I beg to move,
That this House
has considered potential UK support for investigations into the Bhopal gas explosion.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey. I thank right hon. and hon. Members who are here to contribute for their interest in raising awareness of the tragedy and, most importantly, for campaigning for justice for the victims and survivors. I declare an interest as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for India (trade and investment) and the secretary of the Indo-British all-party parliamentary group.
As hon. Members know, 38 years ago next month, the greatest industrial disaster in history occurred in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, where a Union Carbide plant leaked 27 tonnes of the deadly gas methyl isocyanate. None of the six safety systems designed to contain such a leak was adequate or operational, allowing the gas to spread throughout the city of Bhopal. The aftermath was catastrophic: up to 10,000 people died in the first 72 hours of the leak; over half a million people were exposed to the gas; 25,000 people died as a result of gas exposure; 150,000 chronically ill survivors remain; and an estimated 100,000 people have been exposed to contaminated water. By 2002, Greenpeace reported that 150,000 victims were chronically ill, with—even at that point—one person dying every two days.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate and thank him for doing so. The Bhopal gas disaster is history’s worst industrial catastrophe: 25,000 people were killed or died later from their injuries. As he pointed out, approximately 120,000 to 150,000 people remain chronically ill, with no hope of recovery. Does he agree that, rather than being betrayed and ignored, after 38 long years victims and their families deserve justice, accountability and proper compensation?
Those figures are staggering, but several organisations have disputed them, saying that they are probably much higher in reality. Thirty-eight years is a very long time. I am 33 years of age; I was born in 1989—years after the gas leak. I fully agree with my hon. Friend’s point.
After the disaster it took almost five years for Union Carbide, in a partial settlement with the Indian Government, to pay out to some of the victims. The $470 million agreed resulted in 93% of claimants being awarded the equivalent of £380 each for what, in reality, are life-changing injuries. Over 38 years, that amounts to a measly and unjust 5p a day. The victims were not consulted during the settlement discussions and, understandably, many felt cheated by the compensation.
Although it may seem far-fetched, it appears that corporations value a Bhopali survivor’s life 100 times less than the life of an Alaskan seabird, because in 1989 —the same year as the partial settlement—Exxon spent $51,000 on the rehabilitation of each bird affected by its oil disaster.
The Dow Chemical Company, which is the parent company of Union Carbide, has for too long evaded its responsibility to the victims and survivors. Even before the explosion, the factory had been dumping toxic waste on the site and at nearby solar evaporation ponds, poisoning the water supply; and, after a cost-cutting spree from managers, old and faulty safety equipment was issued, and safety training cut from six months to two weeks. In addition, the safety training manuals were in English. It does not take a genius to work out that many people would not understand English in a state where the majority of people are Hindi speakers. Then again, that complete lack of awareness was evident when, only 19 years ago, Dow’s public affairs officer described the $500 payment in the 1989 payout as
“real good for an Indian.”
That is a disgusting attitude.
Today we are still campaigning for justice for the victims and survivors. Groups such as Action for Bhopal, the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, the trade union Unison, the British TUC, and Indian civil society and trade unions, have all called for compensation, environmental remediation, medical care and research, and support for the victims.
In 2013, Unison welcomed survivors of Bhopal to its national delegate conference, and I thank Unison for standing up for the victims. Several trade union members were killed in the Bhopal tragedy. If their concerns had been listened to by management, the leak might not have happened.
I place on the record the name of Mr Ashraf Mohammad Khan. He died horribly after being drenched in phosgene in an event just a few years before the 1984 tragedy. The safety systems at the plant were not only incredibly poor; they were virtually non-existent and accidents with fatal consequences took place earlier in the 1980s.
In this House, the work of my right hon. Friend John McDonnell, my hon. Friend Barry Gardiner and my right hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn has not gone unnoticed in the historic campaign to raise awareness of this tragedy. I am also aware that the right hon. Tessa Jowell, the late Member for Dulwich and West Norwood, was also supportive of the survivors and victims.
Sadly, despite the fact that it has been conceded that this was “a terrible tragedy” and one that continues to affect the citizens of Bhopal to this day, in written parliamentary questions that I tabled earlier this year the UK Government’s abdication of responsibility for the victims of this tragedy was plain to see. Indeed, what is more disappointing is that the Minister who responded claimed that responsibility for remediation rests with the Indian authorities, when it is clear that it lies with the Dow Chemical Company. It is very disappointing that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office seems to be parroting the lines of Dow’s public relations department.
In 2012, when we were celebrating the sporting expertise of nations from across the globe at the Olympics in London, the current Chancellor, who was then the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, signed off on Dow sponsoring a fabric wrap around the Olympic stadium at a cost of £7 million. I hope the Minister here today can explain why. Surely the Government agree that companies that abuse human rights that have failed to redress abuses for which they are responsible must be held to account and made to repair the harm they have caused, rather than being rewarded with highly profitable contracts and prestigious sponsorship agreements. Alternatively, is it the case that the current Government do not want to understand the plight of the victims and survivors?
