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Court summons Dow Chemical over Bhopal disaster

Major breakthrough decades after world's worst industrial accident

Court summons Dow Chemical over Bhopal disaster

A girl walks by the old Union Carbide plant in Bhopal reporter, Bhopal

July 24, 2013

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Almost three decades after a disastrous gas leak in Bhopal which killed 25,000 people, a court on Tuesday issued a summons to US multinational Dow Chemical as an accused in the tragedy.

The decision represents the first time that Dow has been ordered to explain why Union Carbide – the company it took over and which operated the Bhopal gas plant – has in the past ignored a court summons.

Chief Judicial Magistrate Sanjay Pandey told the Bhopal court that Dow has until August 25 to respond to the order.

Audrey Gaughan, director of global issues at Amnesty International, described the court’s decision as “an important step in ensuring corporate accountability for the devastating consequences of the Bhopal gas leak.”

In addition to the 25,000 people who have died since the gas leak on Dec 13, 1984, a further half a million people have been affected making it the world’s worst industrial accident.

Dow has in the past disclaimed responsibility by arguing that it could not retroactively be held accountable for the actions of Union Carbide, a company it bought in 2001, 16 years after the disaster.

“Union Carbide is Dow’s 100 percent owned subsidiary with no other owner and it is trying to create confusion in its attempt to escape from its criminal responsibility,” said social activist Satinath Sarangi.

Dow’s Mumbai office declined to respond to the court’s decision.

The order comes after a series of lengthy court battles in India which had until Tuesday all ended with defeat for the various groups supporting the effort, or silence and non-compliance by Union Carbide in response to previous summonses.

The Bhopal Group of Information and Action filed the complaint which led to Tuesday’s landmark order in February.

The original application was filed in February, 2004 after Union Carbide refused to participate in the criminal case proceedings.

In 2005, the Bhopal court responded by issuing a summons to the Indian unit of Dow but it filed an appeal in the Madhya Pradesh state high court and received an interim stay which ended last year, paving the way for the latest development in the case. 

Balkvishina Namdeo, an activist who works for the victims, said that the new court summons would be more difficult for Dow to ignore than previous orders to Union Carbide.

“While Carbide does not do business in India, Dow does. It cannot afford to disregard the court's orders as Carbide has been doing all these years,” he said.

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