Uma Asher, Times of India, June 22, 2008
As Gandhi once showed the world, the hunger strike is a powerful moral weapon of the weak. It took decades but it worked, where lawsuits in colonial courts or armed resistance to imperial strength might have failed. But do hunger strikes have any power today?
Indra Sinha, former ad copywriter, author of Animal’s People, and most recently hunger striker, is convinced they do. The France-based writer went on a week-long fast recently in support of Bhopal gas survivors who are on hunger strike in Delhi demanding, among other things, that the government let the law take its course against Dow Chemical and Union Carbide.
Sinha recalls the immense global response to the 1981 Irish hunger strike, in which 10 prisoners died demanding that Britain treat them not as criminals but as political prisoners. “Even those who disagreed with their politics could not ignore the powerful response,” he says.
Twenty-four years after the Bhopal disaster, major issues remain unresolved. Many victims weren’t even born in 1984 when the Union Carbide factory-now owned by Dow Chemical-leaked 27 tonnes of lethal gas over the city. Thousands died within hours, and tens of thousands survived-many as orphans-condemned to a lifetime of health problems, some crippling, some fatal, and many passed down through generations. Thousands drink poisonous water daily, because the groundwater is contaminated from the toxic factory, which still awaits a clean-up.
Fifteen years ago, Sinha had no connection with Bhopal. Mumbai-born and Cambridge-educated, he was living in the UK, raising money for Amnesty International. “Someone in Bhopal got wind of my work. A community worker from Bhopal, Satinath Sarangi, came to see me in England in 1993. He asked if I could help the gas victims, because in 10 years, they had got no help. I had heard about the disaster, but thought it must have all been sorted out.” Sarangi told him about the lack of medical care and other problems, and said he wanted to start an ayurvedic clinic in Bhopal.
Sinha says, “I thought it was inconceivable that after nine years, survivors had no medical care. Here, this sort of thing would have been dealt with right away.” Using another powerful weapon-words-he created a double-page ad, and convinced The Guardian to publish it. He recalls, “It was a huge risk, but readers responded generously.” And so the Sambhavna Clinic in Bhopal was built.
But today, survivors are still waiting for the safe water supply, promised only after they agitated in 2006. Sinha is outraged that survivors are treated like this, while the government bends over backwards to accommodate a company that assigns unequal value to Indian and American lives. He reminds you that the compensation to the victims averaged US $500 (Rs 21,400) per person-barely enough for a cup of tea a day-for a lifetime of sickness. He quotes Dow Chemical public affairs specialist Kathy Hunt as saying in 2002, “$500 is plenty good for an Indian.” Contrast this, he says, the $10 million that Dow paid an American child who suffered brain damage caused by its Dursban insecticide. Dursban, banned in the US in 2000, is marketed aggressively in India. Dow has even admitted, Sinha notes, to bribing agriculture ministry officials to expedite its registration.
Sinha is hardly alone in his outrage: 287 people have fasted or are fasting-more than 20 of them indefinitely-in Argentina, Canada, France, Germany, India, Israel, Jordan, Malaysia, the UK and the US. A couple of weeks ago, 16 US Congresspersons wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, urging him to bring Dow and Union Carbide to justice. The issue has drawn the attention of British and Scottish MPs, Amnesty International, and dozens of eminent writers and artists. Seventeen US-based NRI organisations have written to the prime minister, seeking urgent resolution of survivors’ demands. Supporters have sent over 5,000 faxes to the prime minister’s office this month alone.
Sinha sums up their demands: “The government must ensure proper medical treatment for not just gas victims, but also those suffering from the contaminated water. Secondly, the factory should be cleaned up using the world’s best expertise. And thirdly, let justice take its course-stop obstructing it.”
Bhopal survivors insist that Dow pays for the clean-up. Sinha points out that the law ministry has said in a private note that Dow is liable, regardless of the technicalities of its merger with Union Carbide. But at the same time, he notes, Dow is negotiating with the government to be freed of its liabilities. “I have no words strong enough for the politicians in Delhi,” he says.
Sinha’s passionate commitment to the cause led him to write Animal’s People, shortlisted for the 2007 Booker and winner of the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. The novel highlights the human aspect of Bhopal survivors’ lives and loves. It is going to be made into a movie. Sinha says, “I’ve been asked to write the screenplay. I’m thrilled.” TNN