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Let there be justice in Bhopal!
December 03, 2004
December 2-3, 2004: 20 years ago, on this very day, the Union Carbide gas leak struck at the very heart of India.
Twenty years hence, thousands of people around the world are coming together to mark the 20th anniversary of the 'world's worst industrial disaster' as the Global Day of Action against Corporate Crime.
A moment of poignant silence in one city, a burning effigy in another, children painting banners in a third, singers, artists and theatre activists performing solidarity concerts, and several candlelight vigils at that fateful midnight hour -- these images from around the world will establish that the world does remember Bhopal.
It will also be a testament to the spirit of the Bhopalis, who have tirelessly campaigned for that elusive justice. They have bravely dealt not only with the immediate aftermath of the gas leak but also with the continuing poisoning of their groundwater, soil and air from the tons of chemicals lying abandoned inside the factory.
A demonic factory that silently releases the same toxins into new generations of Bhopal's citizens.
Worse, they have suffered the callous indifference of successive governments, been deceived by corrupt bureaucrats hungry for a share of the measly compensation doled out to them, and have braved everything from insult to injury to violent arrests, just for demanding their right to justice.
One would imagine that the Bhopalis are entitled to bitterness, to misery, even perhaps, to self-pity. What's hard to imagine, however, is their grit and determination. Not just their individual courage (and there are heroes aplenty in Bhopal) but also their collective strength as a community. A community that has spawned and strengthened campaigns for justice in several other communities that have been compromised by industrial activities.
This is a community where women have broken age-old traditions of purdah, to step into the glare of the international media spotlight and demand their rights with authority. Where prematurely old men patiently sit through one court hearing after another. Where children cope cheerfully with their compromised health and dream the usual ambitious dreams of childhood. Where almost everyone, in the surest assertion of the human spirit, continues the normal business of living despite the odds being stacked against him or her.
But it doesn't take much scratching of the 'normal' surface to discover the anger that powers the tireless campaign of the Bhopalis. Anger against Union Carbide, a company that placed the community at risk, made its millions and promptly fled after the disaster, leaving behind a toxic legacy.
More anger against the corporate sleight-of-hand that allowed Dow Chemicals to take over all the assets of Union Carbide in 2001 and conveniently ignore its pending liabilities in Bhopal.
Anger at the Government of India: what other country would allow such a disaster to occur, and then allow the criminals to evade justice for 20 years?
The anger has found expression in court too -- literally hundreds of hours have been spent in various courts, wrangling for the community's basic rights like clean water, compensation, and the right to a healthy life.
The 20th year of this community's living with the disaster has been an eventful one. After years of campaigning, some breakthroughs provided cause for celebration in Bhopal.
On May 7, 2004, the Supreme Court ordered the Madhya Pradesh government to provide piped drinking water to the bastis (tenements) where the chemicals from the factory site have been (and still are) leaching into and poisoning the ground water.
On May 28, 2004, the Indian government stated it had no objection to Dow/Carbide being directed by a competent court of the United States to undertake environmental remediation of the factory site.
On July 19, 2004, the Supreme Court ordered distribution of the compensation left over from Union Carbide's settlement among the 566,876 Bhopalis whose claims for injuries and loss of kin were only partly settled.
The undistributed compensation has accumulated interest and grown to Rs 1,505 crore (some $327 million). A simplistic calculation reveals that this amount when divided amongst 566,876 survivors adds up to roughly Rs 25,000 per family.
On December 1, 2004, the Union government stated it had assigned to Engineers India Limited the task of determining how best to go about disposing of the hazardous wastes dumped at the site.
Although the government's recognition of the wastes presenting an 'urgent danger' is more than welcome, environmental activists and international experts are clear that there can be no question of safe disposal onsite because it would not be in keeping with international standards.
Despite these landmark events, very little will actually change in Bhopal until the absconding corporation, Union Carbide, and its new owner Dow Chemicals, are held liable for a series of crimes against the Bhopalis.
Very little will change unless Dow is forced to clean up the poisonous factory site. Unless then Union Carbide chief Warren Anderson stands trial for the massacre. Unless a comprehensive medical rehabilitation programme is put in place for survivors and their children. Unless a plan for economic rehabilitation is put in place for survivors.
The Indian government has done and will do what it was supposed to do a long time ago; the Indian Supreme Court will ensure it. But now is the time to begin building pressure on Dow to own up to its responsibilities and liabilities in Bhopal.
Now is the time to rally all friends and supporters of the Bhopalis around the world again, in even greater numbers, to make that big push to hold a corporation liable.
Now is the time to remember that a real victory in Bhopal will set a precedent for the millions who continue to suffer Bhopal-like tragedies every day, as corporations continue to abuse their power and place communities at risk.
Even as we celebrate the recent victories in the Bhopal struggle and salute the indomitable spirit of the Bhopalis, we reiterate our commitment to campaign vigorously till there is justice in Bhopal.
This article is courtesy Greenpeace India
International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal