Amnesty International: Dow’s failure to offer remedy for Bhopal disaster has created a “sacrifice zone”

Aerial view of the abandoned industrial gas leakage site at Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, in February 2022 (image credit: Paulose NK /

The failure of the US-based chemical company Dow to provide remedy to victims of a deadly gas leak from a pesticide plant in India that resulted in the deaths of more than 22,000 people has created a “sacrifice zone” in which 500,000 more continue to suffer, Amnesty International has said in a new report published on 28 March ahead of the 40th anniversary of one of the world’s worst industrial disasters.

Issued before Dow’s Annual General Meeting of shareholders on 11 April, Bhopal: 40 years of Injustice, shows that the human rights-based case for justice and reparations for Bhopal survivors has never been stronger. Amnesty International is calling on companies and states to consider withholding business from Dow unless it recognizes its human rights responsibilities and takes meaningful and rapid action to redress these harms.

“Amnesty International’s report, almost 40 years on from the devastating gas leak in Bhopal, shows how Dow, as well as the actions of the US and Indian authorities, have created a sacrifice zone in which half a million people across multiple generations are suffering. This catastrophe remains immediate and urgent for people whose own health is ruined, or whose children were born with disabilities or who are being poisoned now through the contaminated local soil and water,” said Mark Dummett, Amnesty International’s Head of Business and Human Rights.

“The resilience and determination of the Bhopal disaster survivors and campaigners for justice over decades is truly remarkable and inspiring but human rights are still being abused and denied today. Many children were among those initially killed but some who survived had to stop school and work to help care for parents poisoned by the gas, leaving a legacy of poverty and destitution.”

“Environmental racism enabled this catastrophe and the contemptuous and cynical response of those who have sought to delay justice to its victims, and shamefully continue to evade their clear human rights responsibilities.”

At the time of the disaster the plant was ultimately owned by the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), based in the United States. UCC was subsequently acquired by Dow, which is also domiciled in the United States, and disavows any liability. Responses from the companies are available in the annex of the report.

A sacrifice zone, enduring harm, and environmental racism
The report concludes that the area around the plant is so badly contaminated, and the health consequences from poisoned well water and toxic soil on local communities so severe, that it is a sacrifice zone – which are typically characterized by catastrophic and lasting harms to the health of marginalized communities caused by pollution from businesses.

The report adds that environmental racism, which can be the result of discrimination based on race, caste and/or religion, either intentional or otherwise, underpins the disaster and its aftermath. This includes operating a pesticide plant that stored and processed highly poisonous chemicals – and which was maintained and supervised below standards of equivalent UCC facilities in the United States – next to densely populated and predominantly Muslim and lower-caste communities living mostly in poverty and in informal housing.

When a storage tank ruptured close to midnight on 2 December 1984, sending tonnes of deadly Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) gas into nearby communities, about 10,000 people were quickly killed. Many who initially survived suffered horrific health problems including chronic respiratory and immune system illnesses, resulting in the premature deaths to date of about 22,000 people, and leaving many times this number permanently harmed.

A disproportionate percentage of children whose parents who were exposed to the gas have been born with disabilities or have congenital disorders, and the incidence of miscarriages and stillborn births within affected communities is far higher than normal.

In 1994, UCC abandoned the facility without an environmental clean-up or dealing with a large chemical stockpile, resulting in severe contamination of local water sources and soil. This has caused devastating and ongoing harm to the health of local residents, and been linked to chromosomal abnormalities similar to those diagnosed in people exposed to the initial gas leak.

Amnesty International has previously shown how a settlement between UCC and the Indian government in 1989, which averaged about US$500 per victim, was wholly unfair, inadequate and improperly administered. The report notes that when asked to comment about this settlement following its purchase of UCC in 2001, a Dow spokesperson said, “US$500 is plenty good for an Indian”.

To have a legal claim against it dismissed from US jurisdiction, UCC argued that it was impossible for American courts and juries, imbued with US cultural values and expectations, to understand the living standards of people in the informal housing surrounding the plant.

The report highlights how the US-government, through sometimes covert lobbying, pressured the Indian government to allow American nationals to escape criminal justice, and assisted in efforts to frustrate and delay extradition efforts and the serving of court summons on Dow. It helped shield the companies from attempts to hold them accountable and reinforced the unequal power dynamics involved.

It suggests that it is inconceivable that an Indian company operating on US soil could kill 22,000 Americans and then escape US-justice with the support of the Indian state.

Recommendations and remedy
Among its recommendations, the report urges Dow to report on its responsibilities regarding Bhopal based on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which Dow publicly claims to adhere to, and to publicly disclose its findings without delay. It also urges the group and the US government to assist with all legal proceedings, including criminal litigation underway in India.

Amnesty International calls on Dow and UCC to adequately compensate all survivors and remedy multi-generational harms. It also calls on the companies to contribute an appropriate amount towards a contamination assessment and clean-up, as well as to the provision of free high-quality healthcare to sufferers, and to future health and environmental monitoring.

It says the Indian state and local authorities must ensure the reliable supply of clean water to affected communities, facilitate the fair, prompt and transparent distribution of all outstanding compensation still in government hands, and make up any shortfall for those still suffering, or wrongly denied redress. Amnesty International calls on the Indian government to continue to seek legal remedy from Dow on behalf of the victims, and for a pledge of compensation to be included in the manifestos of the political parties ahead of elections in India in the next two months.

Mark Dummett said: “The 40th anniversary of this avoidable disaster is approaching, and despite public assurances of its commitment and compliance with international business and human rights standards, Dow continues to display callous disregard for the victims. Based on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights that Dow claims to uphold, it should abide by its responsibilities, and quickly help address the abuses that continue to cause so much suffering.”