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Will young India react to Bhopal outrage?

By Sunita Narain
Last updated on: July 02, 2010 11:03 IST
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Mahatma Gandhi's Young India has given way to another young India. Will this young India allow a travesty of justice, asks Sunita Narain

Why was there so much public and media outrage over the Bhopal disaster - a 25-year-old issue? Why did the national media focus on this story which so far had been confined to the back rooms where only noisy environmental activists live?
One, there is a post-Bhopal gas disaster generation in the country. These young people do not know what happened that night or about the events that followed. They are shocked to see the scale of human suffering and stilled by the sheer injustice. Two, as a nation, we now recognise environmental questions and consider these important, indeed critical, to our health. We see in Bhopal the chemical disaster that is around us - in the pesticides in our food, in the air we breathe and in the industry that pollutes with impunity. Three, and perhaps most important, we see in Bhopal an utter failure of the Indian state to protect its people. We see the complicity and failure of our collective systems, from the executive to the judiciary.
But what riles us more than anything else are double standards of the big and powerful. This is also the time when the international media is flashing the scenes of another devastation on Indian television - the oil spill off the US coast. This is the time when a top executive of another top company, BP, is being hauled over the coals to pay for damage to the environment and people. But the same US government, so incensed at homeland pollution, is so insensitive to the tragedy involving its own companies in faraway places. A globalised world is also about equality - of intent and action.
But the question that bothers me is: Will our collective anger sustain till justice is done?
Let us be clear. These are not quick or easy tasks. The government's own report, prepared by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, has confirmed the findings of the Centre for Science and Environment's pollution-monitoring laboratory: the factory site is contaminated with high levels of toxins, from mercury to pesticides. This is not a small victory. The Bhopal-based activists have been fighting, indeed screaming, about this contamination. But so far, they have faced only denial and callous and criminal dismissal.
Now the clean-up begins. The Group of Ministers has accepted that the entire factory site -- and not just the stored 300-odd tonnes of waste -- will have to be cleaned. The GoM still doesn't know how deep the contamination goes and how much soil will have to be removed and then disposed of. Neeri says the only saving grace is that because of local geological conditions, contamination has not seeped into the city's aquifers. But Neeri does confirm CSE's finding that some 3 km away, borewells have the same toxins. So, there is a need to drain out these wells and treat the water. No small task. This is poisoned land. And it is inside a thickly populated city.
The second challenge is of holding the company liable for contamination. Dow has issued statements saying it has nothing to do with the waste. It says the Union Carbide Corporation had settled all claims -- in the unfortunate and unjust settlement by the Supreme Court. It says it has no responsibility. And it has smart lawyers -- in this case, the spokespersons of the Congress party and the Bharatiya Janata Party -- who will find smart legal loopholes once again.
This, when we know the following. One, the contamination at the factory has little to do with the accident. It is about bad negligence of the company at the time the plant was opened. It dumped and left its waste on the ground. Claims for this poisoning have not been settled. Two, during this period, the US company, UCC, held operating control of the plant and is liable for the contamination. Three, it knew of this contamination and did nothing about it. We know now that Neeri was commissioned by Union Carbide India Limited in 1994 to study the site. We know that Neeri  had given the report to its client. We know this because Dow's lawyer in his 2006 opinion admitted as much: His client knew of this report and the contamination of soil and groundwater in 1996. But the company did nothing. Instead, it handed over the land to the state government. It can say now it cannot be held responsible. It does not even own the land. It's an old corporate legal tactic: confuse ownership to convolute the liability trail. Will it work this time?
Mahatma Gandhi's Young India has given way to another young India. Will this young India allow a travesty of justice? I hope not. I believe not.

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Sunita Narain
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