Some people have wrongly alleged that this case is all but settled and that the pay-off in 1989 dealt with this monumental tragedy. However, it is far from “case closed” when justice continues to be evaded. In 1991, just two years after the settlement, a US Supreme Court order reinstated section 304B criminal charges against a dozen accused, which included Union Carbide. Over 30 years ago, Indian courts declared Union Carbide a “proclaimed absconder” for its failure to attend trial.
Since 2001, Dow has been issued with six summons and to this day it has still not appeared. India has since filed a curative petition in its Supreme Court to remedy what it termed “a gross miscarriage” of justice and perpetration of irredeemable injustice being suffered by the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy. The petition argues that civil compensation has been based on mortality and morbidity figures that were completely incorrect and far removed from reality. We await the next hearing on this tragedy early next year.
Before I secured this debate, the FCDO asked me whether I wanted a meeting to discuss the specific issues relating to the tragedy that I wanted to explore, so I will now directly raise those issues with the Minister.
As the Government continue to negotiate a trade agreement with India, which I of course welcome, we must not see our ties as being wholly about shared business interests, but about our shared responsibilities. Our responsibility in the face of this disaster, which took place 38 years ago, is to try to obtain justice for the victims and their families. That includes lobbying Dow to provide unpublished findings of all studies on the effect of methyl isocyanate on living systems, and to provide unpublished findings of investigations into the soil and groundwater in and around the Bhopal factory.
Additionally, Dow previously accepted liability for asbestos claims against Union Carbide in the USA predating the merger with Dow. When Dow settled a suit on behalf of Union Carbide in 2002, $7.16 trillion was wiped off Dow’s share price.
Given that Dow has offices in Britain, could the Minister—not civil servants, but the Minister—request a meeting with Dow executives to ask why there is this disparity between accepting liabilities in the USA and not accepting them in India? Does Dow value the life of American victims differently to how it values Indian victims?
In 2011, the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment published an article and video by two British environmental scientists, which suggested that double-blind sampling between Indian and European laboratories and eventual site clean-up works could be the way forward. However, they noted that such work would require high-level political support. Therefore, having abolished the Department for International Development and slashed the aid budget, will this Government be interested in remediating this historic injustice and providing the required political support?
Before I end, I pay tribute to Mr Rajkumar Keswani, the Bhopali journalist of the Jansatta daily newspaper, who raised the alarm about the Union Carbide plant before the leak, but was ridiculed. Between 1982 and 1984, he wrote several articles detailing the poor safety standards at the plant. If he had been listened to, this grave tragedy might have been averted.
I also thank Mr Nigel Smith, my good friend from my constituency of Stockport, who has been supporting Bhopali victims and survivors for many decades. It is now for Union Carbide and Dow to accept the “polluter pays” principle, which is adhered to by both India and the United States. Neither the Union of India nor the state government of Madhya Pradesh should bear any burden for this tragedy. Rather, Dow should front up all the financial burden and costs for the purpose of environmental clean-up and remediation, as well as the medical treatment of not only the victims but the survivors and their families.
Since the onset of the pandemic, evidence shows that the death rate of Bhopal survivors due to covid-19 is 6.5 times higher than those not exposed to the deadly gas. No one can say, therefore, that this disaster does not continue to blight the lives of so many. To Members across the House, who live thousands of miles from where the tragedy unfolded, it may seem remote, but for the victims, their children and families, whose lives and livelihoods have been affected by the events of the evening of
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey. I start by thanking my hon. Friend Navendu Mishra for securing this important debate, and by putting on record thanks to my union, Unison, for all its work to support the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal and the victims and survivors of that devastating incident.
That tragedy—the world’s greatest industrial disaster—exposed half a million people to toxic gas, with around 25,000 deaths to date as a result of that exposure. I also commend Rajkumar Keswani, who tried tirelessly to highlight the site’s health and safety dangers well before the tragedy took place. I do not want to reiterate what my hon. Friend has already mentioned but, suffice it to say, all this should not have happened: the deaths of thousands of people from immediate exposure to the chemical gas from the Union Carbide factory; the tens of thousands who lost their lives in indescribable circumstances since; and the hundreds of thousands suffering to this day with debilitating and deadly illnesses and diseases. Those responsible must be brought to justice.
This is a case of criminal corporate negligence, aided in the evasion of scrutiny and justice by Governments that protect profits and power over the people they are supposed to serve. The strength and bravery of campaigners in the pursuit of justice against the odds have been incredible. They should have the support and solidarity of every Member who stands for truth, justice and accountability.
Although the chemical explosion happened in 1984, nearly four decades ago, this living, breathing crisis is still creating new victims. It has created untold suffering for those who suffered the immediate impact, their children and their grandchildren, with the impact on future generations casting a dark shadow over the community. Rates of cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, autism and severe learning difficulties have exploded, and the situation is getting worse, not better. Hundreds of thousands are still suffering in pain, through cancer, stillbirths, miscarriages, lung and heart disease, and the slow and painful deaths of the families and communities, with no respite, support, compensation or justice.
