MERCY FOR THE MARTYRS OF BHOPAL!
They pour out each day by the hundreds into New Delhi from the third class carriages and the roofs of the Mangala Express, the Punjab Mail, and all the trains which converge towards the capital across the huge Indian continent. These pathetic flocks of men, women and children loaded with baskets and packages slowly walk under the blazing July heat towards the Jantar Mantar, an ancient observatory for astronomy which over the years has been the capitalís traditional headquarters for protesters. For now ten days, it is sheltering a group of hunger strikers embarked into a fast unto death. These desesperados and all those who are joining them all come from Bhopal, a city in the heart of India where, in the night of December 3, 1984, a toxic cloud brutally released by a pesticide plant belonging to the US multinational Union Carbide killed between sixteen and thirty thousand inhabitants and poisoned half a million others. It was the most deadly industrial accident in history.
Those responsible for this tragedy, to begin with Warren Anderson, at the time Union Carbideís CEO, have never been brought to court to explain why, for the only sake of profit, they had shut one by one the safety devices which were to guarantee the safety of their plant. In 1992, the Bhopal Court of Justice issued a warrant against Warren Anderson for ìculpable homicideî, an accusation which justified an extradition to India. But the US authorities took no action on the Indian request. They did not arrest Warren Anderson. During the three years I have devoted with Javier Moro to reconstruct in minute details the circumstances of the Bhopal tragedy (Five past Midnight in Bhopal, Warner books), we were unable to locate the man who is, after all, responsible, even if it is in an involuntarily way, of the death of five times more people than caused the terrorist attack against the New York World Trade Center. His house in Vero Beach, Florida, where he had retired, has been deserted for many years. As Bin Laden, Warren Anderson is a fugitive.
And yet, in a very surprising decision, the government of India is now requesting the Court of Justice of Bhopal to reduce Andersonís accusation of ìculpable homicideî into a simple accusation of ìrash negligenceî. In which case, the procedure for extradition would be automatically dropped. The Bhopal Court of Justice is to take its decision on July17. But no one doubts it will comply with the central governmentís request. Under what pressure from Washington has New Delhi been to decide to ask its local justice to exonerate from its accusation the man responsible for the Bhopal tragedy? A very strong pressure, no doubt. Could George W. Bush accept that the former CEO of a prestigious American multinational continue to be threatened by an extradition procedure initiated by a third world country?
But in its desire to accommodate its American partners, the Indian government simply forgot about the indomitable will of those who survived the December 1984 massacre. Led by a legendary character named Sathyu, a former mechanical engineer who has, for the last eighteen years, devoted his whole life to alleviate the sufferings of the 150,000 survivors of the tragedy, a group of men and women, all gas victims, has just left Bhopal for New Delhi to revolt against the possible exoneration of Andersonís liability. What weapon are they using? The same weapon the father of their nation, Mahatma Gandhi, used when he fought to get the British out of India. An indefinite hunger strike.
Tarai Bai, one of the hunger strikers, is thirty-six years old. She was three months pregnant at the time of the accident. She lost her baby as she fled the lethal cloud. The gas burnt her lungs. She was unable to ever be pregnant again and she suffers of permanent respiratory deficiency, of partial blindness, of neurological troubles. Her companion Rashida Bee, forty-six, has lost five members of her family during the fatal night. In spite of her semi blindness, she manages one of the most active survivors organization. She is the one who led the famous march of Bhopal women, when hundreds of gas victims walked over six hundred miles from Bhopal to Delhi, with babies in their arms, to manifest in front of Parliament for the respect of the victims rights. The other hunger strikers are all veterans of a relentless struggle for justice. But because of their precarious health, their action may lead to premature deaths. Three of them have just entered into a coma. The doctor who monitors their health has had to order the interruption of their fast.
Inseparable of all Indian non-violent manifestations, these July days and nights are days and nights of celebrations around the engineer Sathyu and his suffering companions. Besides the hundreds of Bhopalis who continue to poor in, compact groups of journalists, political and union leaders, personalities of all sorts are permanently surrounding the pathetic small group laying on cots spread on the sidewalk with, as only food, bottles of water and a few slices of lemon. The crowd never stops to sing and recite mantras. As always in India, the adventure has become a spiritual happening.
But, at any moment, the apparition of a banner may convert this good humor into an explosion of anger. One of this banner denounces a new insult to the rights of the victims. A Hindu Member of Parliament, member of the BJP, the extremist party in power, has just managed to have financial compensations distributed to the Hindu inhabitants of twenty new wards of Bhopal which were NEVER touched by the toxic cloud of gas. An astute way to buy votes for the next elections. Plenty of votes, because the sums of money involved are enormous.
Authentic victims of the Bhopal catastrophe unfortunately all suffer from one major malediction: they are all poor, and it is well known that the poor, especially in poor countries, have no voice. It is because the fatal night the wind blew from the north to the south. The north was the plant. The south was a belt of slums where thousands of migrant workers had crammed together in the hope to find a job in the high tech pesticide plant America had built for the benefit of Indian farmers.
This blazing month of July, a third determination is fueling the anger of New Delhiís hunger strikers. And that is to force the government to get the multinational chemical corporation Dow Chemicals, now the owner of Union Carbide, to assume the responsibility of the defunct corporation with matters regarding medical treatment of the victims and environmental liabilities. Carbide has disappeared in 1984 leaving hundreds of tons of toxic effluents on the site of its abandoned plant. This horrendous pollution poison each day a little more the underground aqua system which provides the water of the wells of those who still live in the immediate vicinity of the rusting metallic structures of the former installations. I recently wanted to reckon the aggressiveness of this pollution by drinking half a glass of the water of one of those wells. My mouth, my throat, my tongue instantly got on fire, while my arms and legs suffered an immediate skin rash. This was the simple manifestation of what men, women and children have to endure daily, some eighteen years after the tragedy. With the support of the royalties of Five Past Midnight in Bhopal, my co-author Javier Moro and I we are presently working in providing a drinking water distribution to the worst off inhabitants of the area.
At a time when India is doing its all out best to get major international corporations to come invest on its territory, itís alas unlikely that it will want to confront a super giant like Dow Chemicals. Unless the biggest democracy in the world accepts to hear the desperate voices of the martyrs of New Delhiís Jantar Mantar.