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Passage to More Than India

Greenpeace International Meets the Movement for Justice in Bhopal

Tomás Mac Sheoin is an independent scholar in Ireland who writes on the chemical industry and popular movements. His book Asphyxiating Asia (Other India Press, 2003), is about the chemical industry in Asia.

On August 14, 2000, survivors of the 1984 Union Carbide poisonous gas leak in Bhopal, India, began to congregate in a public square in Atal Ayub Nagar, behind the pesticides factory abandoned by the U.S. transnational. They were taking part in a cyber-action, the launch of the Greenpeace India website, initiated by Greenpeace International with the cooperation of a local victims’ group, the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sanganathan (BGPMUS). The survivors entered Internet booths and sent emails to Union Carbide calling for the corporation to accept its responsibility to clean up the abandoned site.

Over the previous decade there had been a great upsurge of transnational struggles, whether in opposition to individual projects such as the Narmada dams in India or more general opposition to neoliberalism and its standard bearers, the GATT, the WTO, and the IMF. Most critical analysts saw these struggles as responses to the globalization of capital. Some of them framed these movements as examples of counter-hegemonic globalization, while others welcomed their arrival similar to the way the new social movements were previously welcomed as replacements for the traditional labor movement. The growth in transnational activism was seen as reflecting the strong development of the global civil society and international NGO (non-governmental organization) sector. One way in which these struggles were carried out was through the use of information technology, especially the Internet, which was welcomed by many as a liberatory technology and means of communication and struggle. Although occasional voices were raised querying the virtualization of struggles and the lack of representativeness and accountability on the part of NGOs, in general a more optimistic view held sway, which saw these developments as offering a means of opposing neoliberalism’s global hegemony.

Later, however, concerns over hierarchies and power asymmetries in the new networks began to surface and the more realistic analysts cast a colder eye on these movements. Clifford Bob made a crucial intervention, arguing that relations between international NGOs and local movements were characterized by power relations, with the NGOs normally in the driving seat while local struggles had to adapt themselves to the international NGOs’ agenda.1 Indeed the relationship between NGOs and local struggles appeared to reproduce core-periphery power relations on a microscale, with NGOs utilizing local struggles to advance their own agendas and local struggles competing with each other for NGO patronage.

This coming together in Bhopal of a powerful international NGO and a community-based struggle which utilized Internet technology appeared to be a shining example of the new transnational activism. On the ground, however, there was already dissatisfaction with, and suspicion of, Greenpeace International’s involvement and initiative. Disagreements with the Bhopal Group for Information and Action (BGIA), the group that normally facilitated international actors in Bhopal, led Greenpeace to engage with Abdul Jabbar’s BGPMUS, which mobilized the survivors that attended. Greenpeace International says that everyone was told that this was an e-petition activity, but local sources say that many did not fully understand the action in which they were “participating”: some thought they were coming to register for compensation, while others thought that this was a last step before obtaining compensation. Whether the failure to fully—or even partly—inform survivors of what was going on can be laid to Jabbar or to Greenpeace is moot. Greenpeace’s communication was not aimed at survivors. Thus the reality of this “cyber-action” implies Bob’s description of international NGO/local interaction may not be too far off target.


