Bhopal Survivors visit Parliament

I recently chaired the first meeting of the new session of the Cross Party Group on International Development.

In my role as convener, I was pleased to welcome survivors of the Bhopal Disaster to address the group. Also in attendance were representatives from the Scottish Friends of Bhopal project.

The disaster was the result of a gas leak in the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, which occurred in December 1984. The leak resulted in almost 600,000 people being exposed to poisonous gas and it has been estimated that, to date, the disaster has claimed the lives of 25,000 people.

There are between 120,000 to 150,000 survivors of the disaster who are living with chronic health conditions and thousands more are still dying. One of the most shocking points that was made was that after 28 years people are still drinking contaminated water. Although the issue has been discussed in the Indian Parliament, there is great concern that the process of providing clean drinking water is taking so long.

Much of the controversy surrounding the disaster has focussed on the role of the company, Union Carbide India Limited, which is now owned by the Dow Chemical Company.

In the aftermath of the disaster, issues including working conditions, equipment and safety regulations were highlighted. Union Carbide claim that the incident was the result of sabotage and that appropriate safety measures were in place.

In 1989 the company paid the Indian Government £470m in a settlement which many have described as woefully inadequate.

In 2010, seven men were prosecuted for their role in the incident. However, there is a great sense of injustice at the fact they each received sentences of around two years.

Tensions over the issue were recently flared over Dow Chemical’s sponsorship of the Olympic Games in London.

Balkrishna Namdev is a survivor of the gas leak in 1984 and has worked ever since with the most vulnerable Bhopal residents who were affected by the incident.

He spoke passionately about the human and environmental hardships that have been forced on the area following the disaster.

The health impacts of the disaster can still be seen today with people suffering from a range of conditions such as blindness and failure of internal organs including the liver and kidney.

The disaster has also left a devastating legacy for many people born after it occurred.

Safreen Khan, the second speaker at the event, is a second generation survivor – she was born to gas exposed parents and knows the inherited problems of the gas leak as well as the impact of living with water contaminated by the factory site.

Now 19, she has been instrumental in setting up Children Against Dow Carbide with other second generation survivors.

Following the meeting I have written on behalf of the cross party group to the UK Government, the Indian Consul General and the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop, to highlight the continuing suffering associated with the disaster and to call for action to ensure justice for the thousands of people affected.  I’ve specifically asked Fiona Hyslop to raise the issue of justice for the Bhopal community during her visit to India during the October recess.

I have also written to organisers of the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games to highlight the controversy over Dow Chemical’s sponsorship of the Olympics and to ask ensure that Dow is not invited to be a sponsor for the Games in 2014.