The poison is still pumping through the veins of the survivors and their children. Even now, decades later, the mortality rate for gas-exposed victims is still 28% higher than average. Victims of the gas are twice as likely to die from cancers, lung disease and TB; three times more likely to die from kidney diseases; and more than 60% more likely to have serious illnesses. Rates of infertility, stillbirths, abortions, early menopause, and fertility have been disastrous, with immense social repercussions.
Those long-term health impacts are devastating, yet the meagre compensation paid out to victims after years of campaigning, amounts to little more than three and a half years of healthcare bills. Not one single arrest has been made. No one has been forced to help alleviate the ongoing environmental destruction, and the communities there are still forced to live in poisoned surroundings—forced to consume contaminated water, breathe poisoned air and live in areas still covered in toxic chemicals. No clean-up operation has ever been attempted.
Of the nine Indian officials who were convicted in 2010 for their role, none has served any time behind bars. No one from Union Carbide has ever been jailed for the gross negligence that led to the gas explosion, and the company has repeatedly refused to face justice and answer its court summonses. We all know that justice delayed is justice denied.
I will end by paying tribute to the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, and to everyone who has campaigned for a just response and settlement for the victims, and taken up their cause. Appropriate compensation—at a minimum of $8,000—must be made to each Bhopal survivor. Union Carbide must finally attend the criminal court case in Bhopal district that it has dodged for nearly a decade. The companies involved must hand over their findings and all studies on the effects of the methyl isocyanate, and the results of their investigations into the contamination of soil and groundwater in and around the Bhopal factory.
The Indian national and state governments must provide free healthcare to survivors, and fund research into the long-term health damage caused by exposure to toxic gas and contaminated groundwater. They must provide living costs for the survivors and widows of the disaster. Union Carbide must also take responsibility for cleaning the remaining hazardous waste, in line with international standards, and provide compensation for environmental health damages.
That is the bare minimum that we should be demanding for the survivors of the tragedy, whose lives have been torn apart. Criminal negligence has destroyed their lives and those of their children, grandchildren and future generations. They have already waited nearly 40 years. We cannot allow justice to be denied any longer.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Navendu Mishra on securing this debate. Bhopal has been described as an environmental disaster; I think it is actually the most appalling environmental crime in modern history. As has been said, tens of thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands have been affected. Lives were lost, and others were curtailed by terrible consequences—ill health, disability and congenital disabilities.
I remember when the first reports were coming into this country on Bhopal in 1984. It took time for us to become fully aware of the scale of what happened, but I remember the shock, and then the horror, ripping through my local community. As the figures began to be reported, we learned of the initial 10,000 deaths. The other facts that then came through were particularly shocking: half the pregnant women in the area aborting, and the wells and streams that more than 100,000 people depended on for drinking water contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals. As has been said, the figure bandied about recently is that the range is anything between 350,000 people to maybe 500,000.
For me, it soon became obvious that there was no doubt about how and why the event happened. Union Carbide, now owned by Dow, has, I think, been exposed for what it did, because it was about the pursuit of profit despite the consequences for the lives of its workers and local community. Despite all the warnings that we now know about from its own staff, despite all the individual accidents that took place where there was loss of life on site, and—most damningly—despite the knowledge of its own experts, the company pressed ahead with operations, using appalling and unsafe systems, until the inevitable happened and the disaster occurred. When lives are knowingly put at extreme risk, and lost as a consequence, the description for that is social murder. I believe that is what happened in this case.
What has compounded this criminal act is the way in which the company—Dow Chemical, as it now is—has evaded all legal and moral responsibility. It has failed to take the necessary remedial action to compensate the victims, restore the safe environment—as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport recommended—and provide the care and health treatment that those victims desperately needed to address the trauma that they suffered. I find it disgraceful that Dow, having committed this corporate criminal act, has been allowed to walk away with virtual impunity. As has been said, the compensation that has been provided is trivial to the extent of being an insult to the victims of this crime, particularly for those who have lost relatives. We need a new strategy to bring this corporate mass murderer to justice.
For too long, Dow has used its influence to evade justice and to buy its way into respectability in many circles. The sponsorship, or the wraparound, of the Olympics was one of those exercises. I spoke at the demonstrations in 2012 when constituents and others came together to appeal to the Government not to allow Dow to buy its way into that form of respectability. Unfortunately, we were not listened to. I hope that we will be now, because I think we need a new, determined strategy for justice. We know that the company will be in the Supreme Court in January next year, but we cannot rely on the Court to exercise the full extent of recompense that is needed.
I follow the line taken by my hon. Friend: we need compensation that is realistic to match the damage and the suffering caused. We need funding for the ongoing medical and social care needed by the victims, and, unfortunately because of the congenital impact of the poisoning, by many of their children as well. We also need to undertake economic and social rehabilitation of the area; there should be proper funding so that people can have a decent quality of life, and the local economy needs to be restored so that they have jobs. Above all, local people are calling for the environmental remediation of their community—restoring the environment from the effects of the pollution that occurred so that the area will be environmentally safe for generations to come.