Founded in 1971 by a group of American draft dodgers, Canadian hippies, and sea-lovers concerned over nuclear testing, Greenpeace grew into the best-known environmental NGO. It is characterized by some as a Leninist organization and by others as a multinational corporation operating a franchise.2 There is some validity to the former claim; like the Communist Party, Greenpeace has democratic centralism; a massive card-carrying, dues-paying membership; a small, paid, activist cadre; opaque central decision-making; quick reversals of position (out of certain campaigns); the occasional purge of staff; and a central committee that was dominated at first by a cult of personality (under David McTaggart), and later run by efficient bureaucrats. However, the latter comparison is probably nearer the mark, with the central office in Amsterdam charging the subsidiary offices a fee for the use of the Greenpeace brand. By 1977 Greenpeace organizations existed in the core English-speaking countries, at which stage it began expanding into non-English-speaking countries, beginning with France and the Netherlands, proceeding to most of the European Union, and in the late 1980s and early ‘90s moving into Eastern Europe and Russia. In the late 1980s Greenpeace went into Latin America; it was in Argentina in 1987, Brazil in 1991, and then Chile and Mexico. Greenpeace also established groups in Asia; in Japan in 1989, China in 1997, Southeast Asia in 2000, and India 2001. As the organization expanded, so did the range of its campaigns. Begun as an anti-war and anti-nuclear organization, it moved on to protecting whales and dolphins, then expanded into pollution issues, beginning with ocean dumping. By 1991 Greenpeace was running thirty-seven different campaigns around the world.

A major milestone in the evolution of Greenpeace arrived in 1979 with the foundation of Greenpeace International in Amsterdam. Due to the chaotic development of Greenpeace offices, in the late 1970s turf wars broke out, with Greenpeace Vancouver and Greenpeace San Francisco suing each other for control of the organization. This was ended with the founding of Greenpeace International, which saw control of Greenpeace move from North America to Europe. A highly critical article in Forbes emphasized the central control of national offices by Greenpeace International: “Amsterdam has the power because of all the cash upstreamed from the twelve most prosperous national organizations. The royalty is set at 24 percent of their net take from fundraising. Power is further consolidated at the centre as no national office can start a campaign without the approval of the international council.”3 While central control from Greenpeace International is a major influence on national offices, various national organizations have relative autonomy—although their degree of autonomy is not totally unrelated to their financial position, which may also be reflected in the influence the richest national organizations have on Greenpeace policy. Similarly, the influence Greenpeace International has on national organizations may be related to the amount of subsidy that it provides to these offices.

One example of such differences occurred when Greenpeace in Britain gave Lord Melchett (head of British Greenpeace from 1989 to 2001) permission to take a job with noted PR company Burson-Marsteller in January 2002. Melchett was subsequently asked to stand down from the Greenpeace International board to which he had been appointed in April 2001. Following phone conversations with other board members who feared that the association with Burson-Marsteller would damage Greenpeace’s global reputation, a British Greenpeace spokesperson said, “Peter [Lord Melchett] now seems to recognise that there may be some conflict of interest in what he’s doing.” This recognition, however, appears to have been rather slow in coming—given that Burson-Marsteller had acted for Exxon (after the Exxon Valdez accident), for Babcock & Wilcox (whose reactor failed at Three Mile Island), and for Union Carbide (after Bhopal). More importantly, it highlights what appears to be an influential, if minority, view among high-ranking Greenpeace cadre that working for Burson-Marsteller is within the range of acceptable behavior for a Greenpeace board member. The Guardian reported: “Neither Lord Melchett nor Greenpeace UK, which he consulted before taking the position, initially believed that the job would compromise the environmental group.”4

There are also divisions between national offices on overall Greenpeace strategy. An attempt by Greenpeace USA and Greenpeace Latin America to develop a critique of capitalist globalization as a concern for Greenpeace was manifested in the document Beyond UNCED, which was prepared for the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. It discussed international debt, the structure of international trade, and institutions such as the World Bank as driving forces behind environmental destruction. But this approach was anathema to Greenpeace offices in Europe, which feared the issues raised were too abstract and reminiscent of left politics, and the British, Dutch, and German offices refused to distribute it.

