Survivors' struggle

Published : Aug 03, 2002 00:00 IST

Three activists representing the Bhopal gas survivors end their 18-day-old fast in New Delhi following the Union government's partial acceptance of their demands, but the struggle continues.

FOR the survivors of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy, history's worst industrial disaster, the struggle for justice has entered the 18th year. The indefinite fast undertaken in New Delhi from June 29 by three activists representing them lasted 18 days. The numerical analogy apart, the fast helped focus attention on the survivors' key demands, the merits of which the government has not considered so far.

The activists - Rasheeda Bee of the Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Stationery Karmachari Sangh, Balkrishna Namdeo of the Gas Peedit Nirashrit Morcha, and Satinath Sarangi of the Bhopal Group for Information and Action - ended their fast on the evening of July 17, after Union Minister for Chemicals and Fertilizers S.S. Dhindsa met them and agreed to not distribute the remaining compensation money to the residents of 20 municipal wards in Bhopal city, classified as "non-affected" by the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR).

Dhindsa acquiescence was not just a concession to the fasting activists; it was partly a recognition of the principle behind the settlement negotiated by the Supreme Court in 1989, when it secured a sum of $470 million from the U.S. multinational Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) solely for distribution to those affected as compensation for loss of kith and kin and for personal injuries.

The ICMR's classification of 36 wards of Bhopal as gas-affected was based on the studies it conducted on mortality rates in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. For the purpose of the ICMR's epidemiological study covering 106,000 persons, 86,000 persons were drawn from the 36 affected wards, and a control sample of 20,000 (unexposed) persons was drawn from the remaining 20 wards.

Payment of paltry sums as compensation and the denial of interest on delayed payments have resulted in a massive balance of compensation funds - Rs.1,360 crores in June 2002. The reported "decision" of the Group of Ministers, convened by the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers, to use this fund mainly for distribution in the 20 wards unaffected by the gas leak, and a portion of it to clean up the UCC's contaminated and abandoned factory site in Bhopal naturally angered the actual survivors.

The survivors, in a memorandum to the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilizers, deplored the decision and called it a ploy to woo voters resident in the 20 wards; the offer to clean up the old factory site was probably on account of pressure from Dow Chemical, which has inherited the UCC's assets and liabilities in India but is reluctant to own up responsibility for the clean-up. The survivors called it "a vulgar travesty of justice".

IN his interaction with the activists on July 17, Dhindsa revealed that the Group of Ministers had rejected the proposal to distribute the remaining funds to the residents of 20 wards; however, they had apparently agreed to use part of the fund to clean up the factory site. The proposal was reportedly mooted by the Union Minister for Sports Uma Bharati, who is a member of the Group of Ministers by virtue of her being the Member of Parliament from Bhopal. It is not confirmed whether she is behind the suggestion to use the remaining amount to build a "suitable' memorial in honour of the victims at the abandoned site - and action that would seem ironic when most of the survivors complain of insufficient compensation.

With the Group of Ministers scheduled to meet again to discuss the issue, the focus is now on some other demands of the survivors. They have urged the Union Home Ministry to instruct the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to withdraw its application to the Court of the Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM), Bhopal, asking for the dilution of charge against former UCC chief Warren Anderson, from that of culpable homicide to negligence (Frontline, July 19). The CBI, despite the obvious illegality involved in its application, is reluctant to withdraw it. During the latest hearing on July 17, the CBI's counsel told the CJM that even under diluted charges Anderson could be extradited from the U.S. to India. With the CJM rebutting the CBI's claims on that account, the counsel for the survivors has filed a counter-affidavit. The CJM will give his decision on the CBI's application on August 28.

The survivors have also demanded that the Government of India act rapidly to hold Dow Chemical responsible for UCC's pending medical and environmental liabilities in Bhopal, apart from forcing it to clean up the plant site.

During their protest action in New Delhi, the activists and survivors received support from across the political spectrum. They met Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi, who promised to raise the issue in Parliament. The Left parties - the Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) - also expressed their solidarity with them. Telugu Desam Party leader K. Yerran Naidu met the activists and promised to raise the issue in Parliament. Trade unions and people's organisations extended support to the campaign. A delegation of survivors and their supporters met the chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission, Justice (retd.) J.S. Verma, and got a sympathetic and reassuring hearing.

Curiously, despite the long duration of their protest in New Delhi, the activists failed in their efforts to meet Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani. During the protest action, well-known author Dominique Lapierre - who recently co-authored with Javier Moro the book Five Past Midnight in Bhopal - telephoned Advani several times, urging him to consider the demands of the survivors. The activists claim that Advani had expressed his helplessness to rescind the CBI's application because the decision was taken by a Cabinet-level committee, probably as a result of direct pressure from the U.S. government.

The activists have now decided to resume their protest in Bhopal through a relay fast until August 28, when the CJM is expected to pronounce his verdict on the CBI's application. Activists and people's organisations in places as far apart as Chennai, Vadodara and Seadrift in Texas (U.S.) have begun similar protests to mobilise public opinion on the issue and to express solidarity with the survivors.

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