Nonviolent protest still works in the land where Gandhi developed it. But money still talks too, as the victims of Bhopal have discovered anew.
"We have come for justice and we are not leaving here without it." These words, spoken by Shehzadi Bee, expressed the driving force of the gas victims from Bhopal on their recent march to Delhi. Padiyatra is the Hindi word for traveling on foot, and this padiyatra was a walk for justice. Bee was one of 46 people taking part in the walk from Bhopal to New Delhi, 39 of whom were gas victims from the Union Carbide gas leak of December 1984.
Long considered the worst industrial disaster in history, the leak of over 40 tons of toxic methyl isocyanate (MIC) was due to negligence by Union Carbide, the owner and operator of the factory. Disregarding important safety measures in favor of profit, the leak of MIC during the night of December 2, 1984 resulted in the death of over 8,000 within the first three days, and 15,000 in the following years. Over 100,000 people still suffer chronic injury today.
The survivors of this disaster have since had to face another after-effect of this tragedy -- contaminated ground water. The second plague of Bhopal, this is a result of the toxic waste that was left at the deserted factory after Union Carbide abandoned it following the gas leak. Their failure to clean up the mess left the chemicals leaking into the groundwater flowing to the north of the deserted factory. Today, over 20,000 people in the nearby slums drink the contaminated water.
For the gas leak, the contaminated water and the government's neglect of both, the survivors and their supporters took to the road in February. Beginning on the 20th and reaching Delhi 800km away on March 15th, the aim of those participating in the march was an audience with the prime minister in which to present their demands for justice and rehabilitation.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of the Congress Party refused initially to meet with the survivors and their supporters. There were peaceful demonstrations outside his house, but only after three survivors and three of their supporters had been on an indefinite hunger strike for six days did the PM agree to a meeting with ten delegates.
The demands of the padiyatris were six-fold: set up a national commission on Bhopal with the funds and authority to administer health care, research, economic rehabilitation and social support for the survivors; provide safe drinking water to those affected by the contaminated ground water of the Union Carbide factory; set up a special prosecution cell to prosecute the case against Union Carbide Corporation and its former chairman, Warren Anderson; ensure scientific assessment of the toxic contamination of the factory and surrounding areas and force Union Carbide's owner, The Dow Chemical company, to clean it up and compensate for the damages; blacklist Dow and Union Carbide's products and technologies in India and halt the expansion of Dow's business; declare December 3rd as a national day of mourning for victims of industrial disasters and pollution, and ensure that the Bhopal disaster be included in school and college curricula.
This struggle has been ongoing since the disaster itself, 22 years ago. "We are tired of repeating that same demands for 21 years and returning with empty promises from successive prime ministers," said Champa Devi Shukla. "This time we will not return to Bhopal with mere promises; we will leave Delhi only after all our six demands are fulfilled."
The government's failure to provide the most basic of resources and to follow through on a 20-year criminal trial has been exasperating to the survivors. There has been an arrest warrant for the past 13 years against Anderson, Union Carbide Corporation's chairman at the time of the disaster, but the Indian government has failed to complete the process of extradition. Their failure has been a refusal to exert their power to extradite. The government's concern, especially of late, has been to provide multinational corporations with an "attractive investment environment." Extraditing an American chairman would be contrary to this goal. Over the past 16 years, 4000 people in 24 localities have been forced to drink contaminated water. Shameem, a contaminated water victim, expresses the opinions of many of the victims when she says "how is it that [the government] finds water for industries when they can't find any for the country's poor?"
As an outcome of the meeting, the PM agreed to four of the six demands, namely a time-bound delivery of safe drinking water, a scientific assessment of the contamination around the factory, the memorializing of the Bhopal tragedy in the form of education and a national day of mourning, and the convening of a national commission on Bhopal with the allocation of funds towards health care. In addition, Singh agreed to explore possible legal options to hold Dow accountable for the negligence of its property, Union Carbide. Conspicuously absent, the two demands that were rejected related to the accountability of multinationals in India. Singh refused to exert his power to extradite Anderson and also to ban Union Carbide Corporation products in India. His rejection of holding corporations accountable for their actions has angered many survivors and citizens alike. "We are ashamed and outraged that the PM of the world's largest democracy has openly admitted his inability to pressurize an American multinational," said Rachna Dhingra, expressing the sentiments of many Indians.
Dhingra, Indian coordinator for the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal, was surprised and saddened by the attitude of the prime minister. Such unabashed dedication, not to the victims of the disaster but rather the corporations that invest in the country, concerned the survivors and many other Indian citizens. Singh's stance, that "tragedies happen, but India has to survive," is a growing theme in both central and state governments today.
In a recent issue of The Economist, similar sentiments were expressed in terms of business liberalization. "The central government," it argues, "...has to pursue further liberalization doggedly and at times by stealth." This increasing pressure by multinational corporations is reducing government involvement in industry and resulting in lower standards for workers and citizens. The "reform" or slackening of labor and safety standards "has always been politically difficult, and is an especially big headache for Mr. Singh's government." Since 1991, when the expansion of multinational business in India began, Singh's main concern has continued to be his country's economic expansion, much to the detriment of a large portion of the population. The neglect of corporate accountability in Bhopal is a symptom of this attitude.
So, where do they go from here? In light of the government's unwillingness to pursue legal action and sanctions against Union Carbide's parent company Dow, Dhingra assures the gas and water victims that the struggle will continue nonetheless. The survivors will have to take legal action against Dow themselves, she says, and "contain their expansion in India."
As for the commission set up to rehabilitate and provide health services to the victims, its progress so far has been slow, but promising. Dhingra and the other supporters of the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal will continue to be vigilant in their actions and scrutinize the role of the government. The victims of the world's worst industrial disaster are in able hands.
Please visit www.bhopal.net.
The author lives in Toronto but spent most of this past summer in Bhopal, India.
Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2006, page 6. Some rights reserved.
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