Bhopal gas tragedy: political apathy has proved worse than methyl isocynate
From human suffering to corporate shenanigans to political duplicity to efforts to scuttle the basic rights of the victims, Satinath, Founder member of Bhopal Group for Information and Action, part of the front fighting for the gas victims, has seen it all in all these years.
Twenty-nine years after the world’s worst industrial disaster, babies are still born ill-formed in this area in Bhopal overlapping three assembly constituencies. Those who were very young in 1984 have grown up to be unhealthy adults, scarred mentally and physically. Premature deaths and retarded growth are common in the localities in the three kilometer radius of what used to be the pesticide plant of Union Carbide India Limited, the Indian subsidiary of Union Carbide Corporation, purchased by Dow Chemical Company in 2001. Ground water contamination in the area is still at dangerous levels, putting lives at perennial risk. And healthcare is far from adequate. It’s perhaps the world’s longest running human tragedy. And there’s no end to it in sight.
If methyl isocyanate spelt calamity for people here, the apathy of successive governments has proved worse. Ask Satinath Sarangi, the young PhD scholar at Banaras Hindu University, who ran in to help the victims soon after the news of the disaster reached him. It was supposed to be a seven-day trip; it has extended close to 29 years. From human suffering to corporate shenanigans to political duplicity to efforts to scuttle the basic rights of the victims, Satinath, Founder member of Bhopal Group for Information and Action, part of the front fighting for the gas victims, has seen it all in all these years.
It has been a long, complex struggle. But he does not look to be someone who would give up easily. Besides the struggle for ensuring justice and healthcare to the gas victims at the ground level, his biggest contribution has been drawing the attention of the international community to Bhopal.
In an interview with Firstpost, he says the fight is principally at four different levels. One, fixing criminal culpability for the gas leak – it means bringing Warren Anderson, the then head of UCC, to face the Indian law; two, just compensation for the victims; three, undoing the environmental damage from the gas factory which predates the 1984 tragedy; and four, proper healthcare in the affected areas.
Dow’s contention that it cannot be held accountable for the crimes of UCC is not legally tenable, he says. The provision of ‘successor liability’ is an accepted principle both under India and the US laws. It means the company which acquires the assets of a company acquires its liability too. In the US, Dow is compensating for the asbestos victims of the UCC, but in case of India it refuses to do. He also says the Indian establishment has been more than eager to support Dow vis-a-vis the gas tragedy victims. In the case of medical care to the victims, the Supreme Court, in a judgment, has equated it with the victim’s right to life. But this is respected more in breach. There is no treatment protocol for the victims yet.
Since this is election time, the discussion shifts to the role of political parties in the entire episode and whether the front for gas victims is politically organized enough to bargain for its dues. Here is the excerpt from the interview.
Q: How has been the approach of the political parties, particularly the Congress and the BJP, to the gas victims?
A: Both parties have been as balanced in their indifference to the plight of the gas victims as they have been eager to protecting Anderson from the Indian law. The Congress government allowed Anderson to leave India on December 7, 1984. When the BJP was in power, the Home Ministry under Advani tried to dilute the charges against him from Section 304 B (manslaughter) to Section 304 A (negligence). This would have made his extradition to India from the US for trial impossible. The CBI had even moved the court recommending the dilution. It was rejected by the latter.
Dow has taken a position that they are not liable (for either cleaning up or additional compensation). To get a legal opinion on the matter they sought out Congress’ Abhishek Manu Singhvi, who in his report absolved Dow of all criminal liability. This, interestingly, was against his own government’s stated position on the issue. BJP’s Arun Jaitley too gave a clean chit to the company. Even before the disaster there were complaints from the locals about serious water pollution from waste matter from the carbide plant which caused cattle deaths. There was a young lawyer who managed an out of court settlement between the locals and the company, in which the former were shortchanged. This man is now the minister for gas relief. He is still sympathetic to the company’s interest. That should give you an idea of the political complicity in denying the gas victims their due.
Q: Have the parties done anything to raise the issue, at least for public consumption?
A: We have seen both parties in power in the state all these years. Interestingly, Bhopal gas victims found their way into party manifestoes as late as 2010, a good 26 years after the incident. Both have turned the issue into a political football. BJP has been highlighting the issue by conducting campaigns of different kinds in Delhi while their own government in Madhya Pradesh has been utterly negligent towards the victims. The Congress is no better. The Left should have been our natural ally in the cause but that has not been the case. The Wikileaks expose reveals that the CPM wanted the land in Nandigram, over which there was a bitter local resistance, to be handed over to Dow. Only AAP has responded to us well, promising full support. Local MLAs only offer lip service.
Q: Have you tried putting public pressure on political parties to elicit a commitment from them? Is an APP like experiment an option?
A: We have asked the victims to exercise the NOTA option this time. Earlier we used to give poll boycott calls, which elicited good response. With the local leadership in cahoots with forces that have been working against the interests of the gas victims, to get a sincere political commitment on the matter is a challenge. We are close to the AAP, Prashant Bhushan is fighting the case of the victims in the Supreme Court and Arvind Kejriwal has been sympathetic to our cause from the beginning. But to have an AAP like experiment in Madhya Pradesh is not easy.
Q: So what next?
A: We stand on solid legal and moral grounds. We have seen success despite the odds against us. This will go on.
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