No Life Or Liberty

NITYANAND JAYARAMAN, Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 24, June 21, 2008
A clause that could save lives doesn’t seem to apply to Bhopalis
SACHIN JATAV would like to play cricket like his namesake. But forget running between the wickets, this 13-year-old can barely walk properly. When he is not staggering on his feet, he just thrashes about, somehow coping with the excruciating pain in his legs. Sachin lives near Union Carbide’s football field-sized solar evaporation ponds in Bhopal. These were filled to the brim with the pesticide factory’s toxic effluents and were just left there to dry. Along with the rain, the poisons in the pond leached into the groundwater. Sachin and his parents are among more than 25,000 Bhopalis who use this poison-laced water for drinking, bathing, everything.
Like Sachin, numerous children living in Bhopal suffer from congenital and water contamination-related diseases. 14-year-old Sarita Malviya lives with her family in a community where the handpumps spit out poisoned water. Her hands and arms are perpetually sweat-soaked, covered with a light rash. Her palms look scaly, crisscrossed by abnormally deep lines. “This is because of the water,” Sarita says. Her youngest brother, nine-year-old Vijay — generally a helpful, energetic kid — is a terror when he gets agitated. He is uncontrollable, inconsolable.
The first signs of water contamination arose in 1982, when Madhya Pradesh’s former Gas Relief Minister, Babu Lal Gaur, was still a lawyer. He had helped some farmers get compensation from Union Carbide when their cattle died after drinking the contaminated water. Now, 26 years have passed and at least 10 governmental and non-governmental studies have confirmed the groundwater contamination. The poisons found in the water can cause cancers, birth defects, joint pains, behavioural disorders, chaotic menstrual cycles, and early onset of puberty and menopause.
On April 1 this year, Hazira Bi, a grandmother of five who lives near the Carbide factory, sent an RTI request to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) seeking inspection of files relating to the disaster. The desperation in her application was palpable: “I am a survivor of the 1984 Union Carbide gas tragedy. I am currently in New Delhi, after having walked 800 kilometres, seeking a meeting with the Prime Minister. The demands are integral to our well-being, health and the well-being of my children and grandchildren as they include actions on vital issues such as livelihood support, social support and drinking water. Therefore, I am constrained to make this request under the ‘Life and Liberty’ clause that requires you to furnish the information within two working days.”
The PMO responded on May 7, over a month later. “We treated it as a normal application because we felt that the information sought does not invoke life and liberty,” a PMO official said.
The response of the Central Information Commission (CIC), to whom the matter was referred to on May 12, was no better. In an email response to a complaint — about the lack of action — the Chief Information Commissioner, Wajahat Habibullah, wrote: “I’m sorry you haven’t received redress, but we could not see grounds for invoking the provision of life and liberty in this case. You may be assured of a decision in the immediate conclusion of the 10 days provided to the PMO.”
Till date, well beyond the stipulated 10-day notice period, no decision has been communicated.
What prompted the PMO and CIC to deny the application of the “life and liberty” clause to Hazira Bi’s application? The Bhopalis have been denied life, liberty and justice for more than two decades now. But that does not justify any further delay. The authorities cannot say: “You’ve been drinking poisoned water since 1981. What’s a wait of a few more months?”
Every day of delay in providing clean water to these communities means an added exposure to poisons for more than 25,000 Bhopalis. It means more stolen childhoods, and more hapless parents. Little wonder then that Bhopalis have not just walked from Bhopal to Delhi, but also spent more than 60 days sitting on the sidewalk in our hostile capital, pushing home their demands to the Prime Minister. On two occasions, they broke into the high-security zone to reach the PM’s residence, including the recent incident when nearly 40 of them chained themselves to the PM’s fence. Timely inspection of the files in the PM’s office could have given the Bhopalis a peep into the minds that are destroying their lives, and help them strategise their struggles accordingly.
What do you do when you know that a factory is spewing out life-threatening poisons into your primary school? You want to find what the Pollution Control Board is doing about it; instead you find that you are not entitled to receive the information without delay to enable corrective action. Is not condemning someone to drink poisoned water or breathe poisoned air, for even one day longer than can be helped, a perversion of ‘life and liberty’?

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