We must say to Dow that unless it accepts its responsibility, and works with the Indian Government and representatives of the Bhopal victims to develop and fund this strategy for justice, it should be totally isolated. Part of that means that the Government in this country should ensure that the company will not receive any benefits by way of contracts, tax reliefs or Government grants. The UK Government have a role in calling out this perpetrator: it should be named and shamed, but action needs to take place to ensure that it fulfils its responsibilities.
Finally, I pay tribute to Rajkumar Keswani. There is a wonderful programme on BBC iPlayer at the moment, and I hope that others watching the debate will listen to it. It demonstrates the courage of the investigative journalism that exposed the truth of what happened on that fateful day 38 years ago. It was a heartbreaking tragedy, and we should not allow it to be ignored. We certainly should not allow Dow to walk away from its responsibilities to the people it has so brutally injured and murdered.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey, and to be involved in the debate. May I say how pleased I am to see Navendu Mishra setting the scene? He asked me last week whether I would come along and participate, and as I always do when I am asked to, I do so, but I also come along because he deserves support and he secured this debate for people who have been disadvantaged in every way. It is a real pleasure to follow John McDonnell, who sets the scene so well with his knowledge of the issues. He asked all the questions to which the Minister needs to respond.
Is it 33 years ago that the Bhopal disaster took place? When we think about that length of time and how people still suffer, I tell myself this: if this happened in Stockport or Strangford, we would not stop bringing questions or statements to the House, the Chamber, the Minister—whoever they were—and the Government to get satisfaction. I fully support what the hon. Member for Stockport says, because we have a duty, as I often say, to those who perhaps do not have a voice in Bhopal, across India and in other parts of the world. In this House, we have the privilege to be Members of Parliament and to bring these issues to the Minister’s attention.
The Bhopal gas explosion has had numerous long-lasting impacts up to this very day, and others have raised that issue. The industrial disaster is considered the worst in world history, yet the suffering goes on, which is disturbing. We must support further investigations into the Bhopal gas explosion, not to finger point—it is not always about finger pointing—but to find solutions. It is about how we can help the people and doing our due diligence in this place to ensure that further events do not occur anywhere else.
The impacts of this disaster are unheard of, although Members who have spoken and those who will speak later are highlighting just how important these issues are and what we need to do. To this day, the Union Carbide plant site has never been properly cleaned up and continues to poison the 2.5 million residents of Bhopal. What country in the world would let that go on and not be responsive to try to sort it out? Union Carbide did not give one penny of litigation until 1989, and furthermore it did not alert the communities and the people to the risks of drinking water near the site. I believe that Union Carbide is greatly in the court of blame in relation to negligence and intent that led to deaths and injury.
The right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington referred to the ongoing care and treatment that are required, and it is important that we respond in a positive fashion through this debate. Little did residents know that the water was lethally contaminated—that was not exposed until 1999, when Greenpeace ran a series of tests. We have a process in this country that is applicable across the world, which is the “polluter pays” principle, by which the polluter takes responsibility and pays for subsequent damages. Union Carbide and its new partner company refuse point blank to clean the factory or pay a penny towards the clean-up. I know that is not the Minister’s responsibility, but what has come back on that in her discussions with the Indian Government and perhaps with other officials?
While I appreciate that this is a separate issue, the seed of “polluter pays” was initially planted with the gas explosion in 1984, and some might say that not enough has been done to initiate further support. In response to a parliamentary question from the hon. Member for Stockport only at the end of last month—he referred to it, and I will quote it—the FCDO said:
“Union Carbide and DfID programmes ended in 2013 and 2015, respectively. The FCDO has had no direct engagement with the State Government on the gas tragedy since 2015.”
Wow, that is a real disappointment. I am not pointing the finger or criticising the Minister or the Government, but perhaps this debate will initiate the follow-on that the hon. Member for Stockport and other Members here would wish to have.
In answer to another parliamentary question, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said that the Bhopal tragedy
“continues to affect the citizens of Bhopal to this day.”
If it does, we need to engage again with renewed fervour and pressure to try to get the answers we are after.
It is widely acknowledged that while there has been instrumental support, through aid and healthcare services to Madhya Pradesh, the fact of the matter is that livelihoods are still damaged today. Furthermore, there has been ongoing discussion as to where accountability lies. We are aware that in 2001, the Dow Chemical Company bought the company. I therefore believe Dow inherited its legal liabilities along with its assets. It is not as if ownership can just be swapped and then everything just drops—it is much more than that. There is a moral case that must be answered.
There are lasting impacts for the second and even the third generation of children who have been born into that environment. The right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington referred to those who were pregnant losing their babies. Kim Johnson also referred to people being affected by cerebral palsy, autism, muscular dystrophy and severe learning difficulties. I believe accountability must be delivered for those people. We can only pray that this does not prolong the devastation for further generations of new-born children, with long-lasting impacts on their parents.
