This week a group of protesters other than the Narmada Bachao Andolan called off its hunger strike. These protesters were the victims of what is still called the world’s worst industrial disaster — the Bhopal gas calamity of December 2-3, 1984. Forty survivors of a tragedy that killed 3,000 people when deadly methyl isocyanate leaked out of the Union Carbide factory, and another 17,000 subsequently as a result of illness, took 33 days to march from Bhopal to Delhi. Their demands were not extravagant. Clean drinking water was one. Many of the survivors continue to live next to the now-defunct factory. But as the poisonous substances used for manufacture remain in the factory’s compound, and no one is prepared to take the responsibility of cleaning it up, the surrounding water sources are heavily polluted. People living in the vicinity are forced to use this poisoned water. Survivors’ groups have been demanding that the least that can be done is to provide them clean water. Yet, despite an earlier intervention by the Supreme Court, this simple demand was not met until April 17 — when the Prime Minister promised to do something. He assured them that the toxic wastes lying in the Carbide plant will be cleaned up and that a national commission for medical and economic rehabilitation of the gas tragedy victims will be constituted. December 3 will be declared a National Day of Mourning to remember the Bhopal Gas tragedy and a memorial will be built in Bhopal.
All this is very well, but it fails to address some critical issues thrown up by the tragedy. The Bhopal disaster stands out as an example of industrialisation gone wrong. A multinational, Union Carbide, was permitted to set up a factory that used hazardous chemicals adjacent to a large human settlement. The people around the factory were unaware of the nature of the poisons it used. When the accident took place, they were the first to die. Twenty-two years later, culpability for that disaster has still not been established. Although a criminal case is pending in the Chief Judicial Magistrate’s court in Bhopal against the executives of the company, which has since been bought by Dow Chemicals, the Central Government has not pushed for the case to be heard. What is the message this sends out? That India is so anxious to invite foreign investors that it is willing to write off the lives and well-being of its citizens? If this is not the message the Government wishes to send, it must make it clear that just as infrastructure development has to take care of displacement and environmental damage, industries, Indian or foreign, will be held accountable if they poison people or the environment. Pursuing criminal as well as civil liability must form part of the `legal options’ (to hold Dow Chemicals accountable) that the Prime Minister has promised to explore. Doing this earnestly will be the best memorial for the Bhopal gas victims.