An open letter to Shri Babu Lal Gaur, Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh


Dear Chief Minister Gaur, Yesterday in Bhopal you told a press conference that you have decided to build a memorial to the memory of those who died in the Union Carbide gas disaster of twenty years ago. “Even after 20 years have passed,” you said, “no memorial has been built for the people who lost their lives in lethal MIC gas leakage from the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal in 1984,” adding that you have already sought the support of Mr Arjun Singh, Union Minister for Human Resource Development, who has promised assistance. You have decided the nature of the memorial, which, you told reporters, “will resemble the Union Carbide factory from where lethal methyl isocyanate leaked out on the night of December 2, 1984.”

Mr Gaur, we welcome your wish to honour the innocent dead, but had you consulted those who survived and are still suffering from that night, you would know that a memorial already exists: a stark statue of a despairing woman holding her dead baby, provided not by the Indian government or Union Carbide, but by a Dutch woman, Ruth Waterman, whose parents died in the gas chambers in World War Two. For more than ten years it has stood on the pavement opposite the factory gates. Had you or any of your ministers attended the commemoration ceremonies held on December 3rd at this spot, you would have seen survivors’ leaders garlanding the memorial with marigolds. The media of half the world were there and millions of people in far off countries saw pictures both the ceremony and the garlanding.

Had you been there at midnight on December 2nd, you would have seen people carrying candles and pictures of their lost loved ones, and you would know that those who survived that terrible night will never be able to forget it. It lives on in their bodies, filling each day with pain, punishing them with illness after illness, leaving them unable to earn even a meagre living, pushing people whose lives are already hard to the very edge of the abyss. It continues to choke their lungs and cramp their limbs, it bubbles in their blood and has passed its lethal effects to a new generation. For hundreds of thousands in your capital city, that night has never ended. Mr Gaur, to build a memorial that resembles the Union Carbide factory would be like erecting a gas chamber in memory of the victims of Auschwitz. What further reminder do the people of Bhopal need of Union Carbide’s factory, which remains in their midst, rotting, poisoned and un-cleaned, still spreading illness and death? More than another memorial your people need practical help. We urge you therefore, instead of spending money on a symbolic gesture, however heartfelt, to use it instead to fulfil the May 2004 ruling of the Supreme Court of India that your government must pipe clean water to the neighbourhoods whose drinking wells have been contaminated by toxic chemicals leaking from the abandoned factory. This is what people in the affected areas most need and want, and as you know, it is why they took to the streets of Bhopal on October 14th of this year, demanding that you implement the Supreme Court’s order without further delay. Your government’s next most urgent duty is to ensure the removal and safe disposal of toxic wastes from the factory site and the solar evaporation ponds, and thoroughly to clean the soil and groundwater. We draw to your attention the recent resolution of the European Parliament calling on the Governments of India and of Madhya Pradesh to make this clean-up a priority. Mr Gaur, you of all people know how seriously poisoned is the land and water surrounding the factory and for how long the poisoning has been going on. In 1982, two years before the gas leak, it was you who, as a lawyer then in private practice, acted as intermediary between Union Carbide and farmers whose cattle had been poisoned by chemicals from the factory. The indiscriminate dumping of chemical wastes continued for years after the disaster. The company knew from its own tests how contaminated the site was, but issued no warnings and showed no concern for the fact that it was now cold-bloodedly poisoning the drinking water of many of the same people whose families it had already gassed. Now, with the eyes of the world upon you, and with media on five continents expressing incredulity and outrage that for twenty years successive administrations both at central and state level have so callously and shamefully ignored the plight of the gas- and water- victims, your new administration has a unique chance to redeem the damaged reputation of India’s politicians. Seize it! Show true leadership in Madhya Pradesh by making the welfare and the struggle for justice of the survivors central to your government’s plans and policies. We urge you to do all in your power to aid the class action suit currently before a court in New York, which is brought by water-contamination victims against Union Carbide Corporation. We are aware that the Madhya Pradesh government has already written a letter to the central government holding Union Carbide/Dow responsible for the costs of the clean-up and we welcome this. Please now ask the Government of India to lend its active support to the plaintiffs’ case, and compel Union Carbide and its new owner Dow Chemical to bear all costs under the “polluter pays” principle enshrined in both Indian and US law. The New York court has the power to order compensation for those who have suffered as a result of the contamination. For this reason too your government and the central government should strongly support the plaintiffs’ case. You know only too well how insulting was the “compensation” paid to the gas victims in the 1989 settlement. You yourself at the time described it as “negligible”. Now you have a chance to make sure that these new victims receive fairer recompense. Please also give your most powerful support to the efforts being made to bring Union Carbide Corporation or its 100% owner Dow Chemical to face the criminal trial in the Bhopal court from which UCC and its ex-CEO Warren Anderson have been absconding since 1992. We ask you to work with the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal and all other good-hearted people and organisations in India and around the world who are trying to secure justice for the victims of Bhopal. Finally, before taking any further steps with your proposed memorial, please consult the survivors themselves about whether they actually want another memorial and, if so, what its nature should be. Over the years the survivors have had to oppose many preposterous schemes. In September 2000 the Ministry of Tourism in New Delhi announced a proposal to turn the Union Carbide factory site into “a tourist centre providing services and tourist attractions” and “an amusement park”. On that occasion too no one bothered to consult the survivors. As reported at the time by, survivors’ leaders expressed strong condemnation of the proposal. Their statement said: “When the victims are still fighting to get the pittance that has been dubbed as compensation, how can the government even think of spending (or asking others to spend) more money . . . It would have been more appropriate if the government accepted its failure in providing good health care and justice to the victims . . . The money that would go in constructing a memorial for the dead would be far better utilised to save some of those who are still dying from the effects of that fateful night of December 2nd, 1984.” The survivors then expressed their own wishes about a memorial as follows: “As you are aware the memorial in Hiroshima evokes the misery caused by atom bombs and inspires us and our children to fight for peace in the world. The remains of the Nazi concentration camps continue to be an inspiration for people to make a stand against racial prejudice everywhere. According to us the memorial to the world’s worst industrial disaster must be one that reminds future generations of the horrors of toxic corporations. It should inspire people all over the world to try and build a toxic free future. Our plans for the memorial include preserving the parts of the factory that are still intact, a collection of memorabilia contributed by the families of the deceased, a working farm demonstrating chemical-free agriculture and a collection of all documents relating to the disaster and comprehensive information on hazardous chemicals and other such projects. We are determined to have a memorial that best represents the wishes of the vast majority of disaster victims.” Such a memorial – the one desired by the survivors themselves – can of course only be contemplated after immediate suffering has been addressed and after the site has been thoroughly decontaminated and justice obtained for the survivors. Let the achievement of these aims be your most excellent and enduring memorial. Yours sincerely, Editor, Bhopal.Net

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