Greenpeace’s international prominence is largely due to its successful interaction with the mass media through the production of highly visual and spectacular images of confrontation with environmental villains—first in the form of photo opportunities for the print media, and later the production of high-quality video for television. Summarized in the phrase “mindbombing the media,” the importance of image media production to Greenpeace’s strategies can be seen in the heavy investment it made to develop its own means of production. The result of this investment could be seen in the case of the Shell Brent Spar oil rig campaign:

Greenpeace had established on-line links with the major wire services, like Reuters, using video cameras and its own high-technology satellite-based broadcasting gear, recently purchased. This provided the capacity to broadcast high-quality television images of environmental confrontation from the remotest places on earth. Instead of the old-fashioned paper press release, Greenpeace provided broadcast-quality film footage generating instant press coverage to the major news services at no cost to themselves. Any editor had to consider whether a story with such potent reader/viewer interest and obtained at no cost and with high technical quality, should run on the evening news.5

After the Brent Spar campaign, Greenpeace admitted that it had miscalculated the amount of toxic material on board the rig. The mass media became more suspicious, and Greenpeace in turn embraced the Internet as a new means of communication with its members and the general public. It even had a website offering information during this campaign, while Shell’s own website was still “under construction.”

Although Greenpeace’s spectacular direct actions draw most media attention, the organization also undertakes research and acts as a traditional lobbying organization, both nationally and transnationally. Greenpeace backs up its production of spectacular and symbolic images with the presentation and sometimes production of scientific knowledge and policy information. Although some of this work has been outsourced to consultants, Greenpeace has also set up its own chemical laboratory; this allows it to guarantee the quality control of its research, as well as allowing control over the results and their publication. Greenpeace has set up science, economic, legal, and political units in its Amsterdam headquarters. It devoted resources to participation in various international governance processes, such as the London Dumping Convention, often obtaining entry through provision of advice and expertise to peripheral nations. This combination of tactics has led to some spectacular successes in the areas of ocean dumping and the export of toxic waste.

Greenpeace membership peaked at just under five million in 1991 and then began to decline. Like other international NGOs Greenpeace over-expanded in the 1980s, leading to restructuring as markets contracted in the ‘90s. It responded to the crisis in the early 1990s the same way transnational corporations did: by restructuring and outsourcing its operations in core countries while expanding into new and promising markets in peripheral countries. Restructuring involved shutting down national offices, outsourcing some functions, laying off workers, and abandoning campaign areas. The crisis was not a unitary one and different national offices restructured at different times. Restructuring also involved returning to “safe” campaigns, which were most likely to appeal to its middle-class membership.

In another response to this crisis Greenpeace began to embrace what it called “solutions campaigning,” including the promotion of what it called “clean technology.” This was at least partly in response to charges by transnationals that Greenpeace’s stance was totally negative, emphasizing problems without suggesting solutions. Greenpeace announced it would “create new alliances with sectors such as business and industries” and advance environmentalism by “interfering in markets” directly by developing new green products and technology, rather than as previously through negative publicity and boycotts. However, it reassured its members that this new strategy would not end previous confrontational strategies, but complement them: “We won’t stop the actions that get much attention in the press, and that have made Greenpeace famous, but now that people and companies have become more conscious of environmental problems, we consider it more effective to demonstrate solutions that are actually viable to industry.”6 This included embracing green consumerism through the production of “product guides” similar to those produced by consumer organizations, but judging products (such as laptop computers) on the basis of environmental impact. Thus Greenpeace approached capital with two faces: one confrontational, one cooperative.

In a 2000 interview, Greenpeace International’s incoming executive director, Gerd Leipold, explained that Latin America and Asia, “where Greenpeace hadn’t been around for very long, [and] our actions are still very new, very successful,” were the two priority expansion areas, “not only because environmental problems in Latin America and Asia are so prominent, but because economic development is becoming much stronger in those regions. If we want to have an impact, that is where we have to work.”7 The crisis was more than one in membership, however. With corporations and governments there allegedly showing increased environmental sensitivity, the scope for Greenpeace activities in core countries could be seen to be diminishing (though this claim could be exaggerated as shown by examples of environmental stupidity and criminality such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill). “In the pastGreenpeace was able to position itself as the Robin Hood of environmental campaigners. And therein lies the dilemma: if a protest is not dangerous and does not photograph well, it may not be enough for its ‘customers.’”8 From this perspective Greenpeace’s expansion into non-core countries can be seen as not only outside saturated markets into new markets, but also expansion into new areas to provide new products to satisfy and maintain its existing core country membership or consumer base. Thus, for example, the Indian anti-GMO campaign provided images of grassroots peasant resistance to biotechnology that were useful to the campaign against GMOs in the core, where transnationals were attempting to sell biotechnology as a new solution to world hunger—in a reincarnation of the original Green Revolution.

