A great catastrophe, followed by years of sickness, poverty and injustice can overwhelm and crush the human spirit, or it can enable ordinary people to discover that they are extraordinary. Such people find that they have the grit to survive, the defiance to face their persecutors and the courage to fight back. Out of shared struggle, even in the midst of poverty and sickness, comes strength, the joy of friendship, and the realisation that they are not weak, powerless or contemptible. They are in fact possessed of power, power to bring about political change, and to do real good in their community and in the world.
In Bhopal, some of the poorest, most helpless people on earth, sick, living on the edge of starvation, illiterate, without funds, powerful friends or political influence, have for the last quarter of a century struggled for their lives against the world’s biggest chemical corporation, its allies in the US, Indian and Madhya Pradesh governments, its Indian tycoon friends, plus an army of top-flight lawyers, hired lobbyists and PR agents.
It’s a struggle of those who have nothing against those who have it all. Where many Bhopal survivors can barely afford one meal a day, the company has limitless wealth. Since 2006, it has spent $300 million on lavish advertising, portraying itself as a caring benefactor of humanity.
The company has been fined for bribing Indian officials, it is known to have lied, attempted to subvert democracy, bullied politicians and twisted the laws of two nations to avoid justice in either. The Bhopalis, seeking help from their own government, were instead abandoned to their fate, ignored by politicians, fleeced by corrupt officials, swindled by moneylenders and unscrupulous quacks, not infrequently arrested, kicked and beaten by the police for daring to protest. Every authority that owed the Bhopal survivors a duty of care has failed them.
Having nothing, and no one else to turn to, they were forced to help themselves, and discovered that the poorest slums were full of talent. From this humblest of communities has come a remarkable flowering of political intelligence, social service, medicine, art, science and music. They have set up their own innovative medical clinic, which has provided free care to almost 35,000 people and won international awards for the quality of its work. While we celebrate their achievements, we must remember that everything the Bhopalis have achieved has been won against brutal opposition, in a context of struggle and suffering, of which there is still no end in sight.
But in the immediate aftermath, Union Carbide offered no help or advice to the seriously ill, terrified survivors of the gas disaster. ‘Medical experts’ sent to Bhopal from the US turned out to be professional witnesses and chemical weapons experts. The one treatment that brought relief, sodium thiosulphate, was stopped after the company intervened, fearing the medical and legal implications of the drug’s success. (Its success implied that the methyl isocyanate poisoning caused by the gas leak could generate hydrogen cyanide in the body.) The first survivors’ organisation began giving the injections itself, but its self-built clinic, a pole-and-thatch affair, was attacked by the police, its equipment looted and frail building torn down.
Counting crows: Bodies of the gas leak victims lined up outside a Bhopal hospital
Children, damaged beyond recognition, began being born in Bhopal. In March 1985, a column of frightened mothers-to-be wound towards a government hospital with bottles containing urine samples. The women asked for the samples to be tested to check whether their babies could be born damaged, and to ask for thiosulphate injections to rid their bodies of toxins inhaled on ‘that night’. But instead of injections, tests, medical advice and kindness, they were driven away by the police.
Ironically, as these scared women were being chased away, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) was carrying out a double-blind clinical trial to test the efficacy of sodium thiosulphate injections as a detoxicant for the gas-exposed. And while the fears of mothers-to-be were all too soon realised in what one medical expert described as ‘a spate of horrific births’, the ICMR results took 22 years to be published. They revealed, a whole generation too late, that the injections could indeed have saved tens of thousands of lives.
This story summarises in bleak miniature the fate of a quarter century of attempts by the poisoned people to obtain effective medical care. Such efforts, whether relating to illness caused by the gas leak or to the more recently discovered water-poisoning, have consistently been stonewalled and obstructed by Union Carbide, its owner Dow Chemical, Indian health authorities and politicians. Arrests of protesters and brutal beatings are still used to deny the survivors their right not just to proper health care, medical research and fair compensation, but even the right to ask for these things.
There is much the survivors can, and are, doing for themselves. But much more they cannot realistically achieve without victory in the courts. Cleaning up the contaminated soil and water in and around the factory is of critical importance for health, as tens of thousands continue to be poisoned, with consequent epidemics of cancers and damaged births, but only political and legal action can get the site cleaned to an acceptably high standard. It is beyond the survivors to raise the sums needed to do it. Under the laws both of India and the US, Union Carbide should pay, but Carbide has spent the last 17 years ignoring an Indian court summons. Dow Chemical claims it cannot make its wholly-owned subsidiary obey the law, and at the same time seeks to smear Bhopal survivors as terrorists.
In December 2003, the New Jersey Star Ledger ran a Dow press release: “Three ‘Justice for Bhopal’ terrorists were shot dead at a Dow Chemical facility in Piscataway, New Jersey.... Bhopal activists stormed the Dow facility, took eight Dow workers hostage killing one. Later, a SWAT team took out the three terrorists....” The paper belatedly revealed that the “Piscataway police had dressed as the Bhopal terrorists in a mock drill”.
In May 2004, the Supreme Court ordered the Madhya Pradesh government to provide clean drinking water for communities whose wells and stand pipes had been poisoned. A year later, with no sign of any action, desperate women took their sick children to ask officials why they had failed to obey the Supreme Court’s order. The women were severely beaten by the police.
Another year passed. Still the poisoned people had no clean water, but the chief minister announced a plan to spend around Rs 800 crore on public gymnasia and ornamental fountains to beautify the city. The minister in charge of ‘gas relief’ celebrated his birthday with elephants, camels, dancing horses, a 53-kilogram cake and a fireworks display. Newspapers reported that the flower garland his supporters wound around his neck was 21 feet long.
By 2008, the Supreme Court’s order had still not been carried out. Bhopalis, including many old and sick people, walked 500 miles to Delhi to ask the prime minister’s help. After waiting to see him for two months, in desperation, a group of mothers carrying their damaged children chained themselves to the railings of the PM’s house. They were arrested. The policewomen who led them away to jail were weeping.
The Bhopali survivors have now made three long marches to Delhi, in 1989, 2006 and 2008. They’ve endured extremes of heat and cold, slept in deserts and snake-infested jungles and walked through badlands ruled by bandits. Some women have been on all three walks. Most can look back on a lifetime of struggle: street demos, sit-ins, roadblocks, boycotts, graffiti-actions, fly-poster campaigns, hunger-strikes with and without water. They’ve staged exhibitions, satirical awards, music concerts, street theatre and created some of the most extraordinary protest art ever seen. All these things, plus the torches and banners, the songs and slogans like Women Of Bhopal: Flames Not Flowers and the famous Jhadoo Maro Dow Ko! are part of the survivors’ efforts to win proper health care for themselves and their families, and to bring to court those responsible for the tens of thousands of damaged, sick and dead. No matter what powers, riches and vested interests may be opposed to the Bhopalis, it is up to the rest of us, who believe in justice and universal human rights, to make sure that their efforts do not fail.
(Indra Sinha is a campaigner for the Bhopal victims and author of the Booker-shortlisted Animal’s People, a fictionalisation of the disaster.)