Bhopal: Beyond the Bottom Line

They set out on an 800 km ‘padyatra’ to Delhi – from the poisonous remains of the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal on February 20 to the capital on March 27 – on a justice march. All along the way, the hospitality of the people was heartening; ordinary people were sensitive to their plight. In sharp contrast, the powers that be in New Delhi have been heartless.
The catastrophic leakage of deadly chemicals from Union Carbide’s factory in Bhopal on December 3, 1984, followed by the callousness with which successive governments in Bhopal and New Delhi have treated the survivors, has so far left more than an estimated 20,000 persons dead and 1,50,000-2,00,000 or so disabled. No one knows for sure and no government agency has cared to establish with some certainty how many really died that terrible night, how many have died since then of the after-effects and how many carry the burden of the world’s worst industrial disaster. Even now, 350-400 of the affected persons are believed to die every year of the after-effects. Indeed, children of the gas-affected parents have also been afflicted. Yet, Dow Chemical, which took over the Union Carbide Corporation in 2001, refuses to even clean up the site.
In Delhi, the padyatris are on a satyagraha, wanting to meet the prime minister. But Manmohan Singh, who makes time to meet visiting corporate chiefs, shows no sign as yet of giving an appointment to the representatives of the company’s victims. When one looks at some of the demands the satyagrahis have had to make, one is struck by the utter insensitivity of the Indian state. First, they are demanding the setting up of a national commission on Bhopal to oversee the medical and social rehabilitation of the victims. The medical response has been wholly inadequate – symptomatic treatment remains the mainstay of such response. Adding to the survivors’ distress, the lack of access to a proper livelihood is driving them to desperation. It must be added that the compensation given is a pittance, far from being in proportion to the damage caused. Second, in line with a Supreme Court order of May 2004, the survivors are asking for safe drinking water.
Third, the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Purush Sangharsh Morcha, the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationary Sangh, the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, Bhopal ki Awaaz and the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal are demanding that the government set up a special prosecution cell to pursue the fugitive company and its head, and bring them to trial. Union Carbide and its former chairman Warren Anderson face criminal charges in a case of culpable homicide before the chief judicial magistrate’s court in Bhopal, a case that the survivors managed to press the courts to reopen after the shameful settlement of 1989. Fourth, the satyagrahis are demanding that the contamination be comprehensively assessed and Dow be asked to clean it up. Twenty-one monsoons since the disaster have washed the toxins left behind into the soil and poisoned the water that people are forced to drink. Fifth, the survivors’ organisations are demanding that Dow Chemical be blacklisted and not be allowed to do business in and with India. Sixth, the survivors want the disaster to be documented and included in school and college curricula and the anniversary declared a national day of mourning. Bhopal must not be forgotten.
It might be appropriate to recall the ecological economist, K William Kapp’s remark way back in 1971: “Capitalism must be regarded as an economy of unpaid costs”. Fortunately for humanity though, capitalism has never been allowed to unfold solely in terms of its own logic; opposition movements inevitably emerge – whether of the working class struggling for better working conditions or of conservationists trying to overcome environmental degradation – that force the system to moderate its worst excesses. So, for instance, the Narmada Bachao Andolan and the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Purush Sangharsh Morcha are forcing Indian capitalism to moderate some of its worst depredations.
Given the interconnectedness of Bhopal’s accumulated social and environmental problems, ecology and social justice cannot be separated in the search for a solution to the problems caused by the disaster. It’s been a long time coming, but even in these hard times, as long as the struggle for justice is kept alive, the final outcome can never be destiny for the afflicted and the relatives of the deceased. Now, Shehazadi Bee, Champa Devi and four of their comrades from the affected areas of Bhopal have gone on an indefinite fast. The satyagrahis say they have come to Delhi for justice and will not leave without it.
The corporate logic is that the bottom line should not reflect the cost of externalities and compensation need not be paid for environmental depredation. The tragedy of our times is that even governments have imbibed this logic, knowing very well that just solutions to what are essentially interconnected environmental and social problems lie beyond the bottom line.

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