Hesperian Health Guides
The Struggle for Rights and Justice
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To this day, the site of the toxic gas leak has never been cleaned up and the abandoned factory remains as a deadly reminder of the disaster. Piles of toxic chemicals still lie in the open air, and the groundwater beneath the city is poisoned. Many people never received the medical treatment they needed for their health problems. For these reasons, the people of Bhopal do not think of the disaster as something that happened in the past only. They see it as an ongoing disaster they must face every day.
The pesticide factory was owned by a multinational corporation (a big company that works in many countries) called Union Carbide. Survivors of the disaster knew it was not right that their lives had been so damaged by the disaster. The people affected did not have money to treat their illnesses or to care for their family members who could no longer work. They wanted the company to take responsibility. But Union Carbide said the disaster was caused by a worker in the factory, and refused to take any responsibility even though it was their factory design that caused the disaster.
Like other people struggling for rights and justice, the people affected by the Bhopal disaster knew that their poverty not only made their problems worse — it was a large part of why the disaster happened in the first place.
Why did the disaster happen?
The Bhopal disaster was, and is, a horrible event that should never have happened. But, as horrible as it was, it is not surprising. The "But why…?" activity can help understand the root causes of the Bhopal disaster.
All over the world, corporations build their polluting factories, toxic dumps, and other dangerous industrial projects among people who are most oppressed by poverty and low status. In this way, poor countries and communities become dumping grounds for toxic industries, products, and pollution. This is why protecting environmental health is not just a matter of each of us changing the products we use and how we dispose of them, but of all of us challenging how the powerful abuse their power and how the most vulnerable among us are made to suffer damage to their health.
The international campaign for justice in Bhopal
Survivors of the Bhopal gas leak worked together to bring attention to their suffering and to make the company take responsibility. They organized hunger strikes, and refused to eat until they were heard. They marched with no food or water for 750 kilometers (466 miles) to the state capital. They also marched to the national capital to demand justice. Women set up a tent in front of the office of the state's chief minister. They camped out there for 3 months. Every day from dawn to dusk they chanted their demands.
Several years after the disaster, a court ordered Union Carbide to pay $470 million to the Indian government. This was an important victory, but it was not enough. Most of that money never reached the survivors.
Soon after, Union Carbide was sold to another multinational corporation called Dow Chemical. Dow Chemical also refused to take responsibility or to help the affected people get treatment. Neither the government of India, where the disaster happened, nor the government of the United States, where both corporations are based, is willing to bring to justice the top corporate officials responsible for the disaster.
The survivors organized an international campaign to continue their struggle for justice. They built support among students, environmental groups, and human rights organizations. With support from people all over the world, the Bhopal survivors delivered their demands for justice to the headquarters of Union Carbide and Dow Chemical Company and the US and Indian governments. The survivors inspired others to go on hunger strikes and to take actions to bring attention to their suffering. And through it all, they have supported their families, organized their own health care, supported victims of other toxic disasters, and survived.
The rallying cry of the campaign for justice in Bhopal is "Bhopal, never again!" Their goal is to prevent similar environmental disasters in the future. By making their struggle international, they have taught people around the world important lessons about the long-term effects of toxic exposure. The Bhopal survivors have shown industrial accidents can happen at any time, and that the poor are always more affected by them than anyone else. Their struggle for rights and justice has become a model for community organizers everywhere.