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    ABC Online

    ABC Online

    The World Today - Twenty years on: Bhopal victims still waiting for compensation

    [This is the print version of story]

    The World Today - Tuesday, 30 November , 2004 15:17:48
    Reporter: Kirsten Aiken
    ELEANOR HALL: It was one of the world's worst industrial accidents but nearly 20 years after a gas leak devastated a shanty town on the outskirts of Bhopal in central India, many of the tens of thousands of people affected are yet to receive compensation.

    7000 people died straight after the leak and human rights groups estimate that another 15,000 people have died from related diseases in the years since. As for the survivors - many of them are struggling to overcome chronic and debilitating illness.

    Amnesty International has today released a report to mark the anniversary, and says the disaster raised fundamental questions about corporate and government responsibility which still haven't been answered.

    Kirsten Aiken compiled this report for The World Today.

    SATISH JACOB: There's a man who's getting hysterical – he says he's not been given any medical aid. He's shouting, he's getting very upset. Doctors are trying to pacify him.

    KIRSTEN AIKEN: BBC Reporter, Satish Jacob, focusing on one of the Bhopal disaster's half a million victims.

    7000 people lost their lives soon after clouds of lethal gases escaped from the US-owned Union Carbide plant. Fifteen thousand have died from related illnesses in the 20 years following the accident. More than 100,000 more are still battling a variety of health problems, including breathing difficulties, eye disease, nerve damage, cancer, and gynaecological problems.

    John Mills was the ABC's correspondent in India in 1984. he discovered the Bhopal victims had realised quickly their lives would never be the same.

    JOHN MILLS: In the hospital wards there was a frightened silence from many people. There had never been much security or certainty in their lives, and now there was nothing but darkness.

    KIRSTEN AIKEN: Twenty years on, the Secretary General of Amnesty International, Irene Khan, says the Bhopal community's outlook hasn't improved.

    IRENE KHAN: The site itself has not been cleaned. Water is still contaminated, and pollution is still affecting the lives of hundreds and thousands of people.

    KIRSTEN AIKEN: Irene Khan says the victims lack adequate compensation and justice, since no action was taken against the company, Union Carbide, or its subsequent and current owner – Dow Chemical.

    IRENE KHAN: There is very clear responsibility on the part of Union Carbide and now its – the company with which it has merged, Dow Chemical – we believe that there is also a very clear responsibility on the government of India and the government of the state of Madhya Pradesh to ensure that people receive compensation, that the site is cleaned up, and more importantly, that proper safeguards are put in place to ensure that such a disaster doesn't happen again.

    KIRSTEN AIKEN: The company came to agreement with the Indian Government some time ago. Is the Government then guilty of failing its own people?

    IRENE KHAN: Well there was an agreement made between the Government and the company very early on in this process … that agreement did not take into account the views of the people who survived, and the victims … in fact there doesn't seem to be any clear evidence of what information was used to determine the size of the compensation …the number of victims, for example, or the numbers of claims, clearly are much higher now than had been estimated there.

    So the Government's failure, I would say, is threefold. First, in that the Government failed to insist on proper standards which would have prevented such a disaster arising in the first place. Second, the Government failed in properly consulting with the victims, and in properly negotiating compensation for them. And thirdly the failure is that compensation has been very slow in coming, and there doesn't seem to have been proper steps taken to stop the continuing pollution.

    PROTESTOR: What they're trying to tell the people of the third world, particularly, that such companies must not be forgiven. This is a crime of the highest order, and we mean it.

    KIRSTEN AIKEN: A lone protestor speaking to ABC correspondent, John Mills, near the first anniversary of the Bhopal disaster.

    It's only now that the protestor's words might soon ring true. The United Nations is discussing whether there should be an international human rights benchmark for business. Amnesty International's Irene Khan:

    IRENE KHAN: We think this is a very important document, because it sets international standards on what are the human rights responsibilities of companies, it provides governments with a common benchmark which they can use then, adopt legislation in their own countries, and to apply that legislation.

    This will mean that companies cannot pick and choose which jurisdiction they should work in. This would also strengthen the hands of many governments, particularly in the developing world, who can then stand up to companies and insist that they respect these rules.

    KIRSTEN AIKEN: But it looks as though the discussion has come too late for the people of Bhopal. Dow Chemical, which now owns Union Carbide, continues to deny responsibility for the state of the site as well as the victims' health.

    This is Kirsten Aiken reporting for The World Today.

    © 2004 Australian Broadcasting Corporation
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