I used to be human once. So, I am told. I don’t remember it myself, but people who know me when I was small say I walked on two feet just like a human being…I was born a few days before that night, which no one in Khaufpur (old Bhopal) wants to remember , but nobody can forget.”
– From Animal’s People, written by Indira Sinha
These are the words of a boy, who was born a few days before that catastrophic night, when ten thousands of lives were wasted like dust in a disaster that could have been averted had the least bit of value been given to those lives and the least bit of prudence by our corporate masters and their allies. What occurred at the midnight of 2nd-3rd December of 1984, on the streets of Bhopal, is a scar that we as a nation, or society at the least, projected to be civilized and humane , should not and must not, be so hasty to wipe out of our collective memories.
25 YEARS AGO
At the midnight of 2nd-3rd December of 1984, 40 tonnes of the deadly Methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas leaked out of the Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL)’s factory. This highly poisonous gas, black green in colour, according to those who witnessed it, swept an area covering almost the whole of old Bhopal in a matter of hours killing 8,000 people and leaving half a million permanently in sub-human, in fact animal condition. Since then, an additional 15,000 people had to die untimely because of its exposition of poisonous gas to them. It needs a special mention that, the threat posed by Union Carbide’s pesticide process in Bhopal was known long before the night of the gas leak. Between 1981 and 1984, smaller leaks killed or hospitalised workers and residents on three separate occasions. The experts sent by Union Carbide itself sometime, found 61 potential hazards, 30 of them major.
COCKTAIL OF CORPORATE SINS
What can be said precisely, Bhopal is the classical example of the cocktail made of sins of Multinational Companies (MNCs) and Government’s criminal negligence in terms of its irresponsible behaviour towards its own citizens. For many of the gas-victims, the situation is not very different from the day of tragedy.
Till date, neither proper compensation has been awarded nor have appropriate arrangements been made for their treatment and rehabilitation. Instead of attempting to medically, economically and socially rehabilitate the gas victims, the Central and State governments are working against their own people and defending the interests of Union Carbide. In 1989 Bhopal Settlement between the Government of India and Union Carbide was based on assumption that only 3000 gas-victims had died in the tragedy and another 1,02,000 had suffered injuries in varying degrees.
However, the Claims Courts established by the Welfare Commissioner, Bhopal, has determined that there were in all 574,367 gas-victims including dead, which effectively meant that the magnitude of the dead and injured was at least five times more than what was assumed at the time of the Settlement. Criminal cases against Union Carbide and its accused officials are proceeding at a snail’s space and it is still before the Court of the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Bhopal. Medical, economical and social rehabilitation work undertaken by the State and Central governments have been inadequate and much below the requirements.
What is more ironical and frustrating, neither the Government of India nor the state governments seems to have drawn appropriate lessons from the gruesome disasters like Bhopal. Instead, they have been pursuing such reckless policies that have the potential to create Bhopal type situations at several places across the country. In fact, millions of citizens across the country have since been exposed to a variety of toxic substances at their place of work as well as from exposure to other hazardous materials that have been released into the environment by multi-national companies and local industries.
Every year since December 2-3, the survivors and supporters of the justice for Bhopal victims are struggling in all forms. In 25 years, people – young and old, women and children – have walked three times (1989, 2006 and 2008) from Bhopal to Delhi, some 800 kilometres to take their complaints to the central government. The padyatras are followed by fasts. In 2009, the fast lasted 6 days and resulted Prime Minister’s nod for clean water, economic rehabilitation and increased medical care. Through demonstrations, fasts and padyatras in the last 25 years, the survivors of Bhopal have achieved some important victories as well. The most important success so far is that, they have effectively stopped Dow Chemicals, who bought Union Carbide India in 2001, making any significant investment in India. It is due to their legal and extra-legal battles that Union Carbide and its officials remain criminally charged.
MILES TO GO
The fight for the Bhopal victims is far and needs to be continued as the culprits responsible are yet to be punished and the victims have not received just compensation. 6000 gas-victims continue to seek medical treatment for disaster-related ailments; thousands of gas-victims continue to die due to lack of proper medical treatment. Government’s financial rehabilitation programme has almost come to an end. No provision to provide pension to thousands of widows, orphans and other handicapped.
Under environmental rehabilitation programme, the Government has failed to provide safe drinking water, toilets or clean environment to the needy gas-victims. Large quantities of toxic materials lying in and around the Carbide plant and toxic waste discharged into the Solar Evaporation Pond has leached into the ground and contaminated thousands of tones of soil and ground water near the plant in approximately 5 sq. km of area leave alone the plan for a memorial for the victims of the tragedy, which is still on paper.
[Mahtab Alam is a Delhi based Civil Rights Activist and Coordinator with Association for Protection of Civil Rights (APCR). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org]