Unresilient Bhopal -The Tale of a Town Deceived by the State

Shahina

23 Years have passed since the world’s worst industrial disaster occurred in this North Indian city on the night of December 3, 1984. Bhopal continues to experience the trauma of that mishap with a chemical waste dump in the Union Carbide factory compound over a couple of decades ago contaminating air and water in the city. The debate and dispute over who should bear the cost of cleaning up the area, which runs into millions of dollars, still goes on.

Half-a-million people were exposed to the lethal gas, more than 22,000 have died to date and 150,000 continue to be chronically ill. The criminal trial against the 13 accused, including the fugitive Warren Anderson, the then Chairman of Union Carbide Corporation (UCC), is still in progress in the lower court. A great number of judicial proceedings regarding issues such as the removal of the hazardous chemical waste, claim for adequate compensation and aid for medical treatment are moving at snail’s pace in the judicial magistrate court, Bhopal. The unending agony is passing on from generations to generations. Anyone who revisits the whole disaster and its aftermath is apt to lose her faith in the very system of democracy.

Shajahan-e-Park in the heart of the city has never remained deserted on a Saturday since 1989, the year in which Bhopal Gas Peedith Mahila Udyog Sanghatan, the organization gas of victims, had been formed. BGPMUS is the largest organization in Bhopal fighting for the cause of the victims. Around 25,000 people who live in the premises of the factory belong to the organization. Every Saturday, hundreds of victims gather at Shajahan-e-Park and share their grievance.

Most of them have something new to speak about as they are still exposed to the noxious chemical waste. This meeting has been going on for over a couple of decades regularly as an expression of the political will and perseverance they uphold. Not many examples can be cited from the history of independent India for such an unyielding struggle for justice. It is an amazing rare kind of fire that these people have harbored within them for decades.

Dow Chemicals, another American multinational company which took over Union Carbide India Limited (UCIL) in 2000, has virtually declared that they are beyond the rule of law in India, refusing to bear any responsibility for what had happened in Bhopal and expressing their unwillingness to clean up the area. There are reports that Dow Chemicals has agreed to remedy the situation partly. However, they have obtained a stay order from any such liability. And, as long as the stay order remains in force, there is very little meaning in being ‘generous to bear the cost partly’.

The people living in the affected areas, including J P Nagar, are struggling through abject poverty and ill health. Most of the people we met are still suffering from more than one disease, the names of which they are unable even to spell out. In most cases, the doctors have consistently refused to certify that they are suffering from the ongoing contamination of air and water around the chemical waste dump in the factory. As a result, they are denied of all kinds of aid by the Government. The journey through the streets of J P Nagar, the area worst hit by the gas leak, leaves a deep scar in one’s mind.

Sixty five-year-old year old Jameelabi, bed ridden for years, has received neither adequate compensation nor any aid of treatment. Her weak skinny body carries 36 diseases, according to a relative’s account. But the doctor has certified none of them as being the result of pollution. Her family is unable to even specify what they are and the scientific names. Jameelabi’s husband and daughter-in-law were killed in the gas leak and what she got in return was a paltry sum of Rs. 50,000. The active leadership role in the struggle for justice helped Mohammed Hafees to overcome the agony of the grim fate of his wife Aliyabi. The severe mental shock she had on the day resulted in a nervous break down from which she has not recovered. Frequently, she would lose her presence of mind, yell and try to run away from her home. Hafeesbhai, who led us to J P Nagar colony, is an active worker of BGPMUS. In each and every house around the factory, a martyr lives reminding you how a state deceived its people through gross denial of justice.

The chemical dump, consisting of 5,000 tonnes of toxic chemical waste including Alpha Naphthol and other kinds of pesticides, came into being when the Government ordered an inspection of the factory. The inspection revealed that 5,000 tones of toxic chemical waste had been stored at a warehouse in the factory. That was in 1994, a decade after the disaster! The Madhya Pradesh State Pollution Control Board (MPSPCB) appointed a committee to prepare a report on how to remove the waste in a scientific manner. The Committee visited the site in May 1995 and recommended the shifting of the hazardous wastes to a safer site within the factory premises. The Committee also stressed the need for exploratory studies to evaluate various treatment and disposal alternatives. Meanwhile, the MPSPCB also approached the Chief Judicial Magistrate, Bhopal, for permission to shift the tarry residues to a safer place within the factory premises as suggested by the committee. The Court asked the CBI to review the matter. The CBI then approached the Ministry of Environment and Forests for their view. The Ministry constituted another Expert Committee which later observed that any attempt to shift the chemical remains may lead to massive environmental damages. The committee found that drums and bags which carried the waste were badly damaged and that the possibility of breaking of the bags could not be ruled out which might result in the spillage of the hazardous waste. They also observed that the residues after melting were spreading on the floor and outside the shed as well.

