By Randeep Ramesh, Delhi
April 19, 2006
SURVIVORS of the Bhopal disaster have called off a week-long hunger strike after India’s Prime Minister promised to clean up the disused site, provide fresh drinking water for local people and build a $A30 million memorial to the dead.
A leak of methyl isocyanate gas from a pesticide plant operated by the Indian arm of the US firm Union Carbide killed more than 3500 people in Bhopal in December 1984. At least 15,000 others have died since from cancer and other diseases, and deformed children have been born to survivors.
In spite of compensation schemes, campaigners say the toll continues to rise as people living near the derelict plant drink water poisoned by toxic waste still present on the site. Two years ago a study found contamination in water around the plant 500 times higher than the maximum recommended by the World Health Organisation.
For more than 20 years, victims have been fighting with little success to get the site cleaned up. This year, to highlight their struggle, a group of 40 campaigners and survivors spent 33 days walking the 800 kilometres from Bhopal to New Delhi, arriving late last month.
A week ago, they began a pavement hunger strike, taking only sips of water — an act of defiance that turned out to be a potent political tactic. On Monday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh conceded several of their demands, and the protest was halted. But the Government stopped short of issuing a pledge to prosecute Union Carbide — now a subsidiary of the Dow Chemical Company — or its former chief executive, Warren Anderson. Dr Singh told the campaigners: “We have to do business. India will have to survive despite these tragedies.”
Nityanand Jayaraman, a spokesman for the Bhopal Group for Information and Action, said: “This is an important victory for us, although we want justice as well. What worries us is that the Government expressed powerlessness at a time when it wants to double the amount of industrial investment into the country.”
Many of those affected by the tragedy remain sceptical, given the record of broken government promises. Shehazadi Bee, one of the hunger strikers who lives in an area with a contaminated water supply, called for a timetable to ensure clean water arrived before the summer heat.
The abandoned plant is now owned by the Madhya Pradesh state Government, and estimates of the clean-up cost range from $A33.5 million to $A670 million. A local court had ordered a clean-up of the site last summer, but that was halted when 150 workers needed hospital treatment after being overcome by fumes.
“They tried to do it cheaply, without masks and gloves. It was a mess,” said Satinath Sarangi, a protest organiser. “That’s why we want assurances that the work will be done properly.”