25 years of shame

Published : Dec 18, 2009 00:00 IST

Survivors of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy and activists outside the Dow Chemicals office in Noida, near Delhi, on November 19.-MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP

Survivors of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy and activists outside the Dow Chemicals office in Noida, near Delhi, on November 19.-MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP

WHEN the Bhopal gas disaster revealed itself in all its horror, with 3,000 early deaths and grave chemical injuries to tens of thousands of people, it was widely expected that the Government of India would treat it as a national catastrophe and mobilise all its resources to provide emergency relief to the survivors and secure justice for them. The very opposite happened. Instead of launching a national-level medical treatment programme with the best available professional help, which could have saved hundreds of lives and relieved much acute suffering, the Central government left the victims to the mercy of the Madhya Pradesh governments pitiable health care infrastructure in effect, handing them over to quacks. In place of putting on trial the directors of Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) of the United States and its Indian subsidiary, the government set free UCC chairman Warren Anderson, who had been arrested in Bhopal.

In place of protecting the survivors from ambulance-chasing lawyers who descended upon Bhopal, the government became a mute spectator to the theft of valuable medical evidence from the victims. This was only the prelude to a long, systematic campaign to rob the victims of their right to justice, and impose a terrible settlement upon them, which would compensate most of them with Rs.25,000 for a lifetime of suffering through damage to their lungs, liver, kidneys and the immune system. Even as people were dying in Bhopal in the first week of December 1984, Indian diplomats were at pains to tell the world that the disaster would in no way affect Indias foreign investment policy.

Twenty-five years on, their assurances have been largely fulfilled. Carbide has got off the civil liability hook with a paltry settlement of $470 million, an amount barely double its insurance cover for what was the worlds most catastrophic industrial accident until Chernobyl happened in April 1986, and which remains the worst chemical industry accident in world history.

Now, the government is keen to lay out the red carpet for UCCs successor, Dow Chemical Co., and is doing its utmost to let Dow evade its responsibility to clean up the Bhopal plant site, which remains contaminated with hundreds of tonnes of toxic chemicals, which have poisoned water supplies. The captains of Indian industry, in collaboration with U.S. multinationals, are strenuously trying to bury the past and erase Bhopals memory at the expense of the victims, and to attract foreign investment.

Why, Minister of State for Environment Jairam Ramesh even turned up at the plant in September and jeered at the victims. He picked a fistful of waste and declared: See, I am alive! There could have been no meaner and more obnoxious way of rubbing salt into the wounds of people who have suffered untold injuries from the gas leak and had to bear the further humiliation of having to drink water contaminated by the plant. Ramesh even insinuated that there was a dirty secret to the accident other than Carbides culpability something he cant even talk about. Like UCCs servitors in the media, he hinted that the disaster was caused by negligence on the part of its workers, or worse, sabotage by them.

The past 25 years in Bhopal make a story of death, disease and devastation, of injustice piled upon injustice, humiliation compounded by callousness, monumental corruption eating into miserable compensation, and of denial of rehabilitation. Consider the following:

*The Indian Council of Medical Research set up countless research projects on the toxicity of methyl isocyanate (MIC) and its products and the injuries they cause. But it failed to produce a simple treatment protocol that would tell a general medical practitioner what medicines to administer for lung injuries, eye damage, nervous system disorders or the poisoning of the kidneys or liver, and what physiotherapy exercises would help the victims recovery. The ICMR wound up all its projects in 1994 without producing results.

*The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research failed to inform the public of the long-lasting toxic effects of MIC on human health and the environment and to produce an index of severity of injuries correlated to distance, wind direction, and so on. So people living far away from the plant and unaffected by the gas exposure were equated with the grievously injured in deciding compensation.

*The government appropriated the victims right to legal defence under the doctrine of the state as a parent but failed to gather and analyse clinching evidence to show that UCC, the parent corporation, was responsible for the design and day-to-day operation of the Bhopal plant and that the accident was caused by basic deficiencies in its safety system design. Such a design, wholly inadequate to cope with potential leaks to which every chemical plant is vulnerable, would not have passed muster in any country with a half-way responsible licensing authority.

*The Supreme Court comprehensively failed to engage with the issue of Carbides liability after the original suit was sent back from the U.S. on the grounds of forum non conveniens. All it was interested in was an out-of-court settlement, to which it drove an all-too-willing government. Indeed, so anxious was the court to let Carbide off the hook that it even extinguished its criminal liability which was restored later, albeit in a diluted form.

*The government originally made a demand for over $3 billion in compensation. However, it suddenly lowered the figure to $470 million without any explanation. We will never know what the trade-off was. But high appointments were made abroad and at home presumably to repay the favours delivered in reaching the manifestly unjust and collusive settlement against the will and interests of the victims.

Indian society has learnt almost nothing from Bhopal. Our environmental and occupational safety regulations have not been tightened. In fact, the whole environmental impact assessment process has been reduced to a farce with an unconscionable relaxation of requirements to document possible hazards, rigorously scrutinise proposals and strictly monitor and verify compliance. We are inviting more Bhopals in Vadodara and Vapi in Gujarat, Tirupur in Tamil Nadu, Lote Parshuram in Maharashtra and Sukinda in Orissa.

Our ability to cope with industrial emergencies and our capacity to rehabilitate their victims has not improved. Our legal system remains abysmally weak and ineffective when it comes to punishing negligence in industry and in bringing corporations to book. There is no law of torts (dealing with civil wrongs or injury) worth the name in India. Above all, we have not learnt to be humane towards victims of disasters who are in no way responsible for them.

All this speaks of a deep social and political pathology of a governing elite that is simply incapable of defending the right to life and limb of the poor and underprivileged who, unlike, say, the hostages of the Indian Airlines Flight IC 814 that was hijacked to Kandahar in December 1999 all upper-middle-class people, many returning from a holiday in Kathmandu who are nobodys constituency. Involved here is class prejudice and the bloody-minded callousness that is characteristic of a ruling class that has all but psychologically seceded from the Majority India that consists of the deprived and the disinherited.

Our rulers have no mindspace for the suffering of the underprivileged: they might as well belong to another planet. The death toll in Bhopal, now clocking 20,000, does not move them. Hard scientific facts about the persistent and extensive contamination of the Bhopal plant, where toxic chemicals and heavy metals have seeped into underground aquifers, do not jolt them into corrective action not even to the point of asking Dow to clean up. Their own promises to the victims, delivered only when the latter come to New Delhi to sit on dharnas and hunger strikes, do not mean anything at all.

Or else, we would have seen Warren Anderson being prosecuted instead of being declared untraceable by Indian consular authorities when his address in a posh New York suburb is public knowledge. We would have seen genuine well-funded relief and rehabilitation programmes in Bhopal. We would have seen the victims being treated with the empathy and care they deserve. This spells the complete collapse of the notion of shared citizenship and responsibility for fellow human beings. It returns us to a state of primitive, uncivilised, barbaric society. That should shame us all.

In this 25-year-long dismal story, it is only the Bhopal victims ceaseless, determined and heroic struggle for justice and for recovering their human dignity that stands out as a positive sign of the existence of civic life. They have given up neither hope nor the fight for equal citizenship, so central to democracy. We must respect their struggle and pursue Carbide and its successor in every forum. We have destroyed the possibility of real justice in Bhopal. The least we can do is to prevent future Bhopals and our own social retrogression.

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