Over the last month, you may have noticed numerous reports in the media about Bhopal — the betrayal of Bhopal victims, about how the plight of survivors of the gas tragedy 26 years ago has gone from bad to worse due to neglect and insensitivity of successive governments. Some of you, especially youngsters, may have learnt for the first time of the horrific disaster of December 3, 1984, when a poisonous gas leaked from American multinational Union Carbide’s pesticide plant in Bhopal snuffing out the lives of 8000 people within a week. The recent upsurge in media attention has begun waning after the Government reconstituted the Group of Ministers on Bhopal. The GoM announced a package of relief measures. Many people, who were initially outraged, went away placated thinking that some compensation had been given and that justice has finally been done.
Nothing could be further from the truth. You may have heard that the GoM was offering enhanced compensation, that the Government would clean-up the contamination, that money was being set aside for rehabilitation, and that the Government would pursue Warren Anderson’s extradition. You may wonder why Bhopal survivors remain upset with what the Government has to offer. But we wonder how could a Government set right in four days of meetings by a Group of Ministers what 9 Prime Ministers had failed to do in 26 years? The devil, dear friend, is in the details.
We’d like to explain to you why we – the survivors of the Bhopal disaster, our children and people and children from areas affected by water contamination due to Union Carbide’s toxic wastes – are now in New Delhi to remind the Government of its unfulfilled responsibilities in Bhopal. This is the fourth time we are coming here in the last five years. In 2006 and 2008, fifty of us walked from Bhopal to Delhi and returned only after being promised by the Prime Minister that justice will be done. If we don’t come to Delhi, the Government will forget us for the next 25 years.
What triggered this recent media focus on Bhopal and the subsequent public outrage, was an order of the Bhopal Chief Judicial Magistrate in a criminal case against those accused of causing the disaster. Eight Indian officials, including Keshub Mahindra, and one company – Eveready Industries India Ltd – were convicted. The officials were sentenced to two years in jail. All, barring one who had died in the course of the 18 year long trial, paid Rs. 25,000 in bail and flew back the same evening. The Bhopal disaster has taken more than 25,000 lives till date. More than 50,000 people remain too sick to work for a living. Children born to gas-affected parents run a higher risk of birth defects, and compromised mental, physical and sexual development.
The disaster was no accident, not an act of causing death merely due to carelessness. The American company knowingly installed a risky and unproven technology in order to save money. The bosses of the American company authorised the storage of 45 tonnes of Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) onsite, knowing fully well that a disaster could spill the gas into the densely populated neighbourhood. The refrigeration unit, which was a crucial safety feature to contain the poisonous MIC from expanding and leaking, was switched off to save $70 a day. Our legal system had reduced this crime to the equivalent of a road accident. That and the fact that only the Indian accused were tried, while all three foreign accused – Carbide’s former chairman Warren Anderson, Union Carbide USA and Union Carbide Eastern (Hongkong) – were not even pursued by the Government added to the public outrage.
Evidence is mounting that senior Congress leaders were involved in allowing Warren Anderson to escape. It is when the fingers started pointing at the possible role of Rajiv Gandhi in facilitating Anderson’s escape that the Prime Minister hastily set up a Group of Ministers led by Home Minister and former Enron lawyer Mr. P. Chidambaram.
Sidestepping the commitment made by the earlier GoM on Bhopal in 2008 to form an Empowered Commission to address lingering rehabilitation issues in Bhopal, the thrust of the new GoM’s presentation of its recommendations to the media focused on two issues – compensation and extradition of Warren Anderson. People generally believe that monetary compensation can set right a grievous wrong – in this case, help people build back their devastated lives. As victims of the world’s worst disaster, we know what it takes to build one’s life back after the event. You have just lost your dear ones, some of whom may be the main breadwinners. Besides dealing with the loss, you now have to worry about who will bring in the daily bread. Most of us are working class people. We make a living doing hard labour, selling vegetables or as mechanics and construction workers. The gas hit our lungs and our eyes, and compromised our strength and stamina. Many of us suffer from mental trauma, and are yet to get over that night and those sights. The effects persist long after the measly Rs. 25,000 that Carbide gave us was exhausted. Children of gas-affected parents are being born with birth defects. Taking care of them is a economic and mental strain on our already battered families.
The compensation does nothing to change the fact that 30,000 people in and around the factory site are still exposed to contaminated water. The toxic wastes left behind by Union Carbide continue to leach their poisons into the groundwater and environment.
Rebuilding a survivor’s life involves payment of adequate compensation, economic rehabilitation, social rehabilitation, environmental rehabilitation and punishment of the guilty. The GoM has offered Rs. 700 crores as enhanced compensation. This is nothing. Even if it’s spread equally among the 5,74,000 victims, it will amount to Rs. 12,195 per victim. But it isn’t being given to all. Only 42,218 people (7.35 percent) will receive compensation. That is why we believe that as important as monetary compensation is a mechanism – such as the Empowered Commission – to ensure that additional investments in rehabilitation result in effective schemes that reach the victims.
The GoM’s declarations about extraditing Anderson hides a glaring refusal of the Government to bring in the other two key accused – Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) and Union Carbide Eastern (UCE). Since 1992, when the Bhopal magistrate ordered the CBI to produce UCC and UCE, the Government has done nothing to bring them to India. Instead, the Government has allowed Dow Chemical to profit from sales of Union Carbide products in India.
This time around, Delhi is a very hostile city – not just to us, we learn, but to all poor people. To spruce up the city for the Commonwealth Games delegates, the State and Central Governments have displayed how ashamed they are of their poor. Roadside shops vandalised and evicted; cycle rickshaws confiscated and destroyed. And overnight stay by protestors in Jantar Mantar banned. Does the Government expect us to go back to Bhopal every night and return again to Delhi to continue our dharna?
You tell us what justice this is. We have waited patiently for 26 years while our leaders cheated and betrayed us. If all possible peaceful means of protest are shut out, what options would we be left with?
In this hostile city, we hope to find strength from friends like you who care to read this note and understand, to come and sit with us and talk to us, to bring your friends, to sing a song, or write a letter to the Prime Minister. We hope you tell others that the Bhopalis are here again demanding adequate compensation, the setting up of a Commission to address their rehabilitation, punishment of the guilty (including the corporations), clean water and clean-up at the cost of the polluter.
Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Purush Sangarsh Morcha; Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmachari Sangh; Bhopal Gas Peedit Nirashrit Pension Bhogi Sangarsh Morcha; Children Against Dow Carbide; Bhopal Group for Information and Action
Contact: Rachna: 9582314869; Email: email@example.com
Visit www.bhopal.net or www.studentsforbhopal.org for more information