This expansion faced strategic problems. One was the charge of “green imperialism” (a variant of “NGO imperialism”), with Greenpeace portrayed as the western transnational picking on a poor third world government, in a neat reversal of the David and Goliath image that the organization had created for itself. After its campaign against seal hunting, Greenpeace had faced fierce criticism as an organization of white males going around trying to save the planet without consulting the local inhabitants. Thus, despite its origins in opposition to nuclear testing, Greenpeace in Asia paid little attention to testing by China, India, and Pakistan. Another problem was how Greenpeace would interact with non-democratic governments, such as in China, where Greenpeace decided to avoid “drastic approaches” and instead functioned as an information provider and consultant. Although by 2009 Greenpeace was producing detailed reports documenting pollution in China, instead of the ritual denunciations of state and capital accompanying such reports in the core, Greenpeace China “urged environmental departments and the provincial government to tighten regulations, set a timetable for implementing pollution-free operations and provide resources for factories to avoid producing poisonous materials during the manufacturing process.”9

The Movement for Justice in Bhopal

Compared to the transnational operations of Greenpeace International, the movement for justice in Bhopal is a much weaker and less-resourced network. An initial spontaneous response from the affected slums was followed by the formation of the Zahreeli Gas Kand Sangharsh Morcha (Poisonous Gas Episode Struggle Front), commonly referred to as the Morcha, by leftist middle-class activists who were mainly from outside Bhopal. Repression led to the decline and demobilization of the Morcha, as well as the retreat of most of the outside activists. The movement in Bhopal then rested with victims’ groups, in particular groups organizing those employed in a variety of worksheds started as relief work by the Madhya Pradesh state authorities. These groups, all with local leadership, included a small registered trade union—Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmachari Sangh (BGPMSKS)—and a much larger organization, BGPMUS, which was supplemented by a previously existing claimants’ union, Bhopal Gas Peedit Nirashrit Pension Bhogi Sangharsh Morcha (known as the Pension Bhogi). Although these groups’ initial concern was defending existing relief payments and work programs, as well as supporting victims in their compensation claims, they inevitably took on other issues related to the gas victims. In this they were assisted by the remnants of the outside activists who formed the BGIA as an information and support group for all the local organizations.

The struggle over Bhopal has tended to oscillate between two demands: one based on the material interests of the survivors—for compensation, healthcare provision, employment, and environmental clean up; the other on the demand for justice—the punishment of the culprit corporation, personalized in the repeated demand to “Hang Anderson” (Warren Anderson was Union Carbide’s CEO in 1984). Although the first demand tended to be expressed in local and national agitation targeting the state and central governments, the second was more transnational, given the culprit corporation’s headquarters in the United States. Yet the lines between the two criss-crossed, with transnational actions affecting the local situation and local action resulting in transnational effects.10

