THE GUARDIAN, LONDON
· Indian prime minister bows to protest demands
· Clean water to be supplied for families near toxic site
Randeep Ramesh in New Delhi
Tuesday April 18, 2006
Survivors of the Bhopal disaster called off a week-long hunger strike last night after India’s prime minister promised to clean up the disused chemical factory, provide fresh drinking water for local people and build a £13m memorial to the dead.
A leak of lethal methyl isocyanate gas from a pesticide plant operated by the Indian arm of the US firm Union Carbide killed more than 3,500 people in the central city of Bhopal in December 1984. At least 15,000 others have died since from cancer and other diseases, and deformed children have been born to survivors.
Despite compensation schemes, campaigners say the toll continues to rise as people living near the derelict plant drink water poisoned by toxic waste still present on the site. They want a piped water supply installed for families living nearby. Two years ago a study found contamination in water around the plant 500 times higher than the maximum recommended by the World Health Organisation.
For more than 20 years, victims have been fighting with little success to get the site cleaned up. This year, to highlight their struggle, a group of 40 campaigners and survivors spent 33 days walking the 500 miles from Bhopal to New Delhi, arriving late last month.
A week ago, they began a pavement hunger strike, taking only sips of water – an act of defiance that turned out to be a potent political tactic. Yesterday the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, conceded several of the campaigners’ demands, and the protest was halted.
But the government stopped short of issuing a pledge to prosecute Union Carbide – now a subsidiary of the Dow Chemical Company – or its former chief executive, Warren Anderson. Dr Singh told the campaigners: “We have to do business. India will have to survive despite these tragedies.”
Nityanand Jayaraman, a spokesman for the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, said: “This is an important victory for us, although we want justice as well. What worries us is that the government expressed powerlessness at a time when it wants to double the amount of industrial investment into the country.”
The Bhopal group briefly met Sonia Gandhi, leader of the ruling Congress party, and her son, Rahul Gandhi, an MP who has advised the campaign on tackling US-based multinationals.
Many of those affected by the tragedy remain sceptical, given the record of broken government promises. Shehazadi Bee, one of the hunger strikers who lives in an area with a contaminated water supply, welcomed the latest pledge but called for a timetable to ensure that the clean water arrived before the summer heat.
The abandoned plant is now owned by the Madhya Pradesh state government, and the estimated clean-up costs range from £14m to £280m. A local court had ordered a clean-up of the site last summer, but that was halted when 150 workers needed hospital treatment after being overcome by fumes.
“They tried to do it cheaply, without masks and gloves. It was a mess,” said Satinath Sarangi, a protest organiser. “That’s why we want assurances that the work will be done properly.”