Bhopal dharna diary, May 29, 2008
This morning, we got half of what we came here for.
Prithviraj Chavan, representing the Prime Minister’s Office, came to the dharna sthal and read a statement conveying the Government’s in-principle agreement to our demand for the Empowered Commission. This is a huge first step. The Commission would ensure the execution of rehabilitation schemes for gas survivors and victims of water contamination. But the devil is in the details, and the PM’s statement was starkly devoid of detail. Chavan did specifically mention that medical research into long-term effects of Carbide’s poisons will resume forthwith, and that water would be delivered by November. (They can drink poisoned water till then.)
Coming from a Government without a heart, even this announcement gave cause for celebration to Bhopalis. The meeting of all these demands is important, it allows the survivors to continue to… well… survive.
It has been a long road, a tough stay. A lot of people have died waiting for some of these demands to be fulfilled; a lot of people have seen their health, and that of their children, irreversibly damaged; and a lot of people have suffered severe symptoms of the exposure for 24+ years. 600,000 people in all. Going by figures estimated by the Centre for Rehabilitation Studies, Government of Madhya Pradesh, just in the last three months that the Bhopalis have been on padayatra and dharna about 90 gas-affected persons are likely to have succumbed to the long-term effects of the poisons.
These sobering realities notwithstanding, for the living and the fighting, we’re glad to receive some acknowledgement that the Prime Minister is listening to us. As Rashida Bi said, “Unki aakh to khuli, kaan tak aawaaz toh aayi (he has finally opened his eyes, our voices have reached his ears).” Our friend Piyush — who was arrested for juxtaposing the PM’s face on to the bodies of the three see-no-evil, hear-no-evil monkeys — would be glad to know that his appeal has had some effect. The Prime Minister is now able to see and hear. His feelings for fellow-humans — particularly, those that are poor — are still lacking. How else would you explain an offer by the PM that does not even guarantee that the mothers can give clean drinking water to their babies when they return to Bhopal? The Prime Minister has said the Bhopalis would have to wait until November 2008 to get clean water.
Reflecting on the PM’s statement later in the day, the euphoria wore off and some of the old cynicism crept back in. What exactly have we won? An assurance from a PM (who has once broken his word) that we have the right to live? Elation followed by an empty sense of betrayal is now a familiar pattern for Bhopal. That is not to say we haven’t learned from this cycle – each time we win an agreement with more teeth, more guarantees. Cynicism, for people like the Bhopalis who refuse to give up, only means better preparation, better follow-up and a realisation that every assurance squeezed out of a spineless politician only signals the beginning of another long struggle to help the politician live up to his word. And this time too, follow up is critical – going by our experiences, every little detail has to be examined, every deadline has to be enforced. In a way, the padyatra and dharna, were simply prologue to the struggle ahead.
And as for the other thing – the giant elephant weighing us all down – namely, legal action against Dow and Union Carbide. Our Hon’ble Prime Minister — God bless his lost spine — and the entire cabinet have been unable to muster the courage to take action against Dow Chemical. They are afraid of the Americans. Will Georgie bomb us for daring to pursue legal action against an American company? Not a word has been said about deregistering the three pesticides that Dow registered illegally by bribing officials. Nothing on revoking the approval given to Reliance to purchase Union Carbide’s Unipol technology. And nothing said on whether the Government will — even half-heartedly — pursue the extradition of Warren Anderson and Union Carbide’s representative. Strangely, all three things are not merely being required by the Bhopalis. They are also required by law.
Since 1992, when the Chief Judicial Magistrate proclaimed Carbide and Anderson absconders, the Government of India has specific instructions from the Court to produce Carbide’s representative and ol’ man Anderson in court to face trial. But successive Governments have decided that it is safer to ignore the Court than it is to piss off the United States of America. In the case of the bribery scandal involving the illegal registration of three pesticides, Dow has gotten away with murder, literally. Barring a little negative publicity, nothing concrete has materialised. Every time the Bhopalis shout for deregistering the pesticides, the Government will issue a well-heeled statement that investigations are on, or that the next painful, deliberate step is being conceived, and then will be considered, and then, perhaps, acted upon. Meanwhile, thanks to Dr. Singh’s spinal difficulties, Dow Chemical continues to profit from the sales of these three pesticides, including one (Dursban) that robs the childhood of our children.
The Bhopalis are unwavering in their commitment to see all their demands met. Our health, our bodies need to be looked after, but the outrage that has been the callousness of Union Carbide, and now Dow, has to be righted. Mr. Prime Minister, we have 600,000 Bhopalis and countless supporters, here and worldwide, demanding that one company, just one company, be pulled up for its wrongdoings. We don’t understand the hesitation at punishing Dow for poisoning our communities, we cannot begin to comprehend why they are being allowed to introduce even more poisons into the country, and we shudder at the only possible reason for it: that you value its dollars more than our lives, more than righting the wrongs that were done to us. And it’s not just about us: it’s about No More Bhopals, its about sending a strong message to the world, to polluting industries everywhere, that India is open for business, but no business that compromises the environment or human rights will be tolerated.