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Bhopal, 25 Years After

 

The last and deadliest of the1984 anniversaries: Bhopal.  Being the 25th, there is a bit more than the usual media attention. The familiar litany of woes continues 25 years later: no punishment to anyone, inadequate compensation and non-disposal of toxic waste from the plant site, continuing lack of medical care for disabilities caused by the toxic waste and contaminated water, individual stories of suffering, protracted red tape and bribes to lawyers, middlemen and touts, long delays in getting even the meagre, allotted compensation... 

And then there are problems between rival groups of activists. As those who have followed the story will tell you, there are two faces of Bhopal activism. Represented by Abdul Jabbar Khan and Sathyu Sarangi. The former's Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan is concerned with achieving justice locally and providing medical help to the victim, while the latter's Bhopal Group for Information and Action, along with others, focuses on raising international awareness and aid. Broadly, those who speak English, and those who don't.  As Hartosh Singh Bal pointed out in Open last week:

When I first reached Bhopal, I thought the two were an ideal foil for each other. But as is now common knowledge among activists, the two detest each other. Over the years this has resulted in the erasure of Jabbar’s role outside Bhopal simply because foreign correspondents, representatives of international NGOs as well as reporters from the English language Indian media reach Bhopal requiring pre-digested information. In the day or two they spend in the city they want their hands held by someone fluent in English who can mediate between them and the victims... The people who Jabbar helps have little or no access to the English media or the internet, they won’t be writing in. If you want the truth, don’t pay attention to those who parachute in for a day or two or those who claim to understand Bhopal from London, don’t even take my word for any of this. Go to Bhopal armed with a knowledge of Hindi and see for yourself.

Things were not always so bleak In the early years, at least some Englishwallahs did write on the exemplary work done by BGPMUS. Here's Suketu Mehta, for example, writing for the Village Voice in 1991:

On any Saturday in Bhopal, you can go to the park opposite Lady Hospital and sit among an audience of several hundred women and watch all your stereotypes about traditional Indian women get shattered. I listened as a grandmother in her sixties got up and hurled abuse at the government with a vigor that Newt Gingrich would envy. She was followed by a woman in a plain Sari who spoke for an hour about the role of multinationals in the third world, the wasteful expenditure of the government on sports stadiums, and the rampant corruption to be found everywhere in the country. As the women of Bhopal got politicized after the gas, they became aware of other inequities in their lives too. Slowly, the Muslim women of the BGPMUS started coming out of the veil. They explained this to others and themselves by saying: look, we have to travel so much, give speeches, and this burkha, this long black curtain, is hot and makes our health worse.

To come back to the language divide, what is almost certainly forgotten is that the tragedy itself could probably have been averted if reports in local Hindi media had been paid attention to and picked up by the English media. Prabhash Joshi, the former editor of Jansatta, who passed away recently, had recalled the despatch that the then correspondent of his paper in Bhopal had filed, about the threat that the Union Carbide plant in the Madhya Pradesh capital posed to the people living around it:

The story was carried across six columns on a special page titled Khojkhabar Khaskhabar . A few weeks latter—in December 1984—the gas leak happened, killing over 2,000 people. Publications worldwide— The New York Times , The Los Angeles Post , Far Eastern Economic Review —quoted extensively from the prophetic Jansatta report even as they sent their own men to the spot. The group's owner Ramnath Goenka, livid that Indian Express had chosen to ignore it, ordered the English daily's staff to reproduce the Hindi story. Unfortunately, the then editor B.G. Verghese couldn't find anybody who was willing to do the translation—they felt it was beneath their dignity to transcribe a report from Hindi. It was left to senior Express hand Hiranmay Karlekar to do the job.

And much before the Jansatta -- a big newspaper -- report, of course, there had been local press. Rajkumar Keswani, who then ran a small newspaper called Rapat, with a circulation of around 2,000 described how three years before the tragedy, in December 1981, he decided to get to the bottom of the mystery of possible danger from chemical processes within Union Carbide, in An Auschwitz in Bhopal:

When I began investigating why the powers that be were overtly kind to Union Carbide, I stumbled upon one shocking revelation after another. Between September 1982 and June 1984, I published the entire list of company beneficiaries. This was used by the national and media in the wake of the tragedy to highlight the nexus between the state and the company. Hence it is a matter of common knowledge that a large number of politicians and bureaucrats were receiving favours from Union Carbide. Suffice to say that a number of relatives of politicians in power and serving bureaucrats were hired by the company on high salaries. A retired inspector general of policies was given the security contract. The company’s beautifully located guest house on Shyamla Hills, facing the Upper Lake, was a great attraction for top ranking politicians.