The movement in Bhopal exhibited the traditional Indian left paranoia about accepting international solidarity, especially from western groups, any of which might represent a front for the CIA. It was only after the Morcha was demobilized that the movement opened up to international activity, and it was through the activities of the BGIA that the local movement internationalized. Although there were various laudable attempts to set up an Asian victims’ network—uniting Bhopal victims in India, Agent Orange victims in Vietnam, and Minamata mercury poisoning victims in Japan—the major orientation was towards the United States. The first coalition, established in the United States in 1986, was revamped in 2000 as the International Alliance for Justice in Bhopal and later became the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (ICJB). The main aim of the international coalitions was to keep the issue of Bhopal alive while also supporting the material and justice demands of the survivors. In pursuit of this, the coalitions both brought Bhopal to the world and brought the world to Bhopal—while the later coalition also brought Bhopal to the Web. Bringing Bhopal to the world involved sending speakers and delegations to tour Asia, Europe, and the United States in search of solidarity. Bringing the world to Bhopal included inviting fact-finding missions (such as the International Medical Commission on Bhopal), international tribunals (such as the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal), and experts to visit Bhopal to hear survivors’ testimonies and analyze and report on issues such as the health of survivors and environmental contamination.

Before Greenpeace entered the picture the struggle for justice in Bhopal had been reinvigorated by a number of factors. First, the self-organized Sambhavna health and documentation clinic, funded by innovative methods through the Bhopal Medical Appeal in Britain, had provided an organizational base for the local movement. Second, the BGIA brought together the smaller groups—but not BGPMUS or the Pension Bhogi—into a local core for the international coalition. Third, the legacy issue of water contamination (from toxic waste abandoned at the pesticide factory) opened a possible new avenue for a legal attack on the culprit corporation. Finally, two international factors were important. In the United States a new generation of activists took up the Bhopal cause, through both students organized as Students for Bhopal and by members of the Indian diaspora in chapters of the Association for Indian Development. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, in August 1999 Dow Chemical announced its intention to take over Union Carbide. This introduced a new litigation and agitational target, while raising the possibility of allying with other groups concerned over Dow’s activities—a possibility that existed both in India and outside, as Dow was planning major investments in India.

Greenpeace’s Passage to India

Greenpeace’s involvement with Bhopal can be seen as part of its strategic expansion into India. This began in 1993 with the arrival of Anne Leonard from the United States to research the export of waste to India and to scope the extent and potential of environmental activism in the sub-continent. In New Delhi in September 1995, Greenpeace International published a report on toxic waste exports to India. It was written by Leonard and Jan Rispens of Greenpeace Germany. It framed the export of waste to India as a “slow-motion Bhopal.” Greenpeace also produced a report on the chlorine industry in India in 1996, and in 2000 a publisher in Goa released Greenpeace activist Bob Edwards’s book on the plastics industry. Greenpeace’s entrance into India was via the same campaigns—waste export, chlorine, and POPs (persistent organic pollutants)—that it was already prioritizing internationally.

Greenpeace invested significant resources in the Bhopal campaign. Executive Director Thilo Bode launched the campaign in November 1999 using the rhetoric of partnership, saying that Greenpeace “will join hands with the gas victims of Bhopal in their demand for justice.” Some indication of the importance Greenpeace International attached to the campaign can be seen in its bringing to Bhopal thirty activists from many of its national affiliates for the attempted “clean up” of toxic wastes in 2002. The campaign began with the arrival of The Rainbow Warrior in late 1999 as part of the Greenpeace Toxic Free Future Tour, which cast off in Latin America in 1998 and proceeded through ports in northern Europe and on the Mediterranean before heading for Asia. The ship’s arrival coincided with the publication of a report on contamination in Bhopal, which revealed severe heavy metal and toxic organic chemical pollution. Greenpeace described the situation in Bhopal as “a microcosm of what toxic pollution by POPs will make the world in the long run.”