To conclude, I am mindful of how important this debate is. We have a responsibility to ensure those at fault are held to account for the devastations that the people of Bhopal are facing, and have been facing for over 33 years. There is no doubt potential for our Government to be in direct contact with the state Government of Madhya Pradesh again. If there was one thing I would ask of the Minister, it would be that. I say this honestly: I know that the Minister will take on board our requests and try to respond in a way that will satisfy us.
I see it from a different point of view, but it is the same issue and the same principle applies. We speak up for those who have no voice. This debate is an opportunity to do that, and to ask for a response from the Minister that can give us some assurance that those people are not forgotten. We are all too aware of the many legalities surrounding who pays the price, and who picks up the pieces. However, for some time—33 years—the only people paying the price have been those living in Bhopal. I look forward to seeing potential progress on this. I hope the FCDO and the Minister will take the subsequent steps to lobby those responsible to do their moral duty and to sort it out.
I thank my hon. Friend Navendu Mishra for securing this important debate. Despite the Bhopal gas explosion occurring almost 40 years ago at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, hundreds of thousands of Bhopalis are still living in its long shadow, unable to move on with their lives with dignity and justice. In addition to the 3,000 people who died almost immediately, there have been a further 20,000 deaths and 120,000 cases of people suffering from health problems, including severe deformities and blindness as a result of the toxic seepage into the surrounding area from the plant.
Since the disaster, survivors have been plagued with an epidemic of cancers, menstrual disorders—including the early onset of the menopause—and what one doctor described as “monstrous births”. Thousands of Bhopalis cannot work, physically move or study, and are living a miserable existence without any surviving family members. The apparent root cause of the accident was that the plant had not been properly maintained following the cessation of pesticide production, with tonnes of toxic chemicals remaining on site and left completely unmaintained and unchecked. In reality the root cause was greed.
It was not until 1989 that Union Carbide, in a partial settlement with the Indian Government, agreed to pay out the equivalent of £400 million in compensation. The victims were not consulted in the settlement discussions, and many felt cheated by their compensation of between £250 and £450 per person. That equates to five years’ worth of medical expenses. Today, those who were awarded compensation are hardly better off, because with such paltry sums, over the long term, that amounts to just 5p a day. The cost of a cup of tea in India for a lifetime of unimaginable suffering, all while Union Carbide, now Dow Chemicals, effectively sought to whitewash their crimes by sponsoring, as we have heard, the London 2012 Olympics. The company operates in nearly every country in the world, including the UK, with a market capitalisation of nearly £34 billion, but it failed to atone for its corporate crimes and has yet to pay the Bhopali people so that they can obtain justice and live with dignity.
The final figure agreed five years after the disaster was only 15% of the original settlement that the Government of India had requested. The amount was far below international compensation standards, as well as those set by the Indian Railways for accidents, which was the standard Union Carbide had said that it would use. In 1991, the local government in Bhopal charged the American, Warren Anderson, Union Carbide’s chief executive at the time of the disaster, with manslaughter, yet neither the US nor the Indian Government of the day were interested in his extradition to face trial after he fled India.
The Union Carbide Corporation was charged with culpable homicide, a criminal charge with no upper penalty limit. The charges have never been resolved as Union Carbide—now Dow Chemicals, of course—has refused to appear before an Indian court. Dow Chemicals says that the legal case was resolved in 1989 when Union Carbide settled with the Indian Government for the equivalent of £400 million and that all responsibility for the factory rests with the local state government, which now owns the site. To this day, despite requests to appear in court from the Indian Government and the compensation that may well be regarded by some as an admission of guilt, the company and its chief executives have not faced criminal charges and Dow’s share price keeps on rising.
In 2010, eight Indian employees were found guilty of neglecting to adequately maintain the factory once it was not profitable and it was that neglect that led to the explosion, as we know. They were ordered to pay just less than £1,500 each, which campaign groups have said is an insult and simply pocket change for the executives. On that day, Hamida Bi stood weeping. She said:
“Nobody knows how we suffered experiencing death so closely everyday…the rich and influential have wronged us. We lost our lives and they can’t spend a day in jail?”
Corporate America is running away from its responsibility to protect profits and its vast fortunes overseas. That is exactly what former Carbide director, Joseph Geoghan, implied when he spoke about Warren Anderson in hiding:
“Extradition in a case like this would place in jeopardy any owner or senior executive of an American corporation with significant interests in foreign enterprises anywhere in the world…The chilling effect on American investment abroad cannot be overstated.”
We cannot allow corporate profits or US interventionism to get in the way of the fresh investigations and reparations that the Bhopali people are calling for. Under international law, they have a right to redress and rehabilitation for harm done by companies that operate across borders. We must therefore assert and uphold the rule of law. We cannot allow class wars, or discrimination against workers or the working class in Bhopal, India, to get in the way of calls for justice. If this corporate manslaughter had taken place in Surrey or upstate New York, compensation would have been significant and justice would have been seen to be done. We cannot value the lives of people overseas in Bhopal less than lives here in the UK.
