Thirty years have passed since tragedy struck the central Indian city of Bhopal. The Union Carbide gas leak is the biggest industrial accident in the history of the world and the victims still await justice
By Rekha Roy
Mid-November, five women, in worn out saris, wild hair and paper-like skin had sat steadfastly through an indefinite fast at New Delhi’s protest hub Jantar Mantar. There were scattered slogans for justice and a few mildly curious onlookers. Not many would have known what these women were fighting for or rather that they have been fighting for it for the last three decades.
On Decemebr 2, it was thirty years since the black night in Bhopal, the capital city of the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, when forty tons of poisonous industrial gas had leaked out of an American pesticide plant in Bhopal. The gas had killed more than 10,000 people and affected another 500,000. The survivors ended up sick for life with ailments that ranged from lung, brain, eyes, muscle, gastrointestinal, neurological, reproductive and immune system disorders.
Since then, Bhopal has been floating on the edges of India’s conscience – just about so.
“30 years have passed and nothing has changed,” says Kasturi Bai, one of the protesters at Jantar Mantar. “Thirty years back our lives were broken – we are still waiting for it to be fixed.” But in May, Narendra Modi, enamored an entire nation and swept to power, with promises of good times, of course it touched the Bhopal gas leak survivors too. It instilled new hope in them. When they saw prime minister Narendra Modi thundering on television and in rallies, exhorting “development for all” they knew where they needed to take this fight – to Modi’s doorstep. “We have been running from ministry to ministry, state to center – thirty years have passed – justice still seems a distant dream,” said Shehzadi Bee, one of the protesters.
A minor victory had followed Bee and her fellow survivor’s fast. The Modi government called the protesters for a dialog and promised to take, what the survivors are calling the “first major official initiative to correct the historical wrongs in Bhopal”.
In 1989, the Indian government and Union Carbide had agreed to a compensation amount for the victims. It had filed a curative petition, which was approved by the Supreme Court. The ministry of chemicals and fertilizers agreed that the curative petition filed by the Central government in the Supreme Court will now be amended on the basis of figures of death and extent of injuries caused by the disaster from scientific research and hospital records and compensation would be determined accordingly instead of the “faulty medical categorization that we were agitating against,” Rashida Bee, a survivor and activist told reporters. The survivors have long been protesting the denial of additional compensation to 93% of the survivors, whose injuries were dismissed by Union Carbide as minor. The Indian government is demanding $1.2 billion from the company, a statement by the survivors had alleged, pointing out that scientific estimates peg the additional compensation required at $8.1 billion. “We see this as the first major official initiative to correct the historical wrongs in Bhopal,” said Rachna Dhingra of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, adding that it was the beginning of the “process of rectifying a 27 years old blunder that is at the root of denial of justice to Bhopal survivors.”
Dow Chemicals – which acquired Union Carbide in 2001 – for the last 13 years have washed its hands off the matter saying, attempts to drag it in Indian court proceedings was “without any merit.” They have downplayed the numbers who were affected by the gas and failed to clean up the contamination in the water and the soil, putting thousands at risk even today. India was also unable to extradite the company’s chief Warren Anderson – who died in September this year – to stand trial in India. But the same constraints are still holding back the Indian government as it did 30 years back. “Whichever government comes to power they are not concerned about citizens they are happier playing in the laps of the corporates,” Bee says ruefully. “In our country human life comes cheap, corporates are valued more.”
And despite the assurance by the government – challenges are many for the protesters. Challenges, that they is impossible to meet without the support of the government. And while they are pinning their hopes on Modi, will he risk his corporate-friendly image by taking in American corporations – the
same ones he has been warmly inviting to set up shop in the country and to “make in India”?
Will he arm-twist the United States to acknowledge and express regret for financing the hazardously designed Union Carbide plant in Bhopal through the EXIM bank and for refusing to extradite prime accused Warren Anderson who died this September, while absconding from Indian courts?
And more than anything else, can he make Dow own up to their post-disaster responsibilities and stand trial in India and ban it from making any investment in the country until it accepted Union Carbide’s liabilities in Bhopal?
The protestors are also looking towards Modi to set up a commission on Bhopal for effective medical care and economic rehabilitation and social support and create a special prosecution cell for speedy prosecution of the accused Indian corporate officials.
“In the last 30 years, the Government of India has been dragging its feet over taking effective action against the two US corporations with the understanding that justice in Bhopal would jeopardize the investment climate,” the survivors had written in a letter to Prime Minister Modi in November. “Union Carbide and now Dow Chemical have taken full advantage of this hesitation on the part of the Indian government and both continue to break Indian laws and dare Indian courts.”
“We hope that you and your government will be as enthusiastic in making US corporations obey Indian laws, as you are of welcoming them to invest in our country…hope that you and your government are aware that Bhopal was the original “make in India” in the profoundest sense of the phrase,” the letter had added.
“Modiji promised acche deen (good days) for everyone,” says Bai. “When will our good days come?”