Dharna day 1: Camped in a hostile city, Bhopalis sing

BY A NUMBER OF VOLUNTEERS

Coming to Delhi to knock at the doors to the conscience of the Central Government — the Prime Minister, in particular — is something that Bhopalis have done four times in the last five years. Each time supporters from India and abroad have responded with remarkable warmth. Each time, people in Delhi — albeit a small group of committed individuals and organisations — have extended their full support to Bhopalis. Each time they went back with an elaborate list of promises made by the Prime Minister Office. Each time these promises remained on paper. At 26, it is a matter of surprise and great unhappiness to the Government that struggle for justice in Bhopal is still alive and strong. The Government’s hopes that nobody other than the Bhopalis would be affected by things that affect them were shattered on June 7. The verdict by the Chief Judicial Magistrate of Bhopal sentencing seven convicted Indian former officials of Union Carbide India Limited to a mere two years of bail-able jail time triggered a renewed wave of public outrage over the justice denied. The Congress-led UPA Government was in the spotlight, and mighty uncomfortable.

Buckling under the public pressure generated by the public and media outrage, and the increasing focus on the possible role played by then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in letting Anderson get away, the Prime Minister acted swiftly to deflect attention. A Group of Ministers on Bhopal was constituted to recommend measures for addressing pending issues in Bhopal. What the Government did not achieve in 26 years was sought to be achieved by a Group of Ministers in four sessions spread over four days. Naturally, their recommendations like before fall far short of addressing the real issues facing the survivors. Seasoned by experience, the Bhopalis know that this promise too like other promises will vanish in thin air unless they do something to remain in public sight long enough to win the real demands and see them fulfilled.

After all it was only due to their 800km March to Delhi from Bhopal in 2006 and 2008 respectively that Government finally realised that not only are there second generation children in Bhopal who are being born with grave physical and mental effects but also an even larger population facing severe health risks from contaminated drinking water.

PICTURES FROM DAY ONE: CLICK TO ENLARGE

And hence, the fourth trip to Delhi. Today, about 150 of them arrived in Delhi to claim their space in Jantar Mantar. Between 1000 and 3000 were expected. But the Gods intervened to frustrate our plans. Guru Purnima ensured that the Hindus didn’t leave in large numbers. Shabb-e-raat (night to remember the ancestors) put paid to the travel plans of Muslim victims. But 26 July is an important date — the first day of the Monsoon session of the parliament.

But Delhi of 2010 is a hostile city, especially to people who look poor. As it is gearing up to host the Commonwealth Games, Delhi doesn’t want its pride to be hurt by its shame. It is ashamed of India’s poor. So rather than get rid of poverty, Delhi Government has gotten rid of the poor and banned them from being in the city. Little wonder that most common people equate the Commonwealth Games to the darkest period in free India’s history — the time when PM Indira Gandhi declared emergency and suspended democracy. Like then, now in Delhi democracy remains suspended till after the Games. Protestors, even if they are from out of town, are not allowed to camp out on streetsides after 5 p.m. To make the city look as if it is the capital of a country with no poor, beggars have been driven out. Streetside vendors’ shops have been wrecked; rickshaw pullers have had their rickshaws confiscated and destroyed; Delhi University students have been asked to vacate their hostels to make way for the athletes and tourists expected for the Common Wealth Games.

No camping in at Jantar Mantar where Bhopalis had stayed in 2006 and 2008. With no alternate accommodation Bhopalis are facing a tough choice — to surrender their civil liberties or to uphold their constitutional rights and demand a life with dignity and Justice. Bhopalis are determined to go with the later. On 27 July, a case is being filed by Bano Bee challenging the police order prohibiting overnight stay at Jantar Mantar. An indefinite dharna is announced at the Press conference at 4:30pm.

A quarter century of dissent, despair and agony has caused deep lines on the faces of those who sit here today, seeking justice after a gruelling overnight train journey. With cries of “Bharat Sarkar hosh mein aao, Anderson ko wapas lao!” (Indian Government, come to your senses; Bring back Anderson!), they make it clear that justice means hope for all those here today. Rashida Bee, in the struggle ever since the tragedy, says “We came from Bhopal this morning and there are more who will join in. We will protest in Delhi till justice is granted”.

By 4:30pm in the Press Conference MPs from various political parties came and spoke to those assembled at Jantar Mantar. D. Raja from CPI addressed the Bhopalis, assuring them that he has always been a part of their struggle and will walk in solidarity until the battle is won. He also said that he understands the agony behind the issue and that he will fight for them both inside and outside the parliament.

Abani Roy from the RSP stressed that the extradition of Anderson and the punishment of the people from the then ruling party responsible for his flight from the country should be considered non negotiable. Syed Azeez Pasha from the CPI said that the compensation being offered is not enough and that the government has failed miserably in assessing the true number of Bhopal gas tragedy survivors and those affected. He also added that the 300 crore that has been set aside for the clean up of the Union Carbide factory site should be Dow’s financial responsibility, and that by using tax payer money India is setting a bad example.

Hanan Mollah from CPI(M) contrasted the pathetic track record of delivering justice to Bhopal victims with the alacrity shown by the Government in protecting nuclear technology suppliers from the financial liability in the event of a nuclear disaster. The Civil Liability for Nuclear Damages bill, currently being debated in the parliament, proposes to fix a maximum liability cap of $450 million on operators of nuclear facility, even while offering immunity to those who may have supplied the equipment and design.

If justice delayed is also justice denied then 25 years is no small number for Bhopal. This tragedy born of wilful negligence by Union Carbide, in the pursuit of profit over safety, has been one of the world’s worst industrial accidents. Today, in the light of the Nuclear liability bill being proposed in the parliament, the legacy of Bhopal poses the question: How much does India value its people?

While this question remains to haunt us, at the dharna site the supporters bring in some fresh air. Be it through – songs of survival, songs mocking the institutions meant to “serve the public” or songs of life and faith. Neeraj and Rahul of Manzil sang and elevated the spirits of everyone present. It was heartening to learn that Hemant, who led the manzil band in their solidarity concert for Bhopal in 2008, has been successful in realising his dreams of higher education. Like Manzil, Vimlendu and Sunny of another Delhi-based organisation Sweccha sang songs to salute the resilience of Bhopalis. This was followed by some beautifully self composed songs sung by the people of Sangwari (of Jan Sanskriti Manch, Forum for Democratic Initiative) and New Socialist Initiative, Delhi. NSI sang about the commonwealth games and the disaster it has spelt for the people of Delhi. A song from Sangwari about inequality was another instant hit: “rasgullas (sweets) for rich and boiled potatoes for the poor”, and everybody joined in to sing in full strength. While people were still clapping a woman rose from the background and walked up-to the mic, to ask the artists to sing the song again. And so we all smiled and sang it again. Long live Struggle! Long live Solidarity!

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