The disparity in treatment between industrial accidents here in the west and over there in the global south must not be allowed to stand. Because of its long-standing history with India and, of course, its long-standing history with the US, behind whose borders Dow is currently hiding, the UK is in a unique position to explore remedies for Bhopal survivors. As we know, the UK is deep in negotiation with India on an important trade deal, so both countries have an opportunity to explore whether the UK is in a position to assist India. In January, the Indian Government will argue for additional compensation from Dow and Union Carbide before India’s Supreme Court, to secure the adequate, timely remedies so cruelly denied to Bhopal survivors for so long.
As well as the actions that have already been proposed, an independent fact-finding mission to Bhopal is required if the UK Parliament’s approach is to be most effective. Such a mission would re-examine the realities on the ground, unpick the legal and political obstacles and recommend ways forward. It would be the first time a member of the international community had stepped up to intervene in what has so far been treated as an adversarial dispute. It is not an adversarial dispute between two parties; it is a situation that has only prolonged the suffering of survivors. The tragedy of Bhopal is one of the gravest miscarriages of justice of our time. Given our two countries’ unique history, the UK must move to morally correct that injustice.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey. I thank my good friend, Navendu Mishra, for bringing forward the debate. It has been insightful, inquisitive and incredibly important.
Let there be no doubt: the Bhopal disaster is one of the deadliest workplace disasters in industrial history, yet the lessons are yet to be learned and actions yet to be experienced. The devastation inflicted when the Union Carbide insecticide plant experienced a major gas leak nearly 30 years ago starkly and tragically illustrates the consequences of profit and corporate interests being prioritised over human and environmental safety. Furthermore, it highlights the inadequacy of corporate responsibility and the impotence of national Governments in holding those responsible to account. As a result, the Bhopal disaster victims are still waiting for justice.
As we have heard, nearly 4,000 were killed instantly when deadly levels of poisonous methyl isocyanate leaked into highly populated areas of Bhopal, and over 16,000 died subsequently. Estimates suggest that, in total, 600,000 people were exposed to the highly toxic gas, and they have since reported suffering a series of respiratory and other health issues. There have also been serious and life-changing birth defects in their children. The mortality rate for gas-exposed victims is still 28% higher than average, and that is after four decades. They are twice as likely to die of cancers, diseases of the lung and tuberculosis, three times as likely to die from kidney diseases and two thirds more likely to have illnesses.
To this day, the site of the incident is heavily contaminated and continues to affect those who live in the vicinity. Amnesty International states that more than 100,000 people—that is almost the size of the city I represent—live with contaminated water and supplies and are exposed to the chemicals. They experience a range of health problems and chronic illnesses, including cancer, stillbirths, congenital disabilities, miscarriages, and lung and heart disease. Shockingly, most of the gas victims seeking treatment continue to be classed as “temporarily injured” to deny them enhanced compensation for permanent injury. It is vital that these victims receive the justice they deserve, including compensation, continued welfare support and the decontamination of this site, and we must support anything that helps achieve that.
There is no doubt that the behaviour of Union Carbide at the time of the disaster and since has been shameful. After the disaster, it blamed the workers, and in 1989 a compensation deal ended up with most victims receiving just 25,000 rupees—roughly £250—while some received nothing at all. The settlement in 1989, which saw $470 million go to the Indian Government, has been widely panned, yet despite that and despite successive legal challenges over subsequent decades, not a further rupee has been forthcoming.
The plant’s current owners—Dow Chemical—need to rectify the environmental damage by properly disposing of the toxic waste. They also need to properly compensate the victims and their families and to provide them with safe drinking water and free medical care. However, Dow Chemical has attempted to absolve itself of any liability and has instead suggested that the Indian Government should take responsibility. We have heard about Dow Chemical from each speaker today, and it is shocking to think, as Claudia Webbe mentioned, that if this were in upstate New York, Surrey or Scotland we would be utterly horrified. Yet, after nearly 40 years, we are having to bring this case to light again today.
Both the US and Indian Governments have been accused of working against the victims by kowtowing to these corporate interests. On six separate occasions between 2014 and 2019 the US Department of Justice has refused to pass on the summons for Dow Chemical to appear in the Bhopal court on criminal charges of sheltering a fugitive—their subsidiary company, Union Carbide. That has been seen by campaigners as a direct violation of the treaty of mutual legal assistance between the US and India and has ensured that Dow Chemical has never appeared in court to answer the criminal charges. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s thoughts as to why that is.
Furthermore, classified emails released as part of WikiLeaks showed that, in 2010, when the Indian Government pushed to reopen the compensation settlement for Bhopal victims, Robert Hormats, who served as President Obama’s Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment, met the then Indian Cabinet Minister Montek Ahluwalia to communicate that it would
“look really bad to reopen a settlement”.
The Indian Government have been accused of deliberately suppressing any research that proves the long-term systemic or genetic damage caused by the gas explosion to protect the corporations involved.
One recent, rare study authorised by Government medical body the Indian Council of Medical Research found that between 2016 and 2017 almost 10% of babies born to gas-exposed mothers had birth defects, compared with 1.3% born to mothers with no exposure. However, the study was subsequently discredited by the ICMR, which ordered it not to be published or disclosed.
