by Nityanand Jayaraman
On February 23, 2006, Day 4 of the padayatra, we heard from the marchers. Sathyu Sarangi, one of the marchers, called from Pillukhedi, a small town in Madhya Pradesh, with breathtaking spreads of wheat fields, the gently flowing Parvati River, and smelly factories. Since they set off on February 20 on a padayatra (long march), survivors of the 1984 Union Carbide disaster and their supporters have been out of coverage of cell-phone networks. Tired of broken promises, and lies and deceit, the Bhopalis have said enough is enough. About 150 of them set off on a march by foot from Bhopal to New Delhi, announcing beforehand that they would like to meet the prime minister and have him address all their demands.
Of the 150-odd people who started out, only 58 padayatris are currently on the road. They are in great spirits. The youngest participant is getting a ride the whole way. One-year-old Karuna, fondly known as Moti or ‘the plump one’, is the only child on the march. They start walking early in the morning, by about 4.30 am and go on until 10 or so. They start again after a long rest at about 4 pm and go on for another four hours. The going has been tough, though, especially for those with health problems. It is likely to remain so for the next few days, after which the starting pains will disappear as the rhythms of walking assert themselves. They don’t have a doctor with them yet. But last night, Biju (the ayurved masseur and therapist), Dr Mrityunjay (an ayurved doctor) and Anand, a community health researcher — all from Sambhavna Trust Clinic in Bhopal – visited and treated people.
Pillukhedi is the site of four big factories — a spinning mill, the Vindhyachal Distilleries, a Coca Cola factory and a gelatine factory. “Very few people speak up against Coca Cola. Those that do say Coke and the other factories have spoilt the groundwater. One of the villagers who said he’s a doctor — I don’t think he’s really a doctor — said that water samples from here showed high levels of fluoride. I think that is because of super-extraction — when large quantities of water are sucked from the ground at a very high rate, it tends to erode the fluorides from the sub-surface rock formations,” says Sarangi.
The Bhopalis are at home here, in a sinister way. All the handpumps in the village have signs put up by the district administration saying: Water Unfit for Consumption. The water here is like “donkey urine,” concur the villagers. It is yellow and smelly. It’s been this way for three years, they say. While there is little overt resistance to pollution, all villagers speak out derisively about the Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board. “Everybody says the Pollution Control Board officials come, take money and go. They’re all corrupt,” says Sarangi. Just like Bhopal.
The distillery gives farmers the toxic sludge that remains after their effluents are treated to be used as fertiliser. Farmers say that it is okay for the first two years, but then the yield starts dropping.
The Bhopalis have been here since last evening. They are waiting for friends to arrive from Mehdiganj, near Varanasi, where villagers are waging a vociferous battle against a Coca Cola factory for sucking local aquifers dry. Last night, they screened Bhopal Expressin the village. They talked about Bhopal, and about how to begin addressing the local problems of pollution. “We also told them about the Right to Information Act and how to use it in the local context. But these places need a lot more attention. We should see how we can do that,” Sarangi notes.
The villagers have given the padayatris vegetables and buttermilk. So last night there was Khaddi and Roti for dinner. The ex-sarpanch (village head) was also arranging for some milk, and if that comes, there will be kheer as well. The cooking is reportedly awesome. People take turns. The other day, Chotte Khan — an imposing man with hennaed beard — made the food, and it was excellent, they said. Chotte Khan is one of the long-distance runners in the justice struggle in Bhopal. In reminiscing during the mid-day breaks, he talked about how he was part of the massive demonstration against Union Carbide and Warren Anderson in December 1984, in the days after the disaster. His spirit is unflagging. Probably the reason why 21 years after the disaster, the struggle for justice and its supporter network worldwide is stronger than it ever was in the past.
Petitions, emails and faxes have begun flooding Indian embassies worldwide, and in New Delhi. Supporters of the survivors are outraged at the insensitivity of the Indian and Madhya Pradesh governments to the needs of the survivors of the world’s worst disaster. “More than 20,000 people in Bhopal are forced to consume poisoned water. Medical facilities for survivors are virtually non-existent, and survivors have to beg and bribe to access healthcare. Unemployment and desperation are at an all-time high. Toxic wastes abandoned by Union Carbide continue to poison people, and create a new generation of victims,” the letter to the prime minister reads.
Even more shocking two decades after the disaster is the realisation that the Indian government has decided to help Union Carbide and its owner Dow Chemical expand and consolidate its business in India. During the prime minister’s September 2005 visit to New York, Dow CEO Andrew Liveris was one of the special invitees to a luncheon meeting. Within months of that meeting, a special cell was set up in the Planning Commission to facilitate the setting up of two petrochemical industrial estates in which Dow Chemicals and DuPont would invest substantially.
When the Bhopalis reach Delhi, they will decide whether to launch an indefinite fast depending on the response of the Indian government. “We have had enough. If all our demands are not met, we’re not leaving New Delhi,” said Champa Devi Shukla, a woman leader from the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmachari Sangh.
The march is being led by four Bhopal-based survivor and advocacy organisations: Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmachari Sangh, Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Purush Sangharsh Morcha, Bhopal Group for Information and Action, and Bhopal ki Aawaaz. Lasting about 800 km, the marchers will cover about 30 km every day, and are completely dependent on local communities for food and shelter.