The nexus with the politicians of course has been an on-going scam ever since. The Congress may have given way to the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, but that didn't bring any change at the state or the central level. Vidya Subrahmaniam in the Hindu recounts the l'affaire Warren Anderson and details the "dubious role played by the world’s most powerful democracy in protecting the key perpetrator of the world’s worst industrial disaster". 

After describing the local BJP government's complicity, Indra Sinha sums it up in today's HT:

... the bigger machinations going on at the Centre, where Dow has been trying to twist the arm of the Manmohan Singh Congress government into letting it off the Bhopal hook. When people ask, why is the disaster continuing? why have Union Carbide and Dow Chemical not been brought to account? the answer is this: Union Carbide’s victims are still dying in Bhopal because India itself is dying under the corrupt and self-serving rule of rotten leaders. Bhopal will not be healed, cured or cleaned, as long as the power-brokers and the money-brokers are allowed to get away with it. India is a democracy. This agony will end only when people like you demand that justice long overdue must finally be done.

But then tomorrow will be another crisis, or another anniversary. And nobody would have time for Bhopal. Thankfully, there would still be people like Abul Jabbar who still

gets patients transported to hospitals, teaches women vocational skills, and often ends up as the voice for those who cannot fight for their share of compensation or pension. Over the years, the activist in Jabbar had very little time for his business and the tube-well money gradually ran out. “I shut down the business as I could not turn away from this (his activism). I may not have money but I cannot abandon the forsaken,” says Jabbar.

As the Indian Express reminded us some days back, Jabbar may not be a national hero but despite his degenerating vision and decreased lung capacity, he personifies hope for those who have none.

 The last and deadliest of the1984 anniversaries: Bhopal.  Being the 25th, there is a bit more than the usual media attention. The familiar litany of woes continues 25 years later: no punishment to anyone, inadequate compensation and non-disposal of toxic waste from the plant site, continuing lack of medical care for disabilities caused by the toxic waste and contaminated water, individual stories of suffering, protracted red tape and bribes to lawyers, middlemen and touts, long delays in getting even the meagre, allotted compensation... 

And then there are problems between rival groups of activists. As those who have followed the story will tell you, there are two faces of Bhopal activism. Represented by Abdul Jabbar Khan and Sathyu Sarangi. The former's Bhopal Gas Peedit Mahila Udyog Sangathan is concerned with achieving justice locally and providing medical help to the victim, while the latter's Bhopal Group for Information and Action, along with others, focuses on raising international awareness and aid. Broadly, those who speak English, and those who don't.  As Hartosh Singh Bal pointed out in Open last week:

When I first reached Bhopal, I thought the two were an ideal foil for each other. But as is now common knowledge among activists, the two detest each other. Over the years this has resulted in the erasure of Jabbar’s role outside Bhopal simply because foreign correspondents, representatives of international NGOs as well as reporters from the English language Indian media reach Bhopal requiring pre-digested information. In the day or two they spend in the city they want their hands held by someone fluent in English who can mediate between them and the victims... The people who Jabbar helps have little or no access to the English media or the internet, they won’t be writing in. If you want the truth, don’t pay attention to those who parachute in for a day or two or those who claim to understand Bhopal from London, don’t even take my word for any of this. Go to Bhopal armed with a knowledge of Hindi and see for yourself.

