Twenty-five years after the Bhopal Gas Disaster, justice still eludes the victims…

This past week has been one where one anniversary has dominated the news — that of the terror attack on Mumbai on November 26, 2008. The date is like a permanent scar on the memory of not only Mumbai but also on the collective memory of the rest of India that watched the 60-hour siege and battle as it unfolded on television.

But in the coming week there is another anniversary that unfortunately will not draw the same kind of media attention. Twenty-five years ago, on a winter night of December 2/3 1984, deadly poisonous gas leaked out from the tanks of the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal and killed over 3,000 people. The factory was located in a densely populated area. As the sirens went off in its premises, indicating an emergency, the mostly poor people living around it rushed out to witness a dense cloud of smoke emerging from the factory. In no time, the cloud had spread to the areas close by and beyond. As terrified men, women, children ran in panic, not knowing what this was or where they should run, they inhaled vast quantities of the poisons contained in that cloud. The immediate sensations were burning eyes, breathing difficulties and vomiting. Those who found a quick way to move out of the area survived; the others, including children and the elderly, died on the spot.

Denial

As morning broke, the poison had a name. It was methyl isocyanate (MIC), used by Union Carbide to produce a fertilizer. A runaway reaction inside a tank containing 42 tonnes of this deadly chemical resulted in it spewing out of the tank. Local hospitals, inundated with thousands of panicked residents, had no knowledge of what to administer and the company provided no information or antidote. Indeed, for years it argued that MIC would not lead to any long-term effects. The story of Bhopal has conclusively proved this wrong. An estimated 20,000 people have died from complications resulting from inhaling MIC and other chemicals released into the air that night.

On any count, this is one of the worst stories of callousness. The Bhopal Gas Disaster is still known as the world's worst industrial accident. The accident itself, what followed immediately afterwards, the manner in which the case against Union Carbide was hastily settled by the Indian government for an unconscionably low amount of just $470 million, the desperate struggle of survivors for payment of that settlement and for medical treatment, the callous and cavalier manner in which the rotting plant continued to stand as a reminder of that night of horror, the fact that it successfully poisoned all the water sources in its surroundings, thereby punishing the victims yet again — the list of crimes and misdemeanors is long and will leave you breathless. Yet, the indifference continues even today. The pleas, demonstrations, petitions of thousands of women, men and children make little difference.

Twenty-five years is a long time. At the time of the accident, the government accepted that the affected population could be over 500,000. It was also known then, that a large proportion of these would be young. Thousands of pregnant women were amongst those affected. Inevitably, the symptoms would appear over time and would need to be treated. If people were unable to work as a result, they would need to be rehabilitated.

The government at the Centre and in Madhya Pradesh can claim that it has done all this. But the reality on the ground is that the survivors have had to struggle every inch of the way to get their entitlements — compensation, healthcare, work and a clean environment. To compound the tragedy, the rotting plant remained where it was with no one prepared to accept responsibility for the poisons that still continued to leach out from its soil. Over time, these poisons made their way into the wells and water supply in the surrounding area, adding to the burden of illness that the unfortunate people living around the plant have had to live with.

Opposition all the way

For those who have struggled for justice for the Bhopal victims, the attitude of the State has been far from benign. On the contrary, they had had to face repression, arrests, denial of information and corruption at every level. For almost every demand, they have had to go to the Supreme Court, or stage dharnas, fasts and demonstrations. The fact that 25 years later, people are still demanding jobs, compensation, medical care, something that should have been settled without any argument given the enormity of disaster, illustrates the unfinished saga of Bhopal.

A remarkable fact about the Bhopal struggle is that it has been led and populated by women. Many of these women had never moved outside the four walls of their homes before. Now they are fearlessly confronting authorities, speaking to the media, addressing large gatherings and articulating their demands and their problems. The transformation has taken time. Some of it has been almost accidental. But it is a factor one must acknowledge — that semi-literate and illiterate poor women have kept alive the memory of an accident without precedent.

What have we learned from the Bhopal Gas Disaster? That industry must be held accountable for polluting and poisoning the environment and for killing and maiming those who live a proximate distance from it? Yet, there are many smaller Bhopals that have occurred since 1984 and keep on taking place, often unreported. Has the “polluter pays” principle that was accepted following the Bhopal disaster, been applied in these instances? Has the media that woke up to environmental issues, and particularly those that relate to industrial pollution, as a result of the Bhopal tragedy continued playing its watchdog role on this subject? Rarely do we find investigative reports looking at areas around polluting industries to assess whether pollution control norms are being followed. It is hard to believe that there is absolute compliance with these norms in a country where breaking the law has been refined to a fine art.

In the memories of the people of Bhopal, the night of December 2/3 1984 was a night of terror. It was a night they would like to forget but cannot. It is a night that the rest of us should also not forget.

Email the writer: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com