by Somnath Mukherjee
“Human beings may lie, but the trees that never bore leaves since the night of Dec2nd, 1984 would not”, said a 65 year old man in Bhopal, India. He was exposed to the lethal gas leak from the Union Carbide pesticide factory 21 years ago and has not been able to work ever since, because of the resulting breathlessness. Gas spewed out of an underground tank holding 40 tons of lethal methyl isocyanate, as a result of a runaway reaction caused by water leaking into it. The 10 meter high shroud of gas advanced like a stealth killer, in the dead of the night, choking and blinding people in its wake. By the next morning, between 3000 and 8000 were dead, bearing testimony of human vulnerability against a killer of its own making. The old gentleman is one of the 150,000 people who are leading a painful existence as a result of the exposure and are lending their support to a powerful grassroots movement aimed at securing justice for the survivors. What sustains the movement? People.
Not only has the movement continued through the decades, it has gathered strength. Justice has been delayed and denied to the dead and the surviving. The then CEO of Union Carbide continues to ignore the summons of the Indian courts to face criminal charges. The tragedy lives on in Bhopal through the physical suffering of the thousands, congenitally defective children, sterile women, rising incidence to cancer to name a few. Yet the survivors do not perceive anyone being held accountable for the disaster which has been aptly called the Hiroshima of the chemical industry. This outrage in the subaltern consciousness is largely responsible for the resilience of the grassroots campaign.
Inadequate and mismanaged economic compensation has only exacerbated the sense of being wronged. Union Carbide and the government of India settled for a compensation of $470 million 5 years after the tragedy. The monetary cost of a life, a lost livelihood, transgression across generational lines was put at $500 a victim while the cost of cleaning up an otter after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill was $900.
Enormous amount of toxic chemicals and pesticide, lying around unprotected even after 21 years of the disaster, have leached into the groundwater of the neighboring areas. While the powerful actors were busy pointing fingers and reassessing the death toll, the marginalized communities living in the vicinity continued to drink the poisoned water leading to numerous illnesses. A study by Shristi, a Delhi based NGO, published in 2002, found heavy metals, organochlorines and pesticides in the breast milk of nursing mothers. People have felt the sanctity of their bodies being trespassed.
Mainstream history would have probably wrapped up the tragedy in Bhopal as a disaster whose chapter was closed the day of the legal settlement. Seldom has history been affected by the perceptions of the less powerful majority. By collecting evidences and testimonies, the campaign in Bhopal has been preserving history which has been largely ignored by the government, media and the urban elite. Through vigils, marches, petitions and protests the tragedy of December 1984 has been kept alive in the public memory much to the chagrin of the Indian government and Dow Chemical, the present owner of Union Carbide.
Bhopal is relevant today in the developing and the developed world. In the developing world, the rights of the weak and underprivileged are often crushed by corporate interests and the government’s eagerness to provide a congenial investment atmosphere. The promised trickle-down benefits are often meager and come with a high social and environmental cost as exemplified by Bhopal. In the developed world, the actual cost of materially comfortable lifestyles remains obscured. Toxic chemicals abound in the things of everyday use, such as non-stick frying pans, pizza boxes, plastic containers, detergents, lubricants etc. A study by Environmental Working Group published in July, 2005 documents the presence of 287 chemicals in the umbilical cord blood of babies born in US hospitals, of which 187 are known carcinogens.
The movement in Bhopal seeks justice, not as mere compensation, but to restore people’s faith in the founding virtue of human society.