Following these actions in India, Greenpeace then ramped up action internationally with Bhopal as the top priority for its toxic campaign from 2000 to 2002; they estimated at least half a million dollars were invested in the campaign. In the run-up to the Johannesburg 2002 Earth Summit, the Bhopal campaign became the face of a Greenpeace campaign calling for a global legal framework for corporate responsibility. Greenpeace pursued the Bhopal campaign both in India and internationally, showing its usual combination of media-savvy “photo opportunity” protests, imaginative use of technology, and production of detailed reports on pollution and clean-up methods, as well as critiques of “clean -up” plans advanced in response to the initial Greenpeace report. These reports were a significant contribution to the Bhopal campaign and continue to be used by those struggling for justice there. Greenpeace also brought Bhopal physically home to Dow Chemical by delivering contaminated samples of soil and water to various Dow facilities and functionaries. The campaign’s coordinated international activity illustrated Greenpeace’s global reach: contaminated material from Bhopal—ranging in size from bottles of water to barrels of toxic waste—were delivered to Dow in Australia, Brazil, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Thailand, and the United States. Similarly its clean-up guidelines were presented to Dow in India, Europe, and the United States on the same day in October 2002. At the same time an exhibition of Raghu Rai’s photographs of the disaster debuted at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa, before moving on to Italy and Switzerland, and with further stops planned around the globe.

Tensions Between Greenpeace and the Movement for Justice in Bhopal

From the beginning there was suspicion of, and dissatisfaction with, Greenpeace on the part of local groups. In November 1999, a leading Greenpeace activist demanded from the BGIA the right to be the primary organizer of that year’s fifteenth anniversary protests, outlining plans for major action around the anniversary involving hanging a banner from the factory’s flare tower, which would raise the profile of Bhopal globally. In return Greenpeace was to have exclusive rights to action in Bhopal for that night—as though BGIA was an agency dispensing official licences. The suggestion was dismissed as preposterous by the BGIA, which emphasized that local groups had always had prime place in the anniversary events. It is significant that the first disagreement was over branding; this was to be a consistent line of tension during Greenpeace’s active involvement in campaigning over Bhopal. Arguments broke out over the use of the Greenpeace or ICJB name and logo at different actions, with the ICJB objecting to Greenpeace’s use of terms such as “Greenpeace and local activists” and “Greenpeace and Bhopal survivors.”

Relations inside the Bhopal movement can be acrimonious, especially between Jabbar of the BGPMUS and Sarangi of the BGIA, but these local groups were united in their criticism of Greenpeace International. Sarangi accused Greenpeace of “reckless indifference” towards local groups. Jabbar criticized Greenpeace in terms similar to those used by many local communities elsewhere who felt taken advantage of by Greenpeace: “International organisations have a tendency to act independently; they rarely seek partnership with local movements, and more or less control the framing of issues. This disempowers local movements, renders them helpless and does a lot of harm. In this case it was fine for Greenpeace to take samples and have them examined in London. But to present it to the media for their sole publicity was jarring, since we in fact did most of the work here.”11

These continuous tensions led to an agreement reached at a September 2002 meeting in Bhopal, with Greenpeace agreeing that all their actions involving Bhopal-based activists would be undertaken in the name of the ICJB. However the agreement frayed very quickly and tension between Greenpeace and local groups came to a head with the demonstrations at the toxic waste containment pond at the factory in November that year. This was a major transnational cooperative effort between Greenpeace and ICJB which was reported as a Greenpeace action: Agence France Presse, for example, reported seventy Greenpeace activists—including thirty foreigners—were arrested when they broke into the factory, intending to begin containing the toxic wastes there. A Greenpeace January 2003 press release about an action in the Netherlands claimed Rashida Bee of BGPMSKS as a Greenpeace activist. The centrality of Greenpeace to Greenpeace’s account of Bhopal can also be seen in the organization’s Bhopal timeline. In the thirty years from 1969 to 1999 there are a mere twelve entries, but for the short period from November 1999 to July 2003, during which Greenpeace was highly active in the Bhopal struggle, there are forty-four entries. Thus the disagreements between Greenpeace and the movement for justice in Bhopal can be seen as a struggle for hegemony in the campaign. Given its major investment of resources, Greenpeace understandably wished to brand its actions with its name and logo, while the local movement wanted it to subordinate itself to the ICJB. This confirms Bob’s description of power relations in international NGO/local alliances, but suggests that his view that most power lies with NGOs is only partially correct.12

