By MUNEEZA NAQVI, Associated Press
BHOPAL, India (AP) — On a cold winter night, more than 27 years ago, waves of a lethal gas escaped a chemical plant and swept over the ramshackle homes of this city's sleeping poor, killing thousands and sickening half a million people and making Bhopal synonymous with industrial disaster.
The survivors, still plagued by lingering illnesses, sick children, the holes left by dead relatives, faded away from the world's memory. Now, they have a serendipitous chance to seize perhaps the world's biggest stage to remind everyone of their existence — the London Olympics.
Bhopal activists, hoping to emulate the Tibetans who dominated headlines ahead of the 2008 Beijing Games, accuse Olympic sponsor Dow Chemical Co. of owing them compensation for their sorrow even though the giant corporation played no role in the accident. Dow disputes that it has any obligation, saying it purchased the company responsible for the Bhopal plant only after it had settled a liability case with India's government.
The suffering of the Bhopal victims, however, is undeniable.
Activists say that thousands of children born to parents directly exposed to the gas leak or poisoned by contaminated water are plagued by brain damage, cerebral palsy, stunted growth, cleft lips, missing palates. Cancer rates are inordinately high. Skin, vision and breathing disorders are endemic.
And for that prolonged suffering, the survivors have blamed both their own government and Dow. The government for negotiating a low compensation and then ignoring them. Dow, because 16 years after the tragedy it bought the Union Carbide Corporation, an American company that had a majority stake in the pesticide plant that leaked the lethal methyl isocyanate gas.
The rest of the Indian subsidiary was owned by Indian investors and financial institutions. Ten years after the tragedy, the subsidiary, Union Carbide India Ltd, was sold to an Indian company now called Eveready Industries.
But the anger of survivors, activists and now even the government has now primarily been focused on Dow, and the company's high-profile Olympic sponsorship has re-energized their desperate fight for justice.
They blocked trains by laying on rail tracks, wrote impassioned letters to officials and athletes, pushed the Indian Olympic Association and the sports ministry to lobby the International Olympic Committee to drop Dow as a sponsor. The sports ministry also hinted that a boycott could be an option.
Dow, which is sponsoring a $11 million decorative wrap that will sheathe London's Olympic Stadium, has long denied responsibility for the gas disaster. Dow says the legal case was resolved when Union Carbide settled with the Indian government for $470 million in 1989, a decade before it bought the company. It says all responsibility for the factory and any lingering contamination now rests with the state of Madhya Pradesh, of which Bhopal is the capital.
As the case has garnered renewed national attention and sympathy in India, the state's position has dramatically changed.
In 2009, Babulal Gaur, the state minister for Gas Relief and Rehabilitation told The Associated Press that the birth defects in the victims' children were mostly caused by poverty. He acknowledged the state owned the land where the now-shuttered plant stands.
However, on Tuesday he called Dow a "murderous" company and said the health woes of the survivors and their families were its responsibility.
Eveready, the Indian company that now owns the subsidiary that directly controlled the plant, has no responsibility, he said.
Survivors and the activists who support them argue that Dow's legal responsibilities are far from over. In recent years, the government has revived the case against Dow.
In February 2011, India's Supreme Court issued notices to Dow Chemicals and Union Carbide Corp. saying it will begin hearings on a government petition asking for an additional $1.7 billion in compensation for the victims.
Activists say its purchase of Union Carbide also makes Dow responsible for lingering contamination and other issues.
The IOC says Dow was not responsible for the gas leak and would continue as an Olympic sponsor. British Prime Minister David Cameron has backed that decision.