Randeep Ramesh, The Guardian, June 12, 2008
Indra Sinha, the author of a Booker-shortlisted novel set in the aftermath of the tragedy of the world’s worst industrial disaster in Bhopal, yesterday began an indefinite hunger strike in support of survivors protesting against “government indifference” over their plight.
Sinha, a longtime supporter of the Bhopal campaign, told the Guardian that he wanted to “give something back to people who had given me so much. The survivors have gone through hell and been let down by everybody that matters. The judges, politicians have all sold them down the river.”
More than two decades ago, white clouds of toxic gas escaped from American multinational Union Carbide’s pesticide plant. The gas killed 5,000 people that night and 15,000 more in the following weeks – and there is evidence that hundreds of children are still being born with birth defects.
Sinha joins another nine activists in Delhi who began fasting this week. The protestors, who include children and survivors, have complained of being beaten by police after they demonstrated outside the prime minister’s office in the Indian capital.
Set in the slums of a town a re-imagined Bhopal, Sinha’s Animal’s People is a damning indictment against corporate greed and indifference to human suffering. Its climax is a hunger strike to shame the authorities into helping the survivors.
“I know the problem with a hunger strike is that it hurts you more than the government but there has to be some moral pressure on this government which appears dazzled by Dow Chemicals (which brought Union Carbide in 2001) and promises of god knows what investment. How long can I go on (without food)? I don’t know honestly.”
The author, who is based in southern France, said that the real problem is that there has been no case made against Union Carbide, the question of Dow becomes one of “public relations”.
“Because no American executive has ever been brought before a court of law there has been no rigorous investigation of the facts. So it is not a legal or moral problem but one of image. Next week Dow are sponsoring an event at the Cannes advertising festival which is about using marketing for good causes. It is absurd.”
Dow, one of the world’s largest chemical companies, purchased Union Carbide in 2001 and says it never owned or operated the Bhopal plant. Therefore it has no responsibility for the events in 1984. The disused Union Carbide factory in Bhopal contains about 8,000 tonnes of carcinogenic chemicals which continue to leach out and contaminate water supplies used by 30,000 local people.
Satinath Sarangi of the Sambhavna Trust, which helps to rehabilitate victims, said the government is washing its hands of Bhopal. No one, he says, has taken responsibility for cleaning up the site and paying the high cost of medical bills.
“We need to catalyse global opinion about the issue. The government tries to buy us off with empty promises but really there’s nothing.”