The eventual withdrawal of Greenpeace from the international campaign did not represent a major blow. The ICJB entered an alliance with another major NGO, Amnesty International, while existing allies in the United States continued to support the campaign. In May 2005, when contaminated water was delivered to Dow factories the day before Dow’s annual general meeting, it was Amnesty International and Students for Bhopal that coordinated the protests. In April 2007, Amnesty International helped coordinate protests related to Dow in New York, in which over a thousand protestors were mobilized. During the campaign with Greenpeace, the ICJB also formed temporary action alliances with other NGOs, such as for the Barrage Dow Day organized for May 10, 2000 by the ICJB and INFACT (the Infant Feeding Action Coalition, which was later to become Corporate Accountability International), while the following day’s protest at the Union Carbide annual meeting involved the Association for Indian Development, INFACT, and other groups. The movement was also searching for alliances in the anti-globalization movement at the same time, with Bhopal speakers at the Seattle demonstrations against the WTO (1999), the Prague European Social Forum (September 2000), the Naples European Social Forum (2002), and the Asian Social Forum (2003); while some two hundred activists from Bhopal attended World Social Forum Mumbai 2004. Similarly the movement’s other supporters in the United States, the Environmental Health Foundation and eight other organizations, published a report on the fifteenth anniversary, called Beyond the Chemical Century, appearing a month after Greenpeace published its report on toxic waste contamination at Bhopal.

The Struggle for Justice

From the beginning the struggle over Bhopal has been a struggle over the definition of Bhopal, with the government of India, Union Carbide, and the survivors—among many others—each fighting to have their particular definition accepted. The battle over the terms within which the disaster was to be conceptualized was fought on a number of fronts—causation, responsibility and liability, and health and environmental impacts. Local and national governments, Indian and U.S. corporations, survivors and supporters, the global chemical industry, medical/scientific/public health experts, chemical engineers and risk managers—have each struggled to advance their own particular definitions of Bhopal and what it means. In this case we see the same struggle, only this is a struggle over the definition of the struggle over Bhopal.

The history of the movement for justice in Bhopal, given the asymmetry of power and resources between it and its adversaries, has mainly been a history of failures. But it is also a history in which, after each failure, the movement constantly rises from the ashes to re-engage its enemies. When the movement failed in its opposition to the collusive settlement between Union Carbide and government of India in 1987, it turned to a struggle within the compensation disbursement process. Nearly twenty years later—when the government of India failed to fulfill the promises it made in 2006 to end a hunger strike—the movement again marched on Delhi in 2008 and fasted on the footpaths of Jantar Mantar, until once again the government submitted to its demands.

It is hard not to see the phase of the Bhopal campaign in which Greenpeace International participated as another in this long line of heroic failures. Despite the best efforts of Greenpeace campaigners Dow did not change its tune over the period of the campaign and was not embarrassed into taking on the liabilities of Union Carbide for Bhopal nor the legacy liabilities. Furthermore Greenpeace’s tactics and spectacles failed to receive major media attention and certainly failed to impact Dow’s position in any way. Indeed the failure might indicate the limitations of Greenpeace activism and suggest that these tactics may be coming to the end of their useful life; more modestly it may simply be that Greenpeace tactics are not suitable for battle with an industrial chemical company. Just as with Union Carbide, Dow was not a major consumer products corporation, and thus its reputation and brand name was not as amenable to critical and boycott tactics, unlike other corporate targets of transnational campaigns such as Nike.13 Here we may recall the words of Ward Morehouse, in his summary of the effects of a decade’s activism on Bhopal in the United States: “we had singularly little impact where it really mattered; that is, on Union Carbide’s behaviour toward the victims.”14