Things were not always so bleak In the early years, at least some Englishwallahs did write on the exemplary work done by BGPMUS. Here's Suketu Mehta, for example, writing for the Village Voice in 1991:

On any Saturday in Bhopal, you can go to the park opposite Lady Hospital and sit among an audience of several hundred women and watch all your stereotypes about traditional Indian women get shattered. I listened as a grandmother in her sixties got up and hurled abuse at the government with a vigor that Newt Gingrich would envy. She was followed by a woman in a plain Sari who spoke for an hour about the role of multinationals in the third world, the wasteful expenditure of the government on sports stadiums, and the rampant corruption to be found everywhere in the country. As the women of Bhopal got politicized after the gas, they became aware of other inequities in their lives too. Slowly, the Muslim women of the BGPMUS started coming out of the veil. They explained this to others and themselves by saying: look, we have to travel so much, give speeches, and this burkha, this long black curtain, is hot and makes our health worse.

To come back to the language divide, what is almost certainly forgotten is that the tragedy itself could probably have been averted if reports in local Hindi media had been paid attention to and picked up by the English media. Prabhash Joshi, the former editor of Jansatta, who passed away recently, had recalled the despatch that the then correspondent of his paper in Bhopal had filed, about the threat that the Union Carbide plant in the Madhya Pradesh capital posed to the people living around it:

The story was carried across six columns on a special page titled Khojkhabar Khaskhabar . A few weeks latter—in December 1984—the gas leak happened, killing over 2,000 people. Publications worldwide— The New York Times , The Los Angeles Post , Far Eastern Economic Review —quoted extensively from the prophetic Jansatta report even as they sent their own men to the spot. The group's owner Ramnath Goenka, livid that Indian Express had chosen to ignore it, ordered the English daily's staff to reproduce the Hindi story. Unfortunately, the then editor B.G. Verghese couldn't find anybody who was willing to do the translation—they felt it was beneath their dignity to transcribe a report from Hindi. It was left to senior Express hand Hiranmay Karlekar to do the job.

And much before the Jansatta -- a big newspaper -- report, of course, there had been local press. Rajkumar Keswani, who then ran a small newspaper called Rapat, with a circulation of around 2,000 described how three years before the tragedy, in December 1981, he decided to get to the bottom of the mystery of possible danger from chemical processes within Union Carbide, in An Auschwitz in Bhopal:

When I began investigating why the powers that be were overtly kind to Union Carbide, I stumbled upon one shocking revelation after another. Between September 1982 and June 1984, I published the entire list of company beneficiaries. This was used by the national and media in the wake of the tragedy to highlight the nexus between the state and the company. Hence it is a matter of common knowledge that a large number of politicians and bureaucrats were receiving favours from Union Carbide. Suffice to say that a number of relatives of politicians in power and serving bureaucrats were hired by the company on high salaries. A retired inspector general of policies was given the security contract. The company’s beautifully located guest house on Shyamla Hills, facing the Upper Lake, was a great attraction for top ranking politicians.

The nexus with the politicians of course has been an on-going scam ever since. The Congress may have given way to the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, but that didn't bring any change at the state or the central level. Vidya Subrahmaniam in the Hindu recounts the l'affaire Warren Anderson and details the "dubious role played by the world’s most powerful democracy in protecting the key perpetrator of the world’s worst industrial disaster". 

After describing the local BJP government's complicity, Indra Sinha sums it up in today's HT:

... the bigger machinations going on at the Centre, where Dow has been trying to twist the arm of the Manmohan Singh Congress government into letting it off the Bhopal hook. When people ask, why is the disaster continuing? why have Union Carbide and Dow Chemical not been brought to account? the answer is this: Union Carbide’s victims are still dying in Bhopal because India itself is dying under the corrupt and self-serving rule of rotten leaders. Bhopal will not be healed, cured or cleaned, as long as the power-brokers and the money-brokers are allowed to get away with it. India is a democracy. This agony will end only when people like you demand that justice long overdue must finally be done.

But then tomorrow will be another crisis, or another anniversary. And nobody would have time for Bhopal. Thankfully, there would still be people like Abul Jabbar who still

gets patients transported to hospitals, teaches women vocational skills, and often ends up as the voice for those who cannot fight for their share of compensation or pension. Over the years, the activist in Jabbar had very little time for his business and the tube-well money gradually ran out. “I shut down the business as I could not turn away from this (his activism). I may not have money but I cannot abandon the forsaken,” says Jabbar.

As the Indian Express reminded us some days back, Jabbar may not be a national hero but despite his degenerating vision and decreased lung capacity, he personifies hope for those who have none.

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