While on a visit to the US in 2015, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met officials from Dow Chemical, yet Dharmendra Kumar Madan, the Joint Secretary at the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers, which was responsible for Bhopal, refused to comment, simply stating:
“I am not concerned with this issue.”
My message to the Minister responsible for chemicals is that this is not going away. We are not going to let up. This has to be urgently and properly addressed in every way.
“From the beginning the government has protected the corporations at the cost of human lives”.
Every year that passes is another year that the core issues facing the survivors of the Bhopal gas explosion remain unaddressed. I pay tribute to the organisations in India, internationally and here that have been relentless in their pursuit of justice and in ensuring that this tragedy has not fallen off the radar. I commend the work and solidarity of Action for Bhopal, the Scottish Trades Union Congress and the Scottish Hazards campaign, in campaigning on this issue to see the victims finally receive closure.
The SNP supports any action from the UK Government to seek justice for those affected, and we seek further details about what plans, if any, they have to support investigations in the pursuit of redress for the victims. There are a number of actions that they can take, and some excellent suggestions have already been made. For example, no clean-up operation of the chemical contamination around the former factory has been conducted—it is shocking that there has not been any clean-up in 40 years. The UK Government might look to aid that process by providing expertise, funding and resources to test and clear up the site. Furthermore, they can seek answers from their allies in India and the US on why they continue to block further investigations and further compensation claims, given the scale and impact of the tragedy.
It goes without saying, nearly 40 years later, that things should never have got to this stage. No individual, corporation or Government should think that they can walk away from this tragedy without any accountability and responsibility. This is not something that can be wilfully ignored and forgotten about. The people of Bhopal suffer the consequences day after day, year after year and now generation after generation. They must have justice, and the UK Government must play their part.
It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. As my hon. Friends the Members for Slough (Mr Dhesi) and for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) said, there is no question but that the industrial disaster in 1984 was a catastrophe of epic proportions, with even the most conservative estimates acknowledging that thousands of people, mainly from poorer, informal settlements around the factory, were killed instantly. Many, many more families and their children were harmed, and the local economy and environment were fatally harmed. As my hon. Friend Kim Johnson said, countless more victims were injured or saw their lives altered by the lingering effects of exposure, with the Indian Government in 2012 putting the number of severely affected survivors at a staggering 33,000. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport said, justice delayed is justice denied.
Naturally the communities involved, and the Indian people more broadly, have demanded justice and relief in order to begin to come to terms with the loss of life and the environmental damage that continue to leave a daunting legacy over the community. Their pain will continue until true justice has been delivered.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, who is chair of the all-party parliamentary group, has taken on the mantle of supporting the victims of this appalling tragedy. His attempts to secure redress for the survivors and the bereaved, both today in his remarks and in a series of written questions, deserve praise from Members across the House, and I know that the Minister will have heard him. Her predecessors have responded to the parliamentary questions he has tabled, and I wish to leave as much time as possible for her to respond in full. I also recognise the role that the international trade union movement, including British Unison, have played in exposing this tragic industrial accident.
As my right hon. Friend John McDonnell said, there has been a disproportionate impact on women victims of this terrible environmental accident. Half the women who were pregnant at the time of the catastrophe lost their unborn babies. He made the important point that we have still not seen the environmental degradation put right, let alone the provision of full financial recompense and of health and social care services commensurate with the damage that occurred as a result of this tragedy.
What is the UK Government’s response? I have three questions for the Minister. First, what dialogue has she had with her opposite number in the Government of India regarding UK support for them to bring to justice those responsible for the ongoing effects of this disaster? We should be an ally in supporting India in pursuing justice in this cause.
Secondly, if required by the Government of India, will the UK support further investigations into the health impacts and the cause of, and culpability for, the explosion? Will they support further efforts to alleviate the daily suffering and the need for medical, health and social care services?
My final question is an important one for future generations and has been debated in full this afternoon. What dialogue has the Minister had on supporting the Indian Government’s claim to make good the environment of Bhopal to international standards, in order to compensate people for this dreadful catastrophe?
I thank Navendu Mishra for securing the debate and raising awareness, nearly four decades on, of the brutal impact of the Bhopal disaster on so many. I am grateful to him and to all hon. and right hon. Members for their contributions, which could not have been clearer on the immediate and long-term impacts of the Union Carbide factory gas explosion.
For many of us—the older ones in the room—the disaster at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal is seared into our memories as one of the worst industrial accidents in history. As a teenager, I remember watching television footage and being genuinely incredulous at the failures of industry and aware, as Jim Shannon said, of the need to help—in a very simple way—those so shockingly affected.
The responsibility to respond to the tragic disaster has always lain with Union Carbide, an American company, and with the Government of India. Investigations by the Indian authorities established at the time that substandard operating and safety procedures and lack of maintenance had led to the catastrophe. As discussed earlier, Union Carbide provided a settlement of $470 million to the Indian Government to fund the clean-up, compensate the injured, support the families of those killed and provide ongoing welfare support to those affected. Hon. Members have made clear their view that the levels of compensation and support are considered inadequate and that the lack of clearance of contamination has had a very long impact on all in those Bhopali communities. These issues remain a matter for the Indian authorities, in particular the Madhya Pradesh state government, which has had control of the site and its remediation since 1998.
