Sreelatha Menon, Business Standard, May 18, 2008
Q&A: Satinath Sarangi
Satinath Sarangi of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action tells SREELATHA MENON that activists made a mistake by delaying raising the issue of removal of the 8,000 tonnes of toxic waste from Union Carbide’s Bhopal plant.
Where were you when the 1984 disaster in Bhopal took place and what brought you to work there among the survivors?
I am from Orissa. I had done my engineering in metallurgy from Banaras Hindu University and was pursuing my PhD when the disaster took place. I heard of it on radio and decided I will do some relief work. I reached there the next day and could not leave after that. I felt I was needed there.
Who were the others who were providing relief?
There were many people trying to help. They found nothing was being done and so they decided to organise the survivors. I joined them in the Jehrile Gas Kand Sangarsh Morcha. It had three leaders and none of them was a gas victim or survivor. There was someone from the Left. He joined the Congress and then the BJP. There was a lawyer. He made it big due to Bhopal. Then there was Anil Sadgopal. No one is there in the picture now. I and some people from a trade union of Union Carbide formed the Jan Swasthya Kendra as health was the main concern then. People were not getting treatment and their bodies were getting swollen. Bhopal Group for Information and Action was formed after that as we got involved in legal action.
Did you get funds for these activities from international agencies?
We approached the International Labour Organisation, we went to New York to speak to the United Nations, to UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) and the International Court of Justice.They all said it would have been easier if it was a natural calamity. Finally, we formed the Sambhavna Trust with individual donations like book royalties of Dominique Lapierre and annual advertisements in The Guardian. These two sources have provided us enough money to run the organisation and to treat 160 people daily since 1991.
What did you do for a living in Bhopal?
Initially, my friends used to send me money. There was Arvind Rajgopal, now a professor in New York University, who was with me and used to help me with money. I used to write for feature agencies. I also worked as a daily-wage worker in a straw board mill near the Bhopal bus stand till they sacked me a year later as there were cases against me.
Our organisation started a clinic in June 1989 with a trade union of Carbide workers. We were giving injections that were antidotes to the chemicals. We kept records of the healthy effects of this medicine. But after 21 days, goons and police took away the records of 1,300 patients. We were put in jail for 18 days on charges we were conspiring against government officials. Many scientific studies were done at that time by the government and they all concluded there were no lasting health effects of the chemicals. We came across a study by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research on damage to plant life. It was meant only for official use. The government raided our clinic and charged us under the Official Secrets Act for possessing those papers.
The Vardarajan committee report on the disaster talked about toxic waste in 1985. How come neither the government nor the activists picked up on that till Union Carbide left the country and got merged with Dow Chemicals?
The report was bad and I doubt if the committee ever visited the premises. There is also no mention of the 8,000 tonnes of chemicals that are lying buried in the plant premises. It did mention toxic waste. But that was not part of the terms of reference of the panel.
So Carbide kept quiet about the chemicals lying there?
We have records of Union Carbide’s 1981 telexes sent to the headquarters in the US that say the solar evaporation ponds are leaking. The government knew in 1982 that cattle were dying of toxic exposure. The latter was settled by a lawyer who later became Bhopal gas relief minister, Babul Lal Goud (sic).
Did you try to probe into the waste left there?
The first time we said waste should be removed was in 1990. We had done a study on water and soil contamination and the result was presented before the government and the Union Carbide AGM in 1990. Scientific agencies were trying to prove there was no damage. The chairman of the state pollution control board, VK Jain, who was later jailed on corruption charges, told me almost every day I met him that there was no contamination of water. He would say abhi to koi mara nahi hai. A Congress minister went to the site with media and drank a glass of water from there. He threw up in two minutes. This was the drama being played before 1998.
But there was no hue and cry about the toxic waste till recently?
Only after the 2004 Supreme Court order that the toxic waste has to be removed as it was contaminating the water there did we get the government to accept there was a problem.
So you blame the government for the second disaster, of continued damage caused by the chemicals left behind by the company.
The second Bhopal disaster is a creation of the government itself. In 1989, Union Carbide gathered evidence that ground water had 100 per cent fish mortality. Then they sponsored a research by NEERI, which gave a report that the factory was contaminated within the four walls but water was drinkable within the 10-km radius. We have internal correspondence between NEERI and Union Carbide advisors where the latter suggests: Let us not say water is potable, let us say it is of good quality.
But the Vardarajan committee report should have prompted some action, legal at least, on removal of toxic waste in the 80s.
Yes, it was a mistake on our part. We should have agitated much earlier. There were reports of contamination. The first report was from the public health engineering department of the Madhya Pradesh government in 1991 that water from 13 locations was dangerously polluted. But it did not mention the waste lying there.
Is the waste visible?
It is visible like a hill. But for several years, no one could go there as Carbide had posted sentries. I used to steal into the premises for samples of soil. The truth is Union Carbide just slipped away.