The committee estimated that a huge sum of money would be needed to clean up the area. In the wake of the report, the Government of India filed a plea in the High Court of Madhya Pradesh demanding that Dow Chemicals be instructed to bear the expenses of the cleaning process. The Central government also demanded an amount of 100 million dollars as advance payment for the same. Admitting the plea, the Court issued notice to Dow Chemical. But they successfully managed to get stay order which literally rendered them free from the responsibility of cleaning up the area till date. The court proceedings are still on in the usual slow pace, reminding one how apt the dictum of justice delayed being justice denied is.

The toxic legacy of Bhopal leaves a permanent black mark in the history of CBI also. The investigation by CBI, which lost its way somewhere in the middle of the process, has never been invigorated. The CBI approached the Government of India for permission to carry out a comparative study of the safeguards by UCC in its institute in Virginia and the Bhopal plant as well. But the appeal along with the order for further enquiry was buried for ever under the infamous settlement order of the Supreme Court of India in 1989. Ironically the settlement order came a few hours after the Government of India had received clearance from the US Government to carry out the study.

In 1992, the CJM Court, Bhopal issued an order to the Government of India instructing it to take necessary steps for the extradition of Warren Anderson who has been declared a fugitive by the lower court. It was a victory for the victims’ organizations which had fought for years demanding the extradition of Warren Anderson. The Government, instead of carrying out its Constitutional responsibility to obey the apex court order, left the file untouched for years. Only after a decade in 2003 did the Government forward a plea to the US Government for the extradition of Warren Anderson, a year after the Government of India was informed by The US Government that extradition is not possible. The Government, which is always lenient to the west, has never expressed the courage to review the matter. In fact the Government was forced to initiate steps for extradition due to the pressure mounted by the victims’ organizations and the severe criticism from the Assurance Committee of Parliament. The committee tabled its report in December 2002 blaming the Government for the criminal negligence in the matter. Previous to this report by the committee, the C B I had moved a plea in Supreme Court seeking reduction of the charges against Anderson. It was perhaps the most shameful instance of the CBI appearing for a criminal who had cheated Indian judiciary for years! Soon after a series of dramas enacted for extradition, the file was closed for ever.

The fight by the people of Bhopal is still on. The victims’ organizations are handling a number of cases in different courts seeking compensation, adequate medical care, removal of the hazardous chemical waste, proper punishment for the accused and so on. Day by Day the air, water, soil and vegetables around are being contaminated by the spillage of lethal chemical remains from the factory. A study has revealed that even human breast milk is contaminated. The study conducted by ‘Srishti , a Delhi based non governmental organization and People’s Science Institute marks that human breast milk sample collected from the area showed higher concentration of volatile organic compounds and Benzene hexa chloride. Both the organizations in the wake of their study observe that the presence of carcinogenic toxics, which are bio concentrated in the milk, poses serious threat to the health of an entire new generation. A survey carried out by CRS (Centre for Rehabilitation Studies) in 2003, shows that the morbidity rate in affected areas is quiet high compared to that of in the unaffected areas. According to their survey, the morbidity rate in the gas-affected areas was 19.71 per cent of the population. Prevalence of respiratory diseases also was very high in the gas hit Ares. It is estimated that at least about 150,000 gas-victims in Bhopal are continuing to suffer from various gas-related ailments even twenty three years after the disaster.

They are on the path of struggle for justice. No judgements, no retrogressive policies could turn them away. Every Saturday they gather at Shajahan-e-Park, irrespective of caste and religion. They console each other, share their grievances and update themselves regarding the dangers lurking around to shatter their struggle. When we left from Shajahan-e-Park, waves of slogans from the people followed us.

“LADENGE, HUM JEETENGE…
LOOTNE VAALE JAAYENGE…
NAYA JAMANA AYEGA…”

Comments

  1. Thanks Ms.Shahina, a very nice post on Bhopal tragedy.
    Still Many lives are there without getting any compensation. All their shouts in vein!.
    Regards,
    Nandu

  2. It is worthy to read. It is good to know somebody there to say for weeker section

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: