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Children take Bhopal fight to US

Indira Kannan  |  New York 

It’s not usually difficult to walk into the lobby of 101, Park Avenue — a Manhattan skyscraper with a huge open-air plaza and a fountain out front. The building’s website assures you that it would “encourage you to linger”.

But no “lingering” was permitted on Monday for a small group led by 12-year-old Akash Viswanath Mehta. Camerapersons following the group were shooed away — and sometimes shoved — off the plaza and on to the public sidewalk. Nobody from the gathering was allowed to enter the lobby of the building, which houses the offices of Kelley, Drye & Warren — the law firm representing Union Carbide Corporation and its former CEO Warren Anderson.

Mehta was there to hand over copies of the Indian warrant and criminal charges against Union Carbide and the then CEO of the company, Anderson, to their lawyers — a symbolic protest to highlight the lack of action by both the US and Indian governments.

He was accompanied by his elder brother Gautama, both of whom co-founded ‘Kids for a Better Future’, and activists from the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, or ICJB, a coalition that has campaigned on behalf of the victims of the Bhopal gas disaster for several years.

The group only got to meet with security guards and other building staff as some New York Police Department officers looked on. “We were denied access into the building. They wouldn’t even let us put a letter in the mailbox of the office we were trying to reach, which seems a little unnecessary,” said Gautama, after their unsuccessful attempt.

On the other hand, Brian Mooney, a professor of anthropology at New York University and a supporter of ICJB, had lower expectations to begin with. In 1984, when the toxic methyl isocyanate gas leaked from the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, Mooney was a young lawyer at Kelley, Drye & Warren, and on the legal team representing the company. He later became a supporter of the Bhopal victims, and accused Dow Chemical, which acquired Union Carbide in 2001, of being resolutely opposed to helping the victims.

ICJB activists held up a placard demanding the arrest of Warren Anderson and handed out pamphlets describing the Bhopal accident and its consequences. For many passersby, this was — they had never heard about the world’s worst industrial accident.

Stephen Steglitz, who works in an investment bank, was walking back from a meeting with a client and did a double take after reading a pamphlet and stayed back to ask the volunteers for more information. “This is worse than the oil spill,” he said, referring to the ecological crisis unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico following the explosion in BP’s oil rig. Pointing to the enormous pressure on BP to clean up the affected areas and to pay damages, he added, “Unfortunately it happened in India.”

While Monday’s effort to deliver the documents was unsuccessful, ICJB’s US Coordinator Shana Ortman said the group would mail them to both the law firm and to Anderson. She informed that ICJB was collecting signatures from all around the world to put pressure on the Indian prime minister and the government to request Anderson’s extradition again and to ensure that he and Union Carbide face trial in India.

Denied a meeting with Anderson’s lawyers, during which he also planned to hand over a personal appeal to the former executive, Akash’s audience turned out to be the impassive security guards instead, who showed no emotion as he read: “If you really feel that guilt, Mr. Anderson, don’t just hide — speak out, reflect publicly about your regrets, announce to the world your sympathy for and support of the Bhopali people, and demand that Union Carbide and Dow Chemical clean up Bhopal, and adequately and fairly compensate all the victims’ families.”

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First Published: Wed, June 16 2010. 01:36 IST