The UK did not provide any additional funding or direct support to India in response to the tragedy. However, the Department for International Development, under previous Administrations, supported development in the state of Madhya Pradesh that has benefited people, including those affected by the disaster living in Bhopal. The UK Government have also worked with the government of Madhya Pradesh to provide 11,000 slum dwellers with clean water and to increase the incomes of more than 66,000 rural households in the state, including in eight affected slums in Bhopal. We also supported the Madhya Pradesh health department to improve public healthcare, which also benefited victims of the Bhopal tragedy. Our support doubled the number of births taking place in hospitals and clinics, which increased the survival chances of newborns across the state.
Union Carbide compensation ended in 2013, and DFID humanitarian programmes to the Government of India ended in 2015. Since 2015, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has had no direct engagement with the national Government or with state governments on the Bhopal tragedy, but we continued to work with the state of Madhya Pradesh from 2017 to 2021 on issues around human trafficking and the establishment of a gender resource centre. The FCDO’s poorest states inclusive growth programme currently operates in four Indian states, including Madhya Pradesh, and the UK Government invested through it to increase the incomes of over 9 million people, make financial services available to 12 million people and improve the social status of over 5 million women.
Turning to the present day, our relationship with India is central to our foreign policy tilt toward the Indo-Pacific, as India’s economic success stories continue year on year and the UK and Indian Governments strengthen their relationship through our new comprehensive strategic partnership, which we launched last year. Our 2030 road map, launched by Prime Ministers Johnson and Modi last year, is guiding our co-operation in a range of priority areas, benefiting people across both countries.
Our 1.7 million-strong Indian diaspora community provides a unique living bridge of people, commerce, ideas and culture between our countries, which is why so many colleagues closely feel the importance of the debate. We are at an advanced stage of negotiations for a comprehensive free trade agreement that will benefit all regions of the UK and India, and we are working with India to support its transition to net zero, including through a $1 billion green guarantee and the British International Investment partnership. Co-operation between our countries has global impacts, perhaps best demonstrated through the global roll-out of 1.5 billion Oxford University AstraZeneca vaccines that were produced at the Serum Institute of India.
I hope that sets out the depth of the relationship that we are building with India. The Bhopal disaster was a truly shocking tragedy that, as colleagues have set out so well, highlighted appalling shortcomings in industrial safety standards. It is absolutely right that we remember the victims and work, as many have since, to prevent similar tragedies.
Would the Minister, as a result of this very moving debate, undertake to mention it in her next interactions with her opposite member in the course of her duties and in the conversations the Government are having with India, in order to express the solidarity of the House and to be an ally in seeking justice for those affected?
The hon. Lady pre-empts my next sentence. I will commit to raise with my Indian counterparts the concerns of all parliamentarians present about the need for continuing support and compensation for victims. The hon. Member for Stockport will appreciate that the UK Government cannot comment on the petition that is presently before the Indian Supreme Court, as this is a judicial matter for the Supreme Court. I can be clear, however, that we will not pursue trade to the exclusion of human rights. We regard both as important parts of the deep, mature and wide-ranging relationship that we have and are continuing to grow with India.
While the Bhopal gas leak and its terrible repercussions remain an internal matter for the Indian Government, the environment, healthcare, resilient infrastructure, economic development and the transition to net zero are all important areas of mutual interest in the UK-India partnership, which is very important to us. It is a partnership that goes from strength to strength and it is a partnership between equals, where honesty and truth are well spoken.
First and foremost, this debate is about the victims and survivors, who deserve justice. I thank all hon. and right hon. Members who have contributed. I am grateful to the Minister for her response, but it is disappointing that the Foreign Office seems to be parroting lines from the Dow Chemical Company and saying that Union Carbide and the Government of India are responsible for the clean-up. It is absolutely Dow Chemicals that is responsible. I also did not receive a response regarding the comments about the current Chancellor, the former Secretary of State for DCMS, who signed off on the sponsorship agreement for the London 2012 Olympics.
I welcome the trade agreement with India. The UK and India are natural partners, and the trade agreement will benefit people in my constituency and across the UK. However, we need to ensure that the agreement is about not just business ties but people-to-people links, culture, education and medical research and care—all those things.
I will finish with three questions to the Government that have not been answered. First, will the Government provide political support to achieve justice for the victims and survivors? Secondly, will they demand action from Dow Chemical in Britain, including demanding a meeting to put pressure on it to face justice in the Indian courts and provide the unpublished findings of all research conducted by Union Carbide and Dow since the disaster? Finally, will they apologise for allowing Dow Chemical to sponsor the London 2012 games, which gave Dow positive publicity and legitimacy?
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered potential UK support for investigations into the Bhopal gas explosion.