemicals and processes.
He blamed western nations for their disregard for the safety of developing countries, and said ''When individual nations have tried to impose precautionary regulations to defend their citizens, exporting nations have appealed to the WTO to strike down rules as an unfair restriction of trade," he said.
Other companies whose practices are targeted in the report include Dow Chemical, DuPont and Monsanto.
But several leaders in the chemical industry questioned the critics.
Hal Bozarth, executive director of the Chemical Industry Council of New Jersey, a trade group, said the Union Carbide example may be instructive as a historical lesson, but has little bearing on current world trade issues.
"We've learned a lot from the Bhopal tragedy about community involvement and process safety," Bozarth told Newark Star Ledger. "But does that relate to today's world trade situation? I don't think so."
Companies that export chemical- process technology "don't downgrade their safety because they're in Thailand or because they're in China," he said.
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