The movement’s victories since the Dow merger have been made in the national context, in India rather than transnationally, and the crucial alliances have been Indian, not foreign. These allies include groups that organized autonomously to oppose projected Dow investments such as the movement in Nandigram, West Bengal to block a local Special Economic Zone which was an intended “chemical hub,” whose anchor tenant was to be Dow. Similarly, Dow plans for a research and development facility in Shinde Vasuli village near Pune met a militant response, which included a blockade of the Dow site and the burning of equipment and buildings. Opposed by both local inhabitants and religious factions, for whom the area was a pilgrimage site, Dow finally conceded defeat in February 2009. Furthermore, through the use of Right To Information (India’s freedom of information legislation), the movement exposed Dow’s attempts to persuade the government of India to isolate Dow from liability for Bhopal as a quid pro quo for foreign direct investment from Dow. The movement also fought local plans by the giant Indian Tata Group to undertake a clean up of the site, which would have released Dow from the liability and responsibility for the clean up.

The experience with the Bhopal movement since the millennium suggests that, despite the recent popularity of transnational rhetoric, the most important basis for campaigns remains local and national organizing. Furthermore, local movements are by no means powerless in their alliances with international NGOs and may switch alliances in the same way NGOs do. Finally the material interests of the local movements, as well as their outrage at the denial of justice, are the continuing basis of the movement for justice in Bhopal. Against what appears to have been insuperable odds, the movement has continued to demand justice for those victimized by toxic capital and a callous state. In this struggle of memory over public forgetfulness the movement for justice in Bhopal has continued to keep the issues Bhopal raises alive.


  1. Clifford Bob, The Marketing of Rebellion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). This asymmetrical relationship may not be confined to international NGOs and local movements in peripheral countries but may also affect large NGOs and small local groups in core countries. Greenpeace, for example, has a bad reputation regarding some local movements with which it has cooperated in core countries.
  2. The most comprehensive analysis of Greenpeace as a corporation can be found in Grant Ledgerwood and Arlene Idol Broadhurst, Environment, Ethics and the Corporation (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2000), 83–108. A classic political economy view, which sees the continuation of organizations rather than an end to the sealing industry as the aim of those involved, is Jeremiah Allen, “Anti-sealing as an industry,” Journal of Political Economy 87, no. 2 (1979): 423–28.
  3. Leslie Spencer, “The Not So Peaceful World of Greenpeace,” Forbes, November 11, 1991, 174-80.
  4. John Vidal, “Melchett Quits Greenpeace Board,” Guardian, January 12, 2002, 4.
  5. Ledgerwood and Broadhurst, 89.
  6. Edwin R. Stafford, Michael J. Polonsky, and Cathy L. Hartman, “Environmentalist-Business Collaboration and Strategic Bridging,” August 1998,
  7. Maria Amparo Lasso, “Greenpeace’s Glory Days Are Not Over,” June 2005,
  8. Ledgerwood and Broadhurst, 106.
  9. Greenpeace Identifies 5 Polluting Factories in Southern China,” Asian Economic News, November 2009,
  10. For the latter, the demand by BGPMUS for the provision of interim relief was crucial in the events resulting in the collusive settlement between the transnational and the government of India in 1987.
  11. Vinod Raina with Raju Kumar, “Twenty Years of Relentless Struggle,” Seminar 544, December 2004,
  12. Greenpeace’s position is that its work went well with the ICJB in the campaign, though it accepts that some incidents created tensions between Greenpeace and ICJB representatives in Bhopal. It attributes major differences to personality clashes rather than strategic disagreements or structural factors: while it accepts that there may be disagreements on individual events and tactics, it says it is proud that it kept to its agreements with local groups. On the branding issue it says it did its best to police the agreement but due to the many offices in its large organization a few inevitable lapses occurred.
  13. Later experience with Dow showed the limitations/limited success of socially responsible investing campaigns: while a shareholder resolution in May 2007 obtained 8.5 per cent of shareholders’ votes, this made no impression on corporate management or behavior.
  14. Ward Morehouse, “And Not to Yield The Long Struggle Against Union Carbide,” Samar 8,
2012, Volume 